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Another giant passes December 4, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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Folk music and civil/human rights icon Odetta, the woman Dr. Martin Luther King annointed “The Queen of American Folk Music”, has passed.

I have a suspicion that so many social media readers are Gen X and Y, people whose memories stretch back not much further than the late 1970s. Do they know who Odetta is and what’s just happened I wonder?

I had to explain to my son the other day the concept of a variety show, but he’s just thirteen. I wonder how many 30-somethings or younger have any concept of who the Smothers Brothers were or have heard of the Glen Campbell Good Time Hour, much less any knowledge of the prominence of folk signers in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Odetta was a major influence on more familiar names: Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin and and Joan Baez. (Y’all youngsters at least recognize Dylan, right?) And she moved through the mid-century with other giants like Pete Seeger

One of the last of the Baby Boomers, I grew up in a household where there were New Christy Minstrels and Weavers records and strange LPs of African drumming with jackets that could pass directly onto a kerchief at the Congo Square Stage at Jazz Fest. It was not possible to grow up in the 1960s (or 1950s) and not know the landmark singers of the Folk Era. Every time an older musician passes I am reminded of the nights I spent listening to Roosevelt Sykes at the Maple Leaf, of the people who used to play the small gazebo stages at Jazz Fest long ago. So many are gone, and as my generation ages I wonder if these memories will pass as well.

It’s not just the linear, horizontal loss of what we think of as memory. Growing up in an era without the micro-segmentation of cable television and internet content, on any given, random day in 1965 I could just as easily be whistling a song by Tennessee Ernie Ford, Frank Sinatra or the Walker Brothers. Ihad a friend who loved to do his imitation of Louis Armstrong while the rest of us argued over whether we were Beatles or Stones men. Most people my age would know exactly who I mean if I say Caruso, an artist who died in 1921. Is What’s Opera, Doc? as funny if Caruso means nothing? I wonder if the following generations will have anything like the same breadth of exposure unless MTV runs out of programming and starts producing “Ken Burn’s Presents I [Heart] 1960”.

Enough. Here’s Odetta teaming up with Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack on a perfect song for these times, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”. It’s a damn shame Odetta won’t make her date to sing to Obama at innaguration.