17 December 2008

Onboard the Martha's Vineyard Ferry

The Chair


The Happy Couple

The Waiting

08 December 2008

Death of a Living Legend

Odetta Holmes
(December 31, 1930 – December 2, 2008)

I never knew much about Odetta's life, or even her music. I didn't know about her work as a champion of civil rights; I didn't know she'd received the NEA's National Medal of Arts. I was unaware that the Library of Congress had given her a Living Legend Award. All to my discredit. Yet, somehow, I was aware of Odetta's influence and it felt legendary.

Her name always carried a heaviness, a somber, awe-inspiring sense of purpose for me.

It was all because of one song.

I was 6 or 7 years old. My older brother was playing the then new, hot LP The Original Hits of Right Now Plus Some Heavies From The Motion Picture "Easy Rider". Odetta's mellow, measured, grave and resonant tones on "The Ballad of Easy Rider" created a hushed, serious moment in the midst of the album's pop and rock frivolity that was not lost on my young self.

"All he wanted/
Was to be free..."

This refrain has always haunted me.

Too young to experience much of the 60s while they happened, (except the Hula Hoop, which has a surprisingly long and fascinating history, by the way) I tried to catch up during college. On a study-abroad trip one summer, I joined a long queue of German students filing into a classroom to finally watch the infamous, "Heavies"-laden Easy Rider.

To my horror, it was dubbed. My German not yet being very good, I missed most of the dialogue, although the dubbing did lend a note of hilarity. (That summer I also caught Broadway Danny Rose in a German theater. Woody Allen speaking German with someone else's voice. That was way more psychedelic than the LSD scenes in Easy Rider!)

Lost without translation, I wasn't getting very much out of the movie. Giving up on the film, I started watching the audience. The students were mesmerized, sitting in rapt attention, staring open-jawed at the screen, as if in a collective state of shock. I was puzzled. I mean, it was 1984, people! Motorcycles, drugs, hippies...that was old news. Germany couldn't be that far behind the times!

Afterward, in conversation, I discovered the reason for the mass hypnosis. It wasn't the counter-culture attitude of the protagonists that fascinated the ueber-controlled German population: it was the simple breadth of the horizon that blew them away.

Nowhere in Germany (or maybe Europe, for that matter) can you get on a motorcycle and just DRIVE. Certainly not on deserted open road, without buildings surrounding you and towns constantly popping up. No wild, wind-in-your-hair, flag-shirt-fluttering-on-your-back, "God is dead/drive he said"* experience available to them. In less miles than Hopper and Fonda traversed on their epic ride from Los Angeles to New Orleans, all within the United States, a Munich biker would find herself arriving in Moscow, having crossed at least 4 borders.

The Germans responded to the panoramic vistas shown in Easy Rider like a starving man to food. They couldn't get enough, despite being unable to fully digest what they took in.

I listened to them with jaded amusement, all the while a bit shocked by their shock.

And then Odetta's voice floated through my mind.

"All he wanted/
Was to be free.."

That's what the German students saw in the movie, what they felt in the scenes of endless, open road. And they wanted it too.


A basic human desire. A need. As Odetta knew, a requirement.

From a December 3, 2008 Los Angeles Times article about Odetta:

The traditional prison songs that she learned in her early days hit home the hardest and helped her come to terms with what she called the deep-seated hate and fury in her.

"As I did those songs, I could work on my hate and fury without being antisocial," she recalled. "Through those songs, I learned things about the history of black people in this country that the historians in school had not been willing to tell us about or had lied about."
[Edited to include Spoiler Alert on Easy Rider!!! Read further at your own peril.]

"All he wanted/
Was to be free..."

The freedom-seeking, motorcycling hippies are killed at the end of Easy Rider, you know.

"And that's the way/
It turned out to be..."

Thank you, Odetta. I hope you found freedom before you crossed over.

*This is a line of poetry from the novel Drive, He Said by Jeremy Larner. (You can find reference to it if you follow this link, scroll down and click more.) Larner's novel was allegedly inspired by a poignant poem of Robert Creeley's entitled I Know A Man.