Our top 10 Odetta Holmes songs list digs deep into the music of one of the most significant figures towards the revival of folk music in the US. Odetta teacher’s words fueled her passion for music. This was after the teacher realized that she had great vocals. As a result, Odetta Holmes would begin operatic training in her early teenage life. After completing high school, she joined Los Angeles City College to study music while still working as a domestic worker to cater to her needs.
Her mother eventually saw the musical talent in Odetta and wished she would become the next Marian Anderson. Odetta barely believed that she would reach such feats as a black girl. Nevertheless, she worked hard for a music career, and in 1944, her musical career began at The Turnabout Theatre. Later on, she would join the Finian’s Rainbow musical company in 1949, after which she opted to concentrate on folk singing. Would her new life in music bring fruition?
Of course, yes! Odetta popularized her talent by singing in nightclubs. In 1954 Odetta Holmes linked up with Larry Mohr to form the blues-folk duo, Odetta & Larry. Despite their short-lived career as a duo, the two released an album, The Tin Angel (1954). Soon after, Odetta Holmes sought a solo career which she launched with the release of her debut album Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1957).
Popular at the end of the ’50s, Odetta Holmes released several albums and tons of cover songs. Odetta linked up with Harry Belafonte in the release of a duet, “There’s a Hole in The Bucket,” which saw the two pride themselves with more fame in the UK. This followed after the song peaked at number thirty-two on the UK Singles Chart. Odetta’s rise to fame was recognized by great pillars in the society, including Martin Luther King Jr, who regarded her as “The American Folk Music Queen.” Her efforts in the civil rights demonstrations cannot be taken for granted. This follows her ever-felt presence in the limelight, singing hits that saw her become a significant pillar in the fight for human rights.
Odetta Holmes’ impact on music cannot be belittled having her inspire artists such as Janis Ian and Joan Baez. While some artists are paid tribute to when they are already gone, Odetta Holmes had a different story to tell. March 2007 saw artists come together for a tribute concert to Odetta Holmes. Some of the notable names that gave live performances in the concert include Pete Seeger, Janis Ian, Harry Belafonte, Tom Rush, Madeleine Peyroux, and Eric Andersen. Even though she is now gone, her music reminds us of one of the greatest pillars in the American folk music scene.
#10- Baby, I’m In The Mood for You
Opening our top 10 Odetta Holmes songs is “Baby, I’m in The Mood for You.” The song was penned by Bob Dylan who revealed that Odetta turned him to folk music. “Baby, I’m in The Mood for You” is featured on her album Odetta Sings Dylan (1965). The album contained covers of Bob Dylan songs which Odetta took and gave them a deep folk vibe. Bob Dylan would later record this song in his album Biograph (1985).
#9- Strawberry Fields Forever
“Strawberry Fields Forever” is a hit originally released by The Beatles. The song was based on John Lennon’s memories back in Liverpool. This was one of his best works with the legendary English rock band The Beatles. Odetta Holmes released this hit on her album Odetta (1967). Other artists who covered this song include Todd Rundgren, The Bee Gees, Cyndi Lauper, Andy Partridge, and Tomorrow.
#8- Blues Everywhere I Go
After over fifty years of singing, Odetta Holmes received her first Grammy Award nomination. This came after she released the album Blues Everywhere I Go (1999), receiving a nomination for the Best Traditional Blues Album. One of the great hits from the album was the album titled hit “Blues Everywhere I Go,” a cover to an original song by the jazz organ prowess Shirley Scott. While Odetta Holmes lost the Grammy Award to B. B. King’s Blues on the Bayou (1998), songs like “Blues Everywhere I Go” remain to be a roadmap to her greatness on the mic.
#7- House of The Rising Sun
“House of The Rising Sun” is a popular traditional folk song that several artists have paid homage to, especially in the last century. The song tells of a life gone wrong for a person who lived in New Orleans. Odetta Holmes performed this song in the last years on the music scene before her health declined and led to her death. Her version might not be as popular as the 1964 rendition by The Animals. However, it comes out so strong to show how much Odetta’s vocals hadn’t faded away despite her age.
#6- Tomorrow is A Long Time
Number six on our top 10 Odetta Holmes songs is the hit “Tomorrow is A Long Time.” The song is featured on the album Odetta Sings Dylan (1965). “Tomorrow is A Long Time” was penned by Bob Dylan, who would later release the song in 2010. Odetta Holmes showcases her magnificent vocals on this song, making her name as one of the significant folk-rock artists of all time.
Earlier, we mentioned that Odetta Holmes is one of the pillars who helped revive the folk music scene in the US. She took on yet another traditional folk song, “Waterboy,” sometimes called “The Water Boy,” delivering an awe-inspiring performance. While the song was popularized as a jazz song in the 1920s, Odetta was one of the artists who brought back its folk vibe. This came after she released the song under her album My Eyes Have Seen (1959) under Vanguard Records. Other artists to have covered this song include Edric Connor, John Lee Hooker, Jimmie Rodgers, Roger Whittaker, and The Kingston Trio.
#4- Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” was one of the popular songs you would hear during the Civil rights movement. The song is a traditional African-American spiritual that dates back to the United States’ slavery era. Odetta Holmes gave a rendition to this traditional song featuring it on her album Odetta at Carnegie Hall (1960). Her version was adopted in the biblical drama film The Gospel According to St. Matthew.
#3- Hit or Miss
While most of the best Odetta Holmes songs might have drawn from the traditional folk songs, this doesn’t mean that she didn’t write her own songs. “Hit or Miss” is one of the songs she composed and released, proving her skills in songwriting. The song was featured on her album Odetta Sings (1970). This 1970-album featured “Movin’ It On,” another song she penned. While most of her songs have seen her dubbed the queen of the folk music scene, “Hit or Miss” saw her embrace soul elements more than the folk vibes.
#2- This Little Light of Mine
“This Little Light of Mine” is a gospel song that many activist artists have paid homage to in the past. Odetta Holmes is one of the artists who set their vocals on this magical song. In 2001, Odetta linked up with the Boys Choir of Harlem to give a rendition of the song on the Late Show with David Letterman. Other artists who have covered this popular song include Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Everly Brothers, Zilphia Horton, Ray Charles, and Fannie Lou Hamer.
#1- Take This Hammer
Number one on our top 10 Odetta Holmes songs list is the hit “Take This Hammer.” “Take This Hammer” is a song originally released by Lead Belly in 1942. What makes her rendition of this song unique is her emotive power blended with her awe-inspiring vocals. You can feel her pains and expression converted into musical art with the song. Listening to this song makes you realize why she was regarded as a queen of American folk music.
Photo: Jac. de Nijs / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
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