The iconic Odetta -- singer, actress, guitarist, songwriter, and human rights activist, often referred to as "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement "-- died on December 2. This coming New Years Eve would have been her 78th birthday. Here, Carly Simon remembers the thrill of meeting her idol at the beginning of her own career, and says a loving farewell.
It must have been 1964. Lucy Simon, my sister, and I, had made a terrific arrangement whereby she and I would live in a dorm in the main house of an enormous and ever rolling property in Lenox, Massachusetts called The Music Inn. We shared a row of beds with the cooks, waitresses and cleaning girls. We were the on-site singers. There was an informal, bar-like tavern called The Potting Shed, where Lucy and I performed every night of the week for two weeks in a row.
Within the complex there was a concert hall called the Music Barn. All the important jazz and folk acts of the sixties played there. I remember seeing Judy Collins, Ornette Coleman, Woody Guthrie, Dave Brubeck, Pete Seeger and... Odetta.
Odetta was (in my memory) famously scheduled to play at the Music Barn at the end of the second week that we were in residence. At night in the dorm room, we shared stories about everyone's eating habits, how the guests left their clothes in a mess or in perfect order, and what everyone was reading. I remember who snored and who smelled like what particular hand lotion. There was buzz about every up-and-coming act at the Music Barn. Because I was only in residence when Odetta was due to play, I really only remember the buzz that particular week before she -- the amazing, beautiful, regal, brilliant, favorite singer of mine: Odetta -- was going to play. We were -- all of us in the dorm that Friday night before the show -- so especially nervous and excited to have her within our midst. I knew by heart every record she had recorded, and I was famous in my high school, from which i had recently graduated, for singing like Odetta. The main chapel at school had the kind of acoustics which invited anyone to try to sound like Odetta. Few succeeded. I almost did. It was in my high school senior year book that I did, which is why I even dare to say that.
Lucy and I went to Odetta's concert at eight o'clock on a Saturday night. We were due to begin singing at the Potting Shed at ten. We would have time to quickly brush our hair and change clothes and make it over to the Shed in time to be introduced: "And now... the angelic voices of the Simon Sisters..."
Odetta's concert was more than I could ever tell you about now. I remembered being visited by things other than from this world. I remember believing how I might someday be as self-assured and have my voice ring out in a real concert hall. I remember how I loved this woman on stage, and though she was accompanied by a bass player Bill Lee -- [Spike Lee's father] -- I seem to remember she could have stroked all the way to my soul by singing an a capella concert. Her enormous Drednaught guitar was a booming and fascinating force. Bill Lee was right in the pocket, but it was hard to think that we would be singing so shortly after. Lucy and I, in our matching peasant blouses and with our Scottish folk songs.
We ran, and were out of breath by the time we got to the dressing room at the Potting Shed after having to leave before the encores. We made it just in time to be a little late.
"And now... the enchanting voices of the Simon Sisters..." We attempted striding on stage and began the first song: "Wynken Blinken and Nod," a really popular and strikingly good rendition of Eugene Field's poem, set to music by Lucy. The audience gave us a very warm round of applause. Then I looked at the table that came almost up to the stage. The room was heavy and warm with summer and smoke, and there were single men whistling from the bar in the back. But I looked at the table right in front of the stage. My gaze fell singularly on... Odetta. My God! She was there. How did she get there? Why? Oh God... oh no... oh, I'm blacking out! I really am not kidding,I am blacking out...
I woke up lying on the floor with four or five people taking my pulse. There was even a weird person taking a picture of me. But then Odetta was looking down at me, herself. She was fanning me with a menu. She was asking me if I was all right. What embarrassment I felt, being so weak and in front of the great Odetta. I got up so fast and the energy of simple embarrassment lifted me on to the stage, where we performed our eight songs and I sang out and I sang big and I sang without fear. Lucy and I were in perfect synch, and our harmonies never sounded as filled with the flowers of a Scottish highland and yet rising and falling like the wind that blows through them.
It was perfect. It was a night like no other. I couldn't talk afterward. It feels as if I have never been so stage struck (literally) by anyone ever since. It can only happen once.
Odetta is my hero. She is my only legitimate first hero. Since Odetta they have merged, my heros, but Odetta stands singular as my most fabulous and most adored influence. I can name you many, many more influences -- later and different but never as strong. Like a first love, you can imitate it, maybe change it here and there, but the first cut is the deepest and the one that never leaves.
Bless you, my dearest, dearest powerhouse of a miracle talent -- my first and very most heroic hero.
I tend to hyperbole, but not in your case.