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Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon Remembers Musical Icon Odetta (1930-2008)

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Considered the “Queen of American Folk Music,” Odetta introduced audiences worldwide to American roots music and especially African American folk, blues and gospel. She died earlier this month. When Rosa Parks was asked which songs meant the most to her, she replied, “All of the songs Odetta sings.” We hear Odetta in her own words and speak to Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, original member of the SNCC Freedom Singers and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMay 29, 2003Legendary Civil Rights Singers, Sweet Honey in the Rock: Part I of a Democracy Now! Special
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For the first half of today’s broadcast, we celebrate the life of Odetta.

    ODETTA: [singing] When my way grows drear,
    Precious Lord, linger near.
    When my life is all almost gone,
    hear my cry, hear my call,
    hold my hand, lest I fall.
    Take my hand, Precious Lord.
    Lead me home.

AMY GOODMAN: The legendary blues, folk and gospel singer Odetta, from September 11th, 2002. She was performing here in our firehouse studio on Democracy Now!’s broadcast marking the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Odetta died on December 2nd at the age of seventy-seven. She has been described as the voice of the civil rights movement. In 1963, she performed the song “O Freedom” at the March on Washington. Odetta inspired a generation of musicians, including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Dylan once said, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” When Rosa Parks was asked which songs meant the most to her, she replied, “All of the songs Odetta sings.” Harry Belafonte once said, “Odetta is a vast influence on our cultural life.”

Considered the “Queen of American Folk Music,” Odetta introduced audiences worldwide to American roots music and especially African American folk, blues and gospel. As a major voice in the American civil rights movement, she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, sang for the masses in Washington in 1963, and performed for President John F. Kennedy at a civil rights presentation on national television. She has shared the stage with Paul Robeson, with Nina Simone, with Pete Seeger, and many others. She was reportedly planning on performing at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration next month.

To remember Odetta today, we’re joined by another major cultural figure to come out of the civil rights era: Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, original member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the SNCC Freedom Singers, and founder of the all-women, African American a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, which continues to perform today. She is currently Professor Emeritus of History at American University and Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Dr. Reagon joins us from Washington, D.C.

Dr. Reagon, welcome to Democracy Now!

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Good morning. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s wonderful to have you with us. Can you remember when you first heard, first saw Odetta?

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Yes, in 1961, in Albany, Georgia, in December, in the period of one week, over 700 people were jailed. It was the largest arrest of American citizens in the history of the country. As a result of that, I was a student leader of the beginning freedom movement in Albany. I was suspended from Albany State College and received a scholarship, a full scholarship, to continue my studies at Spelman in Atlanta. Howard Zinn was on the faculty there, and Howard and Roz Zinn took me to my first folk singing concert. It was Joan Baez. And at that time, I had heard about folk music. There was the hootenanny. And so, I liked Joan Baez.

Then they said, “We want you to come to another folk singing concert, and the singer is wonderful. Her name is Odetta.” I said, “Odetta what?” And they said, “She just goes by the name Odetta.” So she sang at the gym at Morehouse College, spring 1962. And I’m sitting there, and out on the stage comes this black woman. Her hair was cut in a short afro. She had a guitar. And she said, [singing] “Prettiest chain that I have ever seen. Pah!” And she hit the guitar. Now, in the course of the concert, she also played the guitar. But she slapped the guitar. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. In Georgia, where I grew up in the country, the roads were built by chain gang labor. I knew the sound, because as the men worked, they sang. But I never thought I’d hear it coming from a concert stage.

The next thing that happened, which was defining for me, is she sang “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” Every black person I knew in my life knew “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” and all of the verses. It was a part of what made you know you were black. And I sat up, because I was listening to a folksinger. And at that minute, I said, “Oh, if Odetta is a folksinger, and Joan Baez is a folksinger, then folk music doesn’t really define what I am hearing.” And it was then I understood folk music to be a body of music that comes out of a cultural offering that is so close to you it names who you are. So, Odetta, one, defined, in a usable way for me, what folk music was in a way that let me know I didn’t have to leave where I was to go learn some new songs to be a part of this movement.

The other thing was, she was a black woman, and the way she used her voice was totally unique to the concert stage. One of the things that happens sometimes when you take root music and take it to the concert stage, something happens to it. You recognize it, but it’s been sort of shifted a bit. And Odetta did shift these songs, because these are songs that are work songs. But when she sang prison songs or work song, she still rendered the passion, the energy and the position and the function that those songs created for the people who sang them as a way of balancing their lives. She was just, the spring of 1962, what I needed to begin my life as a freedom fighter and as a Freedom Singer.

AMY GOODMAN: Bernice Johnson Reagon is with us in Washington. Odetta was interviewed for the National Visionary Leadership Project in 2003. She was asked about the role of folk music in her life.

    ODETTA: The role of folk songs and the stories that came along with the songs, which was the history of us and was definitely not in our history books, and I’ve often said it straightened my back and kinked my hair. And I remember a play aunt of ours saying, “When are you going to get your hair back to natural?” I said, “If you’d like to rephrase that question.” And I was walking around the country singing and feeling very good about it, and whenever I needed it cut, I’d go into a barber shop wherever I was. And if the barber looked like he questioned it, I all of a sudden thought of an appointment to go to, because once you cut it, there’s nothing you can do about it. If the barber was fascinated with it, then I’d have him cut my hair. And what is called an afro or natural used to be called an Odetta.

    And the songs that got to me, the deepest, were the prison work songs. I could sing those songs, and no one would know where I began and the prisoner ended, right? We weren’t in a place where we could discuss and talk about anything. And we certainly wouldn’t say, “I hate you, and I hate me, and I’m” — and OK. So, it was an excellent purging thing for me. And I remember when I first started, I would sing these prison songs, and people would jump up screaming, and it was mostly to shuck that negative that I put out there, you know? And it got to a point where doing the music actually healed me. And after a while, I couldn’t do the prison songs anymore. I was not happy acting them out.

    INTERVIEWER: What role do you think folk music played in the civil rights movement?

    ODETTA: Interesting question. It was central. It was music from those who went before. The music gave them strength, and the music gave us strength to carry it on. And, as you know, you could listen to a sermon, and it could go in one ear and out the other. You put some music to it, and some of it soaks in. I mean, that’s why Baptist ministers preach like that. There are people who’ll come and say, “Oh, I’m tired of this preaching to the choir.” Well, who else are you going to preach to? They’re the ones that keep trying and trying and working and working, and they need to be encouraged and reminded of spirit.

AMY GOODMAN: Odetta would have been celebrating her birthday on December 31st, on New Year’s Eve. She died on December 2nd. We’ll come back to Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: In another part of her interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project, Odetta was asked for her thoughts on the future of race relations in the United States.

    INTERVIEWER: Are you optimistic about America’s racial future?

    ODETTA: With the incredible ingenuity that the bad guys have at changing up on the rules, I just know it’s going to be a very long struggle, and I have to believe that we’re going to reach some point, because I can’t give it over to them. I can’t just lie down and say, “Just step on all over me.” So I have to have some kind of confidence in the fact that, inch by inch, foot by foot, day by day, we will improve this thing.

AMY GOODMAN: I interviewed Odetta in 1986. It was December 20th. I was doing a show called Speaking for Ourselves on NPR here in New York on WNYC. She came into our studio, and I asked her about joining Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Selma, Alabama march of 1965.

    ODETTA: I did not march. I was one of the souls brought in to — at the end of the march, were called in with the music to help bolster the spirits or to hold like a communion together. I once tried to be — no, twice tried to be a joiner and belong to a group, because I know you need to do that in order to affect anything. And I had no patience with people going through their ego trips before they could even deal with the problem that we had gotten together with. And so, a long time ago I made the decision that I would be on the supportive end. And for all those brave ones who could sit through all that stuff and get something focused, I would go there and be supportive in whatever way I could.

AMY GOODMAN: Odetta, that was twelve years ago. She died on December 2nd.

Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, in the studio with us in Washington, D.C., musician, scholar and activist, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, as you listen to Odetta today, your thoughts?

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: As I listen to her voice, I remember that the first time I met her was in 1963, and there was a television show in New York with the Freedom Singers, Bob Dylan and Odetta. And we were all in the same room. And what a wonderful supportive environment that was. And as I hear her voice, I think about how many different times, as I’ve tried to do my work, our paths have crossed or we’ve been on the same program, and how important a voice she has been for us in the twentieth century and what she gives to us in the way she continued to sing all the way in. So it’s very moving to hear her and to think about the times we shared space together, whether it was a rally for freedom or whether it was a concert or a festival or some of the various tributes we were able to do over the years. She was tremendously supportive of Sweet Honey in the Rock.

AMY GOODMAN: You performed with her in 1963 with the SNCC Freedom Singers and Bob Dylan?


AMY GOODMAN: For young people who don’t even know what we’re referring to when we talk about the SNCC Freedom Singers, explain the significance.

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: SNCC is the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It is the civil rights movement organization that was formed initially by leaders of the sit-in movement. And these sit-ins were largely started by college students, sometimes high school students. And they formed their own organization.

In Albany, Georgia, the first organizers who came to try to register people to vote, because Albany sits in a Black Belt area, were three SNCC organizers: Cordell Reagon, who I married; Charles Sherrod, who stayed in Albany and is still there; and Charlie Jones. And Cordell was a tenor, and I was an alto. And Pete Seeger came to Albany, and there was something about the singing in Albany. And for me, if you grow up in a place, and a lot of people talk about the songs, but when you think about the civil rights movement and music, it is not at all — it can’t be expressed as a song. It is basically the singing and the power of the singing. Songs are the vehicle through which that power can be channeled. And Pete Seeger talked about the kind of singing he ran into in Southwest Georgia in those mass meetings, and he suggested to SNCC that they should start a group. And he talked about the Weavers and the Almanac Singers as an example. And Cordell Reagon formed the group of the Freedom Singers.

We started December 31st, 1962, and we performed throughout ’63. And there was a second group that continued after that first group, but it was during ’63 that I met so many of the musicians who made up what was then called the folk song movement. There were folk festivals all over the place. And Odetta and Bob Dylan were major people there.

AMY GOODMAN: Bernice, weren’t you kicked out of Albany State College for protesting and being jailed during the civil rights movement? Were you expelled?

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Yes. When I opened, I said that I was one of the student leaders in Albany, and I was jailed December ’61. And as a result, I was suspended from Albany State College. That, in fact, ended up placing me at Spelman College in Atlanta, which is where I was, and I got to hear both Joan Baez and Odetta for the first time live.

AMY GOODMAN: So I interrupted when you just came to the point where you were singing with Bob Dylan, with Odetta and the SNCC singers.

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Yes. Those environments — this would be ’63 — were very leveled for us. I mean, we were Freedom Singers. We were staff members of a civil rights movement organization. That meant our salary was $10 a month — a week. And we got $9.60, because they took out taxes. So, economically, we were not on the same level with some of the people who really would be thought of as the big names in folk music, but because we represented and carried the songs of this massive drive against racism in this country, wherever we went, we were in the same environment with people. And Odetta was a part of that, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan. All of these people were people who gave their time and support as a part of this movement.

We also were a cappella. Most of the other people played guitars. But the Freedom Singers and the singing that came out of the civil rights movement really increased within the general culture what singing is in a congregational way, that when you came together, you could actually create a sound, and that sound would have an energy to it, and it really would push forward anything you had to do. It was a wonderful, wonderful and powerful formative experience for all of us who participated in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Is that what inspired Sweet Honey in the Rock, also an a cappella group, this, a group of women?

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Freedom Singers, for me, is ’63. Sweet Honey in the Rock is ten years later. In between the Freedom Singers in Sweet Honey, I helped to organize a group called the Harambee Singers in Atlanta in 1967. That group sang for the Black Power, Black Consciousness movement. And what happened for me is the kind of singing I did in the marches, in the jails, in the mass meetings with the Freedom Singers ended up shaping what kind of singer I would always be. And it had to do with always trying to express my positions and my commitment to change through the kinds of songs I would do.

So, Sweet Honey in the Rock, which came out of a theater workshop, was going to be a cappella, was going to do songs that came out of the struggles and the stages of life of people, on a community-based level, calling people to pay attention to issues that we needed to be addressing as responsible citizens, and that singers, that artists really had a big role to play in challenging our society and culture to transform itself and to do better. And so, absolutely, the Freedom Singers and the freedom song in the civil rights movement is formative for me, both as a singer, as a composer and as a scholar.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, would you like to share a few notes of one of your favorite songs that you think of when you think of Odetta?

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Not particularly at this hour in the morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Odetta had hoped to perform at one of the activities around the inauguration, and I wanted to ask your thoughts. You’ll be at the Inaugural Peace Ball on January 20th with your daughter Toshi. Your thoughts about this inauguration coming up, the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States?

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I guess the thing that has inspired me the most is the campaign. And a lot of times, when people ask me about this, the election and the inauguration, and I start to talk about the campaign, it is as if I haven’t named something. But if you live through the campaign we just witnessed, it was just one of the most inspiring efforts I have been blessed to participate in since the voter registration drives that went on in the South during the 1960s, where registering to vote and attempting to vote in many places in the South could get you killed. What happened with this election, where there was just an effort to viscerally wake up in every citizen in this country that we had a responsibility not to sit this one out. And I am so grateful that so many people stepped forward and did not sit it out. So, as I go toward the January 20th and the celebration of new possibilities, I am carried on the energy generated by the most amazing campaign I have ever seen in my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I know you have to leave —-

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I’m hoping -— I am hoping that we will see, from the administrative energies and the congressional energies, an understanding that they have a responsibility to this campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I know you have to leave, but I just wanted to play a clip of, well, the former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I got a chance to talk to him a week or two ago here in New York and ask him about another great cultural figure who also just died in November, Miriam Makeba. She died at the age of seventy-six. And this is what Bishop Tutu had to say.

    ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Oh, Mama Africa. She’s just been fantastic. And one wants to say quickly, too, pay a very warm tribute to Harry Belafonte, because Harry Belafonte took her under his wing when she was an unknown. And her singing, her voice, helped many people to know a little bit more about the vicious apartheid system. She was just a tremendous human being, a great loss to us and to Africa. And we pray that she’s joining the angels and archangels, lilting away with her voice in heaven.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, the role of Miriam Makeba in your life, in your inspiration?

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: They really do — when I think of Odetta and Miriam Makeba, as an African American woman, they are just important, because they really were images that reflected new possibilities for us that took us back to the way we are naturally. And these were the first two women I saw who were black women who wore their hair natural, and I know we live in a time when we can get up and do anything we imagine we want to do with our hair, but back then it was path-breaking.

The other thing is, Miriam Makeba sang freedom songs from South Africa, and she also showed up in a number of different ways. She was just a powerful force for us. What was amazing to me is that when she died, she had just finished singing in a — supporting a campaign, a progressive campaign. And I thought, “Mm, I would just love to go out that way.” So, Miriam Makeba and Odetta were two incredible voices and two incredible bodies of work we have.

And I like very much that Bishop Tutu mentioned Harry Belafonte, who was one of the powerful supporters of the civil rights movement and especially supporters of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the students. The Freedom Singers also sang in 1963 at the march on Washington. And we had been performing in Los Angeles, and we were able to get to the march because Belafonte had organized a charter plane and invited us to travel to get back to Washington to participate in the program on the Mall in 1963.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, I want to thank you so much for being with us. And I’ll see you on January 20th at the Inaugural Peace Ball during those festivities.

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Very much, I look forward to seeing you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much for being with us, musician, scholar and activist, Professor Emeritus of History at American University and Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock.

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