These included Blues Everywhere I Go, a 2000 Grammy-nominated blues/jazz band tribute album to the great lady blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s; Looking for a Home, a 2002 W.C. Handy Award-nominated band tribute to Lead Belly; and the 2007 Grammy-nominated Gonna Let It Shine, a live album of gospel and spiritual songs supported by Seth Farber and The Holmes Brothers. These recordings and active touring led to guest appearance on fourteen new albums by other artists between 1999 and 2006 and the re-release of 45 old Odetta albums and compilation appearances.
On September 29, 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Odetta with the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts. In 2004, Odetta was honored at the Kennedy Center with the “Visionary Award” along with a tribute performance by Tracy Chapman. In 2005, the Library of Congress honored her with its “Living Legend Award”.
In mid-September 2001, Odetta performed with the Boys’ Choir of Harlem on the Late Show with David Letterman, appearing on the first show after Letterman resumed broadcasting, having been off the air for several nights following the events of September 11; they performed “This Little Light of Mine”.
The 2005 documentary film No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese, highlights her musical influence on Bob Dylan, the subject of the documentary. The film contains an archive clip of Odetta performing “Waterboy” on TV in 1959, and we also hear Odetta’s songs “Mule Skinner Blues” and “No More Auction Block for Me”.
In 2006, Odetta opened shows for jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, and in 2006 she toured the US, Canada, and Europe accompanied by her pianist, which included being presented by the US Embassy in Latvia as the keynote speaker at a Human Rights conference, and also in a concert in Riga’s historic 1,000-year-old Maza Guild Hall.
In December 2006, the Winnipeg Folk Festival honored Odetta with their “Lifetime Achievement Award”. In February 2007, the International Folk Alliance awarded Odetta as “Traditional Folk Artist of the Year”.
On March 24, 2007, a tribute concert to Odetta was presented at the Rachel Schlesinger Theatre by the World Folk Music Association with live performance and video tributes by Pete Seeger, Madeleine Peyroux, Harry Belafonte, Janis Ian, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Josh White, Jr., (Josh White) Peter, Paul and Mary, Oscar Brand, Tom Rush, Jesse Winchester, Eric Andersen, Wavy Gravy, David Amram, Roger McGuinn, Robert Sims, Carolyn Hester, Donal Leace, Marie Knight, Side by Side, and Laura McGhee (from Scotland).
In 2007, Odetta’s album Gonna Let It Shine was nominated for a Grammy, and she completed a major Fall Concert Tour in the “Songs of Spirit” show, which included artists from all over the world. She toured around North America in late 2006 and early 2007 to support this CD.
On January 21, 2008, Odetta was the keynote speaker at San Diego’s Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration, followed by concert performances in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and Mill Valley, in addition to being the sole guest for the evening on PBS-TV’s The Tavis Smiley Show.
Odetta was honored on May 8, 2008 at a historic tribute night, hosted by Wavy Gravy, held at Banjo Jim’s in the East Village.
In summer 2008, at the age of 77, she launched a North American tour, where she sang from a wheelchair. Her set in recent years included “This Little Light of Mine (I’m Gonna Let It Shine)”, Lead Belly’s “The Bourgeois Blues”, “(Something Inside) So Strong”, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “House of the Rising Sun”.
She made an appearance on June 30, 2008, at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, New York City for a Liam Clancy tribute concert. Her last big concert, before thousands of people, was in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2008, for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. She last performed at Hugh’s Room in Toronto on October 25.
In November 2008, Odetta’s health began to decline and she began receiving treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. She had hoped to perform at Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009.
On December 2, 2008, Odetta died from heart disease in New York City.
At her memorial service in February 2009 at Riverside Church in New York City, participants included Maya Angelou, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Geoffrey Holder, Steve Earle, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Peter Yarrow, Maria Muldaur, Tom Chapin, Josh White, Jr. (son of Josh White), Emory Joseph, Rattlesnake Annie, the Brooklyn Technical High School Chamber Chorus, and videotaped tributes from Tavis Smiley and Joan Baez.
Odetta influenced Harry Belafonte, who “cited her as a key influence” on his musical career; Bob Dylan, who said, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store.
Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson. … [That album was] just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record.”; Joan Baez who said “Odetta was a goddess. Her passion moved me.
I learned everything she sang.”;Janis Joplin, who “spent much of her adolescence listening to Odetta, who was also the first person Janis imitated when she started singing”; poet Maya Angelou who once said “If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time.”; John Waters, whose original screenplay for Hairspray mentions her as an influence on beatniks and Carly Simon, who cited Odetta as a major influence, and talked about “going weak in the knees” when she had the opportunity to meet her in Greenwich Village.
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