Odetta Holmes’ Album One Grain of Sand

The singular singer released her groundbreaking album in 1963, the same year as the March on Washington, and used her art and appearance as weapons in the Civil Rights struggle.

Matthew Frye Jacobson | One Grain of Sand| Bloomsbury Academic | April 2019 | 19 minutes (3,117 words)

 

When twenty-year-old Odetta Felious Holmes — classically trained as a vocalist and poised to become “the next Marian Anderson” — veered away from both opera and musical theater in favor of performing politically charged field hollers, prison songs, work songs, and spirituals before mixed-race audiences in 1950s’ coffeehouses, she was making a portentous decision for both American music and Civil Rights culture. Released the same year as her famous rendition of “I’m on My Way” at the March on Washington, One Grain of Sand captures the social justice project that was Odetta’s voice. “There was no way I could say the things I was thinking, but I could sing them,” she later remarked. In pieces like “Midnight Special,” “Moses, Moses,” “Ain’t No Grave,” and “Ramblin’ Round Your City,” One Grain of Sand embodies Odetta’s approach to the folk repertoire as both an archive of black history and a vehicle for radical expression. For many among her audience, a song like “Cotton Fields” represented a first introduction to black history at a time when there was as yet no academic discipline going by this name, and when history books themselves still peddled convenient fictions of a fundamentally “happy” plantation past. And for many among her audience, black and white, this young woman’s pride in black artistry and resolve, and her open rage and her challenge to whites to recognize who they were and who they had been, too, modeled the very honesty and courage that the movement now called for.

In 1965 Harry Belafonte and Odetta traveled to Selma for the famous march to Montgomery in the wake of the Bloody Sunday confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. At one juncture, as Belafonte recounted at a 2009 memorial service for Odetta, the two were supposed to have shared a car with Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a white Civil Rights worker who had come down from Detroit, but Liuzzo had some sort of emergency to attend to, and so the two performers told her to take the car and go on ahead without them. When they later learned that Liuzzo had been stopped on the road and murdered at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, Odetta said to Belafonte, “You know, Harry, we’re going to have to give some serious consideration as to why it was her instead of us. What does this tell us we need to do?” It is a chilling reminder of the danger couched behind the phrase “Civil Rights work,” and of the ways that “cultural workers” like Belafonte, Odetta, Dick Gregory, Mahalia Jackson, and Nina Simone were risking far more than their sponsorship and their markets when they took up the cause.

While Odetta might have wondered what she and Belafonte “needed to do” next, by 1965 she had already done far more for Civil Rights than many realize. It is worth considering what it meant, politically, for a twenty-three-year-old African American woman to take the stage as early as 1953, to face an all- or predominantly white audience, and to sing songs like “Take this Hammer,” “Water Boy,” and “Another Man Done Gone,” so evocative of slavery and of emancipation’s broken promises. As a young girl Odetta had moved from her native Birmingham, Alabama, to Los Angeles, where she received classical training as a singer. She began with piano lessons, but her piano teacher quickly pegged the young girl as someone with the talent for classical voice training. Odetta’s mother, who worked as a cleaning woman for the Turnabout Theatre in LA, was able to get her a hearing, whereupon the owners of the theater itself consented to fund her training. “I had a teacher who, because I was a big black young lady —  young girl — she was going to make me into another Marian Anderson,” Odetta later told an interviewer. “Well I adored Marian Anderson, and still do. But I knew I didn’t want to be anybody else,” didn’t want to be “‘another’ anything.” Nor did she want to be yet another victim of the classical world’s racism, and she noted well that Anderson — even as the best classical singer in the world — was made to struggle.

For many among her audience, a song like ‘Cotton Fields’ represented a first introduction to black history at a time when history books themselves still peddled convenient fictions of a fundamentally ‘happy’ plantation past.

After a successful run in Finian’s Rainbow that had been arranged for her by the Turnabout Theatre at the age of nineteen, Odetta departed from the anticipated path and the associated expectations that went along with her musical training, and took up folk singing, including work songs, prison songs, and field hollers, alongside folk standards already made popular by singers like Woody Guthrie, Josh White, and the Weavers. High school friend Jo Mapes, a rising talent on the California folk scene herself, introduced Odetta to the coffeehouses of San Francisco and North Beach, and even taught her a few guitar chords. Classical “was a nice exercise but it had nothing to do with my life,” Odetta explained in retrospect. “The folk songs were the anger, the venom, the hatred of myself and everybody else and everything else. I could get my rocks off within those work songs and things without having to say ‘I hate you and I hate me.’ In fact, it was the area of the work songs that helped heal me.” “The paradox — and a fearful paradox it is,” wrote her friend James Baldwin,

—is that the American Negro can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is unwilling  to accept his past. To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought. How can the American Negro’s past be used?

It is thus the “anger,” the “venom,” and the “healing” in Odetta’s repertoire that most interest me here, and the politics of these, the “usable past-ness” of these. Self-described as one of the last of the Bohemians, Odetta joined a musical community in the early 1950s that incrementally became the political community she served and helped to galvanize and inspire in the 1960s. There was a significant racial politics to Odetta’s aesthetic choices — there were undeniably political valences to her sonic palette of contralto wails and guttural growls, and to her work on stage, not simply as a performer, but as a public archivist, delivering up to consciousness some long-suppressed historical sounds and scenes that might motivate the black people in her audience and that might accuse, remind, challenge, and prod the white people. “The sorrow of her race is in her voice,” one reviewer wrote in 1959; “The protest, too, at the misfortune of being ever in the minority, ever against the world. And the pride, also, that comes of physical strength and unashamed feeling [Her Town Hall performance] gave us the picture of a strong and indomitable people, gave it to us with organ sounds and dark cathedral colors.”


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In Blues People — published the same year as One Grain of Sand — LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) wrote of the cultural and social trajectory that middle-class African Americans had traced as they “moved successfully into the featureless syndrome” of mainstream (white) American life, “purg[ing] themselves of ‘stink’ and color to crawl into those casually sanctified halls of white middle-brow culture.” In one sense, he wrote,

They have traveled a complete circle, stepping right back into the heart of a paternal and patriarchal society — from slave to citizen — and have run through blues and discarded it on the way. But they had to, it was one of those ugly reminders that they had once been outside the walls of the city. And there are not too many people in this country, black or white, who’d be willing to admit that.

Jones/Baraka was not talking about Odetta’s brand of “blues,” exactly, but nonetheless she was definitely among those “willing to admit” of that existence “outside the walls,” and to chronicle both the pain and the triumph that was archived in music’s “ugly reminders” — blues, shouts, spirituals, hollers, and otherwise. She once took a sledgehammer to some stones, simply in order to “get the feel” for the songs of the county farm. “She got the feel of the song alright,” wrote an interviewer. “And a bent back. ‘So now I know the secret of folk singing,’ says she. ‘Feel the emotions, but steer clear of the sledge.’” It was because of her fine-grained understanding of the repertoire — her deep feeling for the history that had produced the songs — that fellow folk singer Richie Havens described Odetta as “not just a singer [but] . . . an educator.”

It is worth considering what it meant, politically, for a twenty-three-year-old African American woman to take the stage as early as 1953, to face an all- or predominantly white audience, and to sing songs so evocative of slavery and of emancipation’s broken promises.

She cut a powerful figure, even as a young woman. She occupied the stage and commanded a room like the classical diva she had been trained to be. She insisted on the beauty of blackness long before the notion “black is beautiful” had been popularized by the Black Consciousness Movement or had become iconic in the figure of Angela Davis — the hairdo later known as a “natural” or an “Afro” was for a brief time called an “Odetta,” after her short-cropped style. And she presented a persona of power and force that ran far enough ahead of second-wave feminism that many critics had no idea exactly what to make of it. “There are those who say she sounds like a man,” the Chicago Tribune noted flatly. Grasping for some kind of critical principle, others would write of the “tenderness and strength, boldness and meekness” with which she conjoined “the masculine and feminine of song. . . with a natural vigor and grace.” Yet another would note, “Negro spirituals, as they are most often heard in concert programs, have become art songs, emasculated of all their roughness. Not so with Odetta.” Her queering of prevailing gender conventions was a signature element of Odetta’s style in a work song like “I’ve Been Driving on Bald Mountain” or “Ancestors: Suite,” an epic journey through the history of black life in the South, but like black pride itself, it was an instrument of critique and resistance within a repertoire that was fully intended to address the history of injustice and the realities of a radical political moment.

One Grain of Sand wrapped up Odetta’s relationship with Vanguard Records; she had signed a new contract with RCA in late 1962, and One Grain was released on January 1, 1963. It rang in an extraordinary year, even for a historical stretch in which every year was noteworthy in its own way. Marking the one hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 1963 was bound to be a unique moment of contest, elaborately observed in some quarters and violently defaced in others. That April witnessed the Civil Rights movement’s “Birmingham Campaign,” a closely coordinated campaign of non-violent, direct action against the practices and institutions of segregation. This was a virtual laboratory in the tactic that Martin Luther King, Jr. described as seeking to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” The campaign was greeted by the snarling German Shepherds and explosive water cannons, unleashed on young black protesters by sheriff Eugene “Bull” Connor, that have become the stuff of Civil Rights iconography. King himself was arrested and taken to jail on April 12 (Good Friday), where, on smuggled scraps of paper, he penned the now immortal “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” “We know through painful experience,” he wrote, “that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The Gaston Motel, where King had been staying in Birmingham, was nearly leveled by a bomb in May. In a Civil Rights speech on June 11, John F. Kennedy spoke on TV from the Oval Office, laying out the terms of what would ultimately be the next year’s milestone Civil Rights Act. Hours later Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, was gunned down in his driveway in Jackson. August saw the March on Washington for Justice and Jobs, where King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech while flanked by noted black activists and artists, Odetta included. September suffered the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing — Birmingham again — in which four young girls were killed when a bomb ripped through the black church in the minutes before a Sunday service. The year closed out with the assassination of the Movement’s most significant white ally, President Kennedy, in November; and finally a “Boycott of Christmas” led by six highly visible artists, including Odetta, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and James Baldwin, because as a society the United States was now clearly “mocking the Prince of Peace.” Amid the ubiquitous centenary observances of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin wrote to his nephew (now immortalized in The Fire Next Time), “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”

It is best to read Odetta’s One Grain of Sand as poignant commentary on this atmosphere of hope and destruction, and also as an archival foray into the past — at once bitter and “usable” — that helped to explain it. The exercise requires what Alexandra Vazquez, the brilliant analyst of Cuban music and performance, calls “listening in detail.” The album’s title cut, “One Grain of Sand,” is a gentle lullaby written by Pete Seeger for his baby daughter in 1956. In delicate, reverent tones, the singer expresses humility and wonder before the magnificence of creation:

One grain of sand

One drop of water in the deep blue sea One grain of sand

One little you, one little me

Perhaps more than is typical of Odetta, her rendition here hews extremely closely to Seeger’s original. A subtle and loving accompaniment has been dropped in underneath Seeger’s a capella vocal line (Odetta on guitar, Bill Lee on bass), but Odetta’s vocal line itself replicates Seeger’s with remarkable fidelity. The song gives voice to and honors the immensity of the love that binds us — “I love you so / More than you’ll ever, ever, ever know” — but it is also a tender expression of awe before the immensity of a universe whose own miraculous nature is a revelation in its every single mote — in “one grain of sand in all the world . . . , one little boy, one little girl . . ., one little star up in the lonely blue. . ., one little me, one little you.”

This notion of the miracle within each microcosm supplies the framing device for this book’s approach to One Grain of Sand itself. The album, it seems to me, embodies an extensive, curated archive of African American struggle, pain, rage, and resilience since emancipation. “Midnight Special” opens onto the prison song as a genre, and on the deep, post-emancipation history of southern criminal justice from which it emerged. “Cool Water,” Odetta’s refashioning of a popular 1930s’ “cowboy” song into a Civil Rights ballad, prompts an examination of the political work that folk music was carrying out in these years, and folk culture’s remaking of the 1950s’ coffeehouse into an important site of political work across generational and racial lines. “Moses, Moses” illuminates the blurred boundary between the sacred and the secular in Civil Rights discourse, and Odetta’s deep engagement with the vast body of biblically based, liberatory narratives at play in African American culture. And “Cotton Fields” and “Boll Weevil” at once emerge from and speak to one hundred years of southern political economy — the South’s peonage system in the wake of slavery — and one hundred years of American rumination over the meaning of “the South” as fact and symbol. Odetta’s musical archive across these four areas — the prison, the coffeehouse, the church, and the plantation — presents a rich record of African American life, thought, and politics between Emancipation and the March on Washington — the epic of post-emancipation history in, as it were, one grain of sand.

She presented a persona of power and force that ran far enough ahead of second-wave feminism that many critics had no idea exactly what to make of it.

The work presented here began as part of a book on the cultural history of the Civil Rights era, a book that — as my own understanding of Odetta and her significance grew — took the title Odetta’s Voice and Other Weapons. That book is yet to be written, but I am sincere in both my argument that Odetta’s artistry was a “weapon” in the Civil Rights struggle, and that cultural work in general was crucial to the era’s politics. One contention here is that Odetta’s work between 1953 and 1963 cannot be fully understood in isolation from the timetables of  Civil Rights history — Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Emmett Till murder (1955), the Montgomery Bus Boycott and emergence of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC, 1956–57), the integration of Little Rock’s Central High (1957), the sit-in movement and the emergence of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, 1960), The Freedom Rides (1961), and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963). She began these years singing in small coffeehouses like the Tin Angel in North Beach and the Gate of Horn in Chicago; by 1960 she was playing before larger crowds on college campuses across the country. This trajectory was inseparable from the rise of SNCC and the sit-in movement. By 1963 she would be among the performers sharing the stage with Martin Luther King, Jr., before hundreds of thousands, at the March on Washington. My more radical claim is that the Civil Rights movement cannot be fully understood in isolation from the cultural work that people like Odetta — and Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, Sidney Poitier, Nina Simone, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and Jim Brown — were doing in these years. It was, so to say, all the tiny but rapidly multiplying “publics” of the Tin Angel and Gate of Horn who later turned out en masse for the March.

Odetta herself said this best. “You know, they told me in grammar school, as we were reading about slavery, that the slaves were happy and singing all the time. That was at a time when I felt — I think we all go through this — it couldn’t be in the book if it weren’t true. And I believed — I swallowed that thing, and it damaged me; I still have scars from that.” But it was folk music — literally the music of the “folk” — their sorrow songs and field hollers and blues and prison songs — that called out these lies and set history right for Odetta. What they had been singing was not happiness. The music “straightened my back and kinked my hair.” This book sets out to elaborate all that Odetta might have meant by this, and to explore how it was so.

***

Matthew Frye Jacobson teaches American Studies and African American Studies at Yale University, and is the co-founder of the Public Humanities program there. In addition to his five books on aspects of race in US culture, he has conducted several documentary, curatorial, and artistic projects, including The Historian’s Eye, a web-based documentary project, and his forthcoming film, A Long Way from Home: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Desegregation.

Excerpted from One Grain of Sand (33 1/3), by Matthew Frye Jacobson. Copyright © 2019 by Matthew Frye Jacobson. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury and Matthew Frye Jacobson.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath