Famed folk singer Odetta and award-winning lyric baritone Robert Sims will be featured along with Ghanaian drummer Pope Flyne and pianist-arranger Jacqueline Hairston in Sunday’s “Let The Spirituals Roll On,” a concert and fundraiser for Friends of Negro Spirituals at Oakland’s historic Beth Eden Baptist Church.
“Odetta’s what we call a heritage keeper,” said Sam Edwards, co-founder of Friends of Negro Spirituals. “She does not see herself as a singer of spirituals, but as a folk singer, and spirituals as folk music. Yet she’s been recording spirituals since 1953, and sings them in free combination with other songs, unlike the practice of most African-American concert singers, who reserve spirituals for the last third of a concert. There are many who are indebted to her pioneering ways, her charisma—and the force with which she performs. Odetta tends to concentrate on that variety that could be called ‘freedom spirituals.’ Her voice fills the room, with a power she says ‘comes from the strength of slaves.”
Odetta has been widely praised by those she has influenced. Bob Dylan said, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta [in 1956.] I heard a record of hers in a record store ... Right then and there I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustic guitar.” Harry Belafonte said, “Few ... possess that fine understanding of a song’s meaning which transforms it from a melody into a dramatic experience. Odetta, who has influenced me greatly in this area of dramatic interpretation, is just such an artist.”
Odetta recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of her performing career, which began with the Hollywood Turnabout Theatre. She has recorded 28 albums, including “Christmas Spirituals” (1960) and last year’s “Gonna Let It Shine.” The first touring and recording solo female artist of blues, folk, work and protest songs, Odetta took part in the Civil Rights Movement, including the Selma march, sang at the 1963 March On Washington, co-starred in Bay Area filmmaker John Korty’s 1974 hit TV film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 1999 by Bill Clinton.
Odetta will be accompanied by pianist Seth Farber, rather than her own guitar.
Sims, a classical singer who has performed internationally, has dedicated himself to singing spirituals. Based in Chicago, the lyric baritone made his Carnegie Hall debut last year.
“He’s a rousing performer with a luxuriant voice,” said Edwards. “Many think of him as the successor to Paul Robeson, who was also a hero to Odetta.”
Flyne, Ghanaian master drummer, teaches at St. Mary’s College and has been associated with Friends of Negro Spirituals the past year. “His drumming enables us to make African ceremony and tribute to the ancestors,” Edwards said.
Hairston, a pianist, educator and composer/arranger, is an ASCAP member who began choral conducting as a child prodigy in South Carolina. “She has arranged spirituals for concert for many prominent opera singers,” Edwards said.
Friends of Negro Spirituals was co-founded by Edwards and Lyvonne Chrisman in November 1998. Inspired by the spiritual “Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho” as performed by Moses Hogan, the Friends focus on the preservation of spirituals.
“Our primary means,” Edwards said, “is through educational forums every quarter, as well as concerts, like ‘Amazing Journeys--Following The North Star with the Underground Railroad,’ or ‘Paul Robeson and Negro Spirituals.’”
The group has worked with the West Oakland Senior Center and the Outreach Program and African American Center of the San Francisco Library. They also publish a semi-annual journal, The Negro Spiritual, and promote videos and CDs. At the end of June each year, they host a Negro Spirituals Heritage Day to celebrate Bay Area contributions to the long and continued life of spirituals. They recently honored jazz pianist Bill Bell.
“At the forums, we sing the spirituals and discuss them, an intellectual and experiential presentation,” Edwards continued. “At the concerts, the audience is invited to join in, to sing together on a spiritual or two. Spirituals have changed, been reworked to fit many different styles. They’ve been printed as sheet music and sung in concerts of classical music. But the words are the same as they were on the plantation. They’ve always been a way to galvanize the community, provide healing, hope and some feeling of power for those who couldn’t talk freely, but could sing.”