Every great social movement creates its own musical score. So it was with the American civil rights movement and Odetta, the honey-voiced songstress and musical conscience of that era who died this week at the age of 77.
Odetta was a force of nature who drew from every strand of America's folk music tradition - prison ditties and work songs, Irish ballads and gospel tunes, spirituals and the blues. Her art and her voice embodied the rage, courage, defiance and hope of the terrific moral struggle that transformed America in the 1960s.
She helped kindle what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called "the fierce urgency of now." When Odetta sang "Oh Freedom" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in 1963, it was the musical equivalent of the great peroration of his "I Have a Dream" speech: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we're free at last!"
The singer, born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., rose from humble beginnings to sing of humble people, and she continued to perform until a few months before her death. She lived long enough to see the civil rights movement triumph and the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president, and she had wanted to sing at his inauguration. But her greatest gift to the president-elect had been delivered half a century earlier, when her brave, soulful songs of protest and hope helped stir the hearts of the American people toward freedom and justice long denied.