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.