Odetta’s life story takes on huge significance and scale in Zack’s book, as he explains how her talent was buffeted by the winds of American history like a tree flexing in a gale. Biographies can help us to conceptualize the slippery phenomenon we call being alive, especially as it relates to the passing of time. Is life made out of instants, like lightning flashing on a face in a storm, or is it some mystical force that flows across time, bigger than any one person? Odetta brims with the life of its forgotten subject, showing us that we have a lot of cultural history to relearn and many losses yet to mourn.
Odetta’s charisma is a touchstone in Mr. Zack’s engaging, revelatory chronicle, the first in-depth biography of this seminal American performer ... The author has a feel for the heady milieu of the folk revival, when protest songs became radio hits and the money got big and hustlers vied for fresh talent.
Zack’s portrayal of Odetta definitively zooms out to take in more than just her physical appearance, considering also her physical presence as an offense to those who felt she didn’t belong, ultimately supporting the statement that Odetta couldn’t be anywhere else ... Zack’s telling of Odetta’s story is heavily populated by conversations with friends, family, and contemporary musicians about her impact on the genre and the political landscape. One drawback to this approach to Odetta is that her narrative is so heavily steeped in the context of the time period. There are sections of the text that speak abstractly about the contemporary state of music and social climate such that, at times, Odetta herself feels like an afterthought. However, if there is nothing else readers come away with, it is how her musical presence was critical ... Both Zack and Belafonte had it right: Odetta’s effect on folk music and Black culture is immeasurable and deserves much attention.
Drawing from Odetta’s personal papers and countless interviews, Zack makes insightful parallels between the fight for civil rights and Odetta’s songs, which became rousing anthems for protesters. He also reveals intimate details of Odetta’s private life and relationships, such as her friendships with Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King Jr. Superbly researched and beautifully organized, this is an excellent work of scholarship. Although Odetta never achieved the same level of fame as some of her folk music counterparts, she leaves behind a significant and enduring legacy; those unaware of her work will be compelled to learn more ... An illuminating, stirring biography of the extraordinary 'Queen of American Folk.'
Zack delves deeply into [Odett'as] life and work, but his mixed results only seem to highlight an unexamined divide between black and white folk audiences ... Zack's book is about race relations and the social justice mission that fueled Odetta's personal rage and professional shows with unabating consistency for decades. Yet the author doesn't much attempt to use these same politics of identity as a lens through which we can examine Odetta's supposedly undervalued legacy ... Zack clearly shows that she was a pioneer, not a novelty act. One of the delights of his characterization is how regularly he will acknowledge that she was unreasonable, or that she acted rather selfishly ... Zack is a good storyteller, impeccably integrating research to tell most of the tale himself, but gently sprinkling in some quotations from interviews with those who knew her best to get the fullest emotional effect ... It's stunning to think of the prices she most certainly paid for expressing her reality so clearly. In reading Zack's biography, I often wished he'd been equally direct in his judgment of how much of her legacy is blunted by considerations of race both now and while that legacy was in the making. Perhaps he was striving to preserve the voice of a biographer, and indeed, it's good that we now have one proper biography of Odetta. But I find myself longing for a cultural critic or more daring historian to pick up where this book's mission ends, to fill in some analysis of the historical gap between black and white folk audiences. Integrating white-dominated folk was no doubt a major hurdle, and it's more or less implied in Zack's biography. But he chooses to let it lie in the periphery.
In the first in-depth biography of singer and civil rights icon Odetta, Zack offers a thoughtful portrait of an artist who never quite became as famous as she deserved to be, even though her music has influenced generations of musicians ... Zack follows her career from Los Angeles to San Francisco to New York, chronicling how Odetta had to endure not only racism but also sexism. A much-needed biography of a crucial American artist and activist.