REMEMBERING ODETTA, WHO SANG OF FREEDOM

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Pete Seeger at a memorial service at Riverside Church for Odetta, who died on Dec. 2.

The poet Maya Angelou sat perched on a tall stool in Riverside Church in Manhattan on Tuesday night, both mimicking and remembering the folk singer Odetta, her longtime friend, who died on Dec. 2 at 77.

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Maya Angelou

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Geoffrey Holder, left, and Harry Belafonte

“We were both tall black ladies with attitude, and most people were really scared of us,” Ms. Angelou told a crowd that filled the pews and balconies as Pete Seeger warmed up offstage. “To be in the ’50s, black and turned away from almost everything and to say, ‘I have come here to stay’ and to be a sister of somebody who had courage is no small matter.”

The occasion was a celebration of an artist who gave rhythm and voice to the civil rights era — who “sang us into freedom,” as Ms. Angelou put it. The event had both a neighborly and a historical feel. Many in the crowd were New Yorkers who had grown up to Odetta’s music, listening to her and her guitar in Greenwich Village coffeeshops, in concert halls or in Central Park. Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., she had made Manhattan her home.

Others came to honor her wider social and musical legacy, represented onstage by a who’s who of folk, blues and gospel musicians and other performers. Besides Mr. Seeger, there were Harry Belafonte, Geoffrey Holder, the singer and guitarist Steve Earle and the vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock.


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