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Remembering Odetta, Who Sang of Freedom

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The poet Maya Angelou sat perched on a tall stool along with Pete Seeger 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.

“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.

“Odetta would dig this,” Mr. Earle said, taking in the generations filling the 1,900 seats in the church’s cavernous Gothic nave. He performed “This Land Is Your Land” in an all-out jam with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Chapin, Josh White Jr. and Emory Joseph. It was one of several numbers that the audience joined in.

Mr. Belafonte gave perhaps the most stirring speech. “The paper would not yield,” he said of his effort to write down his remarks. “The ink blurred, because the space left by Odetta could not be easily verbalized.”

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