While she hoped to sing at Obama’s inauguration, she had not been officially invited, Yeager said. Her last big concert was on Oct. 4 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where she performed in front of tens of thousands at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. She also performed Oct. 25-26 in Toronto.
In 1999, she was honored with a National Medal of the Arts. Then-President Bill Clinton said her career showed “us all that songs have the power to change the heart and change the world.”
She was nominated for a 1963 Grammy award for best folk recording for “Odetta Sings Folk Songs.” Two more Grammy nominations came in recent years, for her 1999 “Blues Everywhere I Go” and her 2005 album “Gonna Let It Shine.”
Among her notable early works were her 1956 album “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” which included such songs as “Muleskinner Blues” and “Jack O’ Diamonds”; and her 1957 “At the Gate of Horn,” which featured the popular spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
Her 1965 album “Odetta Sings Dylan” included such standards as “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Masters of War” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
In a 1978 Playboy interview, Dylan said, “the first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” He said he found “just something vital and personal” when he heard an early album of hers in a record store as a teenager.
“Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar,” he said.
Belafonte also cited her as a key influence on his hugely successful recording career, and she was a guest singer on his 1960 album “Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall.”
She continued to record in recent years; her 2001 album “Looking for a Home (Thanks to Leadbelly)” paid tribute to the great blues singer to whom she was sometimes compared.
Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., in 1930, she moved with her family to Los Angeles at age 6. Her father had died when she was young, and she took her stepfather’s last name, Felious. Hearing her in glee club, a junior high teacher made sure she got music lessons, but Odetta became interested in folk music in her late teens and turned away from classical studies.
She got much of her early experience at the Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles, where she sang and played occasional stage roles in the early 1950s.
“What power of characterization and projection of mood are hers, even though plainly clad and sitting or standing in half light!” a Los Angeles Times critic wrote in 1955.
Over the years, she picked up occasional acting roles. Famed Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper reported in 1961 that she “comes through beautifully” in the film “Sanctuary.”
In The Washington Post interview, Odetta theorized that humans developed music and dance because of fear, “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 is survived by a daughter, Michelle Esrick of New York City, and a son, Boots Jaffre, of Fort Collins, Colo. She was divorced about 40 years ago and never remarried, her manager said.
A memorial service is planned for next month, Yeager said.
Associated Press writer Cristian Salazar contributed to this report.
The video-sharing site has a host of clips of the legendary folk singer performing her own tunes and blues standards alike in a variety of iconic venues, from the Newport Folk Festival to "The Johnny Cash Show." More »
Over at boston.com, James Reed penned a brief, but thorough and heartfelt retrospective on Odetta's career. More »