Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Thursday, 4 December 2008

US folk icon Odetta dies aged 77

Odetta in 2004
Odetta became a folk star in the 1950s

US folk singer Odetta, a civil rights campaigner and a major influence on Bob Dylan, has died at the age of 77.

Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama, the classically-trained singer gave life to slave songs and folk tunes through her powerful voice.

Becoming a folk star in the 1950s, Odetta influenced Bob Dylan as well as Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez.

Despite being recently confined to a wheelchair, Odetta performed some 60 concerts in the last two years.

Civil rights singer

She died of heart disease on Tuesday at the Lennox Hill Hospital in New York. She had been admitted to the hospital some three weeks before suffering from kidney failure, said her manager Doug Yeager.

She made her name performing songs sung by ordinary people - housewives and working men, as well as prison songs and slave plantation "spirituals".

The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta
Bob Dylan in 1978

"What distinguished her from the start was the meticulous care with which she tried to re-create the feeling of her folk songs," Time magazine wrote in 1960. "To understand the emotions of a convict in a convict ditty, she once tried breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer."

Recording several albums, Odetta was best-known in the US for taking part in the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, where she sang O Freedom.

Odetta in the 1960s
Odetta took part in the 1963 March on Washington

In a 1978 interview, Bob Dylan said: "The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta."

He added he found "just something vital and personal" when he first heard her, and that her music convinced him to trade his electric guitar and play an acoustic one instead.

First nominated for a Grammy in 1963, Odetta received two more nominations in the latter part of her career - one in 1999 and third in 2005.

In 1999, she was awarded a National Medal of the Arts. President Bill Clinton said her career showed "us all that songs have the power to change the heart and change the world".

Born in 1930 in Alabama, she moved to Los Angeles aged six. After her father died, she took the surname of her stepfather, Felious. Coached by a music teacher who saw her singing after school, the classically-trained singer discovered folk music in her teens.

In a 1963 interview with the Washington Post, she said she believed singing and dance had come out of "fear of God, fear that the sun would not come back, many things. I think it developed as a way of worship or to appease something. ... The world hasn't improved, and so there's always something to sing about."

Odetta was still performing as recently as October, and had expressed wishes to sing at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.

Odetta is survived by a son and a daughter.

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The Scotsman Odetta - Singer and lyrical voice of US civil rights movement - 10 hrs ago
Boston GlobeObit: American folk music legend Odetta dies at 77 - 16 hrs ago
Sydney Morning HeraldFolk singer who inspired the greats and brought hope to civil rights movement - 21 hrs ago
Denver Post Folk music, civil rights legend Odetta dies at 77 - 25 hrs ago
Boston GlobeOdetta, 77, transcendent voice fused heritage, hopes into civil rights movement - 29 hrs ago
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