Odetta Holmes, Singing for the Voiceless
“Sitting here/ I'm all by myself/ I'm trying to be/ Everybody else/ But now I see/ I gotta be me/ Ain't nobody/ Just like this.”
Sounds like a song you might hear on the radio, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s a rap song, or perhaps it’s sung by the soft voice of a country singer backed by an acoustic guitar. The artist is trying spread the message that people should love themselves for who they are, stand up to bullies, and be unique. These are totally contemporary lyrics.
Actually, this song was not written recently. In fact, it was written more than fifty years ago. The piece, “Hit or Miss,” was composed and performed by Odetta Holmes, an African-American civil rights activist who raised her voice—literally—against oppression. Holmes used music as her tool, her weapon. With her voice she could express herself, with her voice she could share her experiences with the world and inspire change.
Through her blues music, Holmes inspired people all over America to take a stand for black equality. She performed at numerous rallies, advocating for civil rights for all; in fact, her music is often called the “soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement.” She sang about a wide range of other topics of course, such as love, loneliness, and hope.
Odetta Holmes passed away in 2008; she had lived through seventy-seven years of immense change. In her youth, she was asked to move to the back of her railway car so that people with lighter skin could have her seat. In middle age, she performed at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, standing beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he gave his famous address. When she was 77 years old, an African-American man was elected President of the United States. Holmes was invited to be part of marking that momentous event, too, but died just before the inauguration.
Odetta Holmes was a historian. No, she didn’t publish a history textbook or curate a museum. But through her music, her voice, she chronicled a crucial time in American history. Music is funny, in that way: in the moment, it may not seem like anything more than a pleasant tune to hum, but in the long run, its meaning can be reflected on, used as a time capsule from the era in which it was written.
I’ve been alive for seventeen years. I can remember a time when my mom used a flip phone, we played cassette tapes in the car, and Miley Cyrus lived a double life as Hannah Montana. A lot has changed since then, and I haven’t even been around for two decades. I can hardly imagine experiencing life through the eyes of Odetta Holmes, who witnessed firsthand the transformation of a country. I wonder: did she realize that her voice—individual, strong, beautiful—would last through the ages?
I know the next seventeen years will include just as much change, innovation, and inspiration as the first of my life have been. I can only hope to find the courage to let myself be heard, to take inspiration from Odetta Holmes, and one day be able to tell my children, “my voice played a part in shaping this world.”
Odetta Holmes found a way to speak up when she was told she was voiceless. While so much has changed since her time, there is still inequality and injustice in this world. Who will be the next voice, the next one to take a stand, the next Odetta Holmes? Who will be unafraid to take the spotlight, even as the crowd roars and boos, in order to make a change?
We must not think that because we are individual people, our voices are not heard. We must not be afraid to speak up when we have something to say. Every voice matters, no matter how loud or soft or off-key. And if we find that speaking up is difficult, uncomfortable, or even frowned upon, all the more reason to sing.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Melmed, Eliana. "Odetta Holmes, Singing for the Voiceless ." 26 March 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 25, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/odetta-holmes-singing-for-voiceless>.