Saturday’s snowfall no doubt prevented some fans from attending Odetta’s Sunday matinee at the Barns of Wolf Trap in Vienna. But their numbers were few. By performance time, most of the venue’s 382 seats were filled.
“We’ve been trained with snow and stuff,” said the folk-and-blues legend, who calls New York home. “Around here, they get two drops of snow and they close the government.”
She then began with a poem from Marianne Williamson’s book “A Return to Love.”
“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same,” Odetta read before moving on to her signature song, “This Little Light of Mine.”
The crowd was only murmuring along with her half-heartedly, so she stopped halfway through.
“Oh, that’s pitiful,” she said.
The audience responded with laughter, then truly joined in when she started up again.
“Now I can hear you,” Odetta said.
Accompanied by Seth Farber on piano, Odetta held the audience spellbound through an hour-and-15-minute set filled mostly with blues songs from Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and Bessie Smith. For a woman who celebrated her 74th birthday on New Year’s Eve, Odetta still can warm up and titillate an audience with racy blues lines.
From “You Don’t Know My Mind,” sung with a beaming smile and the hint of a wink: “I’m not good looking/Don’t dress fine/But I’m the kind of woman/Who takes her time.”
Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., Odetta grew up in Los Angeles, where she landed a role in the West Coast production of “Finian’s Rainbow” in 1949 at the age of 19. In 1953, she moved to New York, where she attracted the attention of Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte with her shows at the Blue Angel club.
By 1954, she had recorded her first album, “The Tin Angel,” and had been featured in a nationwide TV special with Mr. Belafonte.
During the folk boom, Odetta’s albums featured work songs and spirituals of the South. Her 1963 album, “Folk Songs,” was one of the top-selling records of the year. Among the artists she influenced are Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Tracy Chapman and Jewel.
Odetta is as much a civil rights luminary as a performer. She took part in the 1963 march on Washington and the 1965 march in Selma, Ala., and has received Yale University’s Duke Ellington Fellowship Award and a National Medal of Arts and Humanities. Her 1999 disc, “Blues Everywhere I Go,” her first recording after a 14-year hiatus, was nominated for a Grammy. Her most recent recording, “Looking for a Home (Thanks to Leadbelly),” was nominated for two W.C. Handy Awards in 2002.
On Sunday, with her charisma and still-powerful voice in command of the stage, she enthralled the crowd with the story behind the Leadbelly song “Bourgeois Blues.” Musicologist John Lomax and Leadbelly, she said, were working at the Library of Congress Folk Archives about 1940.
They had traveled with their wives but could not find lodging together in the District because the Lomaxes were white and the Ledbetters were black.
“Land of the brave, home of the free,” Odetta sang. “Don’t want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie.”
Odetta’s selections included a few better-known songs, too. She merged two Bessie Smith numbers, “Weeping Willow Blues” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and later in the program did Miss Smith’s “World War I Blues.”
She also sang Leadbelly’s “Alabama Bound” and closed her performance with his “Rock Island Line,” weaving in lyrics from the children’s song “Here We Go Loop de Loo.”
For her encore, Odetta tapped Leadbelly’s well once more, successfully coaxing the crowd to sing and clap along with “Midnight Special” and a reprise of “This Little Light of Mine.”
Then she left the stage to let them finish it by themselves.