Thursday, December 04, 2008

the voice

Read Isaiah 2:2-5

I would lay in the dark of my dorm room in college and listen to her low voice singing:
no more auction block for me,
no more, no more
no more auction block for me,
many thousand gone.
After listening to the likes of Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, I discovered the voice of Odetta, a voice of wisdom, a voice of spirituality, a voice for conscience, a voice for freedom.

She marched with Martin Luther King, and stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, singing 'O Freedom' and all one could say is 'oh yes!' She knew the success and adulation which her voice could bring her, and she experienced those deep, deep wounds that the color of her skin caused others to inflict on her. Her voice was sometimes so low you might make the mistake of thinking you were listening to a man singing. But her passion for justice, for equality, for change was that unique timbre in her singing.

Dr. King called her the 'Queen of American folk music' but her music spoke of such common experiences as struggle, the longing for freedom, the hope for a future, the vision of a society in which all were not only called 'equal' but treated as such. She was an influence on other singers from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez, from John Hiatt to Janis Joplin. When Rosa Parks was asked what songs meant the most to her, she simply replied, 'all the songs Odetta sings.' And, she was scheduled to sing at the inauguration of Barack Obama this January.

Like Isaiah, she saw that vision God has of a time, and a place, and a people who could be at peace, who would live for justice, who would have open doors and open tables where every single one of God's children was welcome. She was passionately committed to that arcane notion that people could walk in God's light because she had been relegated to the shadows by the culture in which she lived as a young person in Alabama. She believed that it just wasn't words in a dusty book sitting on the pulpit in an empty church, but that it was possible for guns to be turned into guitars, for tanks to be dismantled and converted into school buses, for war colleges to become retirement homes for pacifists.

But like Isaiah, Odetta's voice has been stilled, as she died just the other day.

So, who will sing the songs God taught to Isaiah and Odetta now?

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

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