The All Stars of the Paleo Left — along with a capacity crowd of more than 1,000 that included Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora and even Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara — turned out at Riverside Church for last night’s memorial service for Odetta, the legendary folk and blues singer who died in December just shy of 78. Big in voice, body, and charisma, she was variously dubbed “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement” and, by no less a fan than Martin Luther King Jr., “The Queen of American Folk Music.” Her admirers and acolytes also included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
The evening clocked in at more than four hours of speechifying, sermonizing, and occasional singing (take that, Fidel Castro!), and was by turns moving (the testimony of loss by her niece Jan Ford and a young neighbor boy, Max Perkins), rousing (Sweet Honey in the Rock’s rendition of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”), and risible (Wavy Gravy absurdly brandishing a rubber fish). In an unavoidable burst of political correctness, Peter Yarrow of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” fame even roped his daughter Bethany and the Brooklyn Tech Choir into performing his treacly anthem of victimization, “Don’t Laugh at Me.”
Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, and Maya Angelou regaled the largely white audience of a certain age with Odetta stories and testimonials, urgently declaiming phrases like “the instruments of social oppression” and “the struggle for liberation,” as though some fabulous time machine had transported the entire gathering back to the bad old days before Barack Obama was born, when J. Edgar Hoover was collecting dirt on suspected comsymps and the Ku Klux Klan was a force to be reckoned with.
“We were young and black and female and crazy as road lizards,” said the frail-looking, cane-using Dr. Angelou, recalling her early friendship with the Alabama-born Odetta Holmes in the cabarets and coffee houses of mid-century San Francisco. “I think of her as a sister who sang us into freedom, really — because that’s what Odetta did.” The ridiculously handsome Belafonte, also leaning on a cane, celebrated the woman whom President Clinton once presented with the National Medal of Arts. “The loss for me has been so deep that words elude me,” Belafonte said. “Who will fill that space? It is hard to know.”