Odetta's One Grain of Sand

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Member Reviews

Odetta Holmes has one of the best voices I have ever heard. There is not a word sang on "One Grain of Sand" that does not sound mournful and haunting, and this reflects the world where Odetta is living at the moment. Recorded in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, an America that is in turmoil and Odetta is right in the middle of it, you can hear the empathy in her voice, the strength and empathy that she gave to those whom marched along side her, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belefonte and the thousands of protests beaten and killed by police and lynching, as if each act of violence, each victim, weighted heavy on her soul. On the other side of the coin, folk music is becoming a powerhouse, and Odetta is one of the strongest voices in the movement. The balance of the two, the musical appreciation that she received by peers and the importance that she has during a very important time in American history, is explored in Matthew Frye Jacobson in his 33 1/3 series essay on Odetta's "One Grain of Sand." Matthew Frye Jacobson is a professor of African American Studies at Yale University and has written many books about the history of race in America. I could that this was written by someone with an academic background because some of this book feels like a lecture or reading a textbook. There are some moments where I caught myself thinking that this was important but not really that fun to read. In the end, this is more of a great book on the importance of Odetta's work in social history than it is about Odetta, and this is fine. I now understand her importance in the bigger picture more than before, and I have more appreciation for what she did and who she was. 

I received this as an ARC through Netgally in exchange for an honest review.
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When I requested this book from NetGalley I didn’t appreciate that its purpose was to explore Odetta’s music rather than the life, and as she is someone I knew nothing about, I would have preferred more about the life than the work. This is not to denigrate the book in any way, however, as it is a thoughtful and insightful exploration of her music, putting it in the context of the historical times and examining the meaning and power of the lyrics. Perhaps it’s a book more for the fan than the general reader, but it introduced me to an artist of whom I was ignorant and has encouraged me to explore further. And for that I am very grateful.
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A classically trained singer tipped as 'the next Marian Anderson' before turning instead to the folk scene, Odetta's career spanned almost half a century. Released in 1963, 'One Grain of Sand' coincided with the March on Washington (where she performed alongside Dr King) and the burgeoning Civil Rights movements. On this album, Odetta breathed new life into spirituals and prison songs, modern standards by Seeger and Guthrie, and even country favourites like Cool Water. Among the many roles she took on, Odetta was a historian and teacher. In this short book, Matthew Frye Jacobson contextualises her work within the turbulent period of its creation, and the broader experience of black America, from slavery to the great migration, through the Jim Crow era into an uncertain future. A worthy addition to the 331/3 series, 'Odetta's One Grain of Sand' reminds us that artists can, and often do, transform the world around them.
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The author does a great job explaining the impact of Odetta’s music on the Civil Rights movement and her influence. The focus is primarily on “One Grain of Sand” because the year of its release (1963) coinciding with many events in the Civil Rights movement where Odetta’s influence could be felt. The author does a great job explaining these events and Odetta’s impact.  

A lot of explanation is given on how Odetta interpreted songs from other artists and the American songbook and made them her own and gave them different meaning through her arrangements and enunciations. 
A chapter is dedicated to both Odetta’s background and her legacy. As far as I can tell there is not a biography on Odetta, and there is enough information and quotes from old interviews to call this a definitive source for now.  In addition to explanations of Odetta and her music, the author gives a description of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963. The author discloses that work on the book began as  part of a book on the Cultural History of the Civil Rights era that he has since decided not to publish. You never get the feeling that the material in this book was intended for another source, Odetta and the “One Grain of Sand” album never take a backseat to other material and the author integrates the subjects well.

The bulk of the material of the book is focused on four songs with impact and background on certain subject matter provided at the same time. They are as follows; “Midnight Special”/prison system, “Cool Water”/the coffeehouse and folk scene, “Moses, Moses”/the church, “Cotton Fields”/social geographies and impact of slavery. The attempt to bridge these songs with the subjects and the Civil Rights movement works because he does a great job giving a picture of what the view on these things were in 1963 and Odetta’s impact and opinion on them.

The 33 1/3 books are always unique and everyone goes into them expecting different things so I will do my best to rate the book on areas where previous books have focused; Information on the artist 9/10, information on the recording and production of the album  4/10 (I’m sure this is due to limited information available), cultural impact of the album 10/10, education on other related subjects (10/10), personal biography of the author and the albums impact on them 0/10 (a good thing if you ask me)

I went into this book cold never having heard one of Odetta’s song and this book encouraged me to learn more about an influential artists I’d never heard of, this book is recommended for anyone wanting to know more about Odetta or music’s influence on the Civil Rights movement
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