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Odetta Memorial Service
Riverside Memorial Church
Tuesday, February 24
“Odetta all by herself was a stimulus package,” declared Reverend James Forbes, senior minister emeritus of the gorgeous, cavernous Riverside Memorial Church, at about the four-hour mark of the gala tribute to the titanic folk/blues singer, to raucous applause, or raucous for a church, anyway. Indeed, it took a small army of singers, family members, adopted songs & daughters, poets, neighbors, video clips, collaborators, and clergy to properly fete the singer/actress/civil-rights icon (Martin Luther King declared her “The Queen of Folk Music”; she’s probably best known for singing “O Freedom” during the 1963 March on Washington), who died December 2, 2008, at the age of 77. Everyone from Harry Belafonte to the 10-year-old son of her piano player got a few words in; everyone from Steve Earle to the Holmes Brothers to Sweet Honey in the Rock to Pete Seeger offered a song, audience participation strongly encouraged (by Pete especially), the churchly echo of a hundreds of folks singing “Take This Hammer” pretty incredible.
The mood was primarily joyous, the reminisces cheery and defiant (Maya Angelou: “We were young, tall, black ladies, and people were afraid of us”), though multiple speakers echoed the sentiment “she was trying to hold on for the Inauguration.” And at just the point you realized you’d been sitting in a church pew for four hours, up popped a clip of Odetta herself singing “House of the Rising Sun,” accompanied by forlorn piano with a chilling a capella verse at its center, tonight’s honoree moaning “16 pretty maidens to carry my coffin/16 pretty maidens to sing me a song.” It took closer to 100.