On December 20th, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston will welcome legendary folk singer Odetta for a celebration of the holidays with selections from her most recent release Gonna Let it Shine: a Concert for the Holidays. The album, recorded in front of an audience at New York’s Fordham University, features 15 songs, including “This Little Light of Mine,” “Rise up Shepherd,” “Mary Had a Baby,” “What Month Was Jesus Born In?,” “Shout for Joy,” and “Virgin Mary Had One Son.”
An inspiration to the likes of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, Odetta’s influence is ubiquitous throughout the folk genre. Born in Alabama, she trained for a classical career in opera until a visit to a San Francisco coffeehouse piqued her interested in folk. Years later, she’s recorded over 27 albums, made numerous Carnegie Hall appearances, and received the Presidential Medal of Arts.
Despite the new album’s religious nuances, producer Mark Carpentieri says that the songs are universally meaningful. “The music is uplifting, but one doesn’t have to be religious to enjoy and appreciate it. It’s just the beautiful spirituality that the holidays are really about.” And as Odetta puts it, “These songs come out of difficult times, and since the difficult times haven’t been fixed, the songs are still here for us.”
The album also represents Odetta’s continued dedication to social justice. The politically charged “Freedom Trilogy” is comprised of “Oh Freedom,” “Come and Go with Me,” and “I’m On My Way,” songs inherent to the Civil Rights movement. When asked about the roots of her awareness, she refers to her hero, activist Paul Robeson. Odetta says, “He taught me that it’s not only possible but necessary to be responsible to our brothers and sisters throughout the world.”
Odetta says she focuses in concert on fostering a relationship with her audience based on the human connection. “Doing a live album has more vitality. Human beings have language skills other than just verbal: we read each other. When performing, there is true communication. I get energy from the audience, and they get energy from me. We are really doing the concert together, which is very different from a dry studio where it’s just you and a microphone.”