Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama, grew up in Los Angeles, California, attended Belmont High School, and studied music at Los Angeles City College while employed as a domestic worker. She had operatic training from the age of 13. Her mother hoped she would follow Marian Anderson, but Odetta doubted a large black girl would ever perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Her first professional experience was in musical theater in 1944, as an ensemble member for four years with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre, working alongside Elsa Lanchester; she later joined the national touring company of the musical Finian's Rainbow in 1949.
While on tour with Finian's Rainbow, Odetta "fell in with an enthusiastic group of young balladeers in San Francisco", and after 1950 concentrated on folksinging.
She made her name by playing around the United States: at the Blue Angel nightclub (New York City), the hungry i (San Francisco), and Tin Angel (San Francisco), where she and Larry Mohr recorded Odetta and Larry in 1954, for Fantasy Records.
A solo career followed, with Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956) and At the Gate of Horn (1957). Odetta Sings Folk Songs was one of 1963's best-selling folk albums.
In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed her "The Queen of American folk music". In the same year the duo Harry Belafonte and Odetta made #32 in the UK Singles Chart with the song There's a Hole in My Bucket. Many Americans remember her performance at the 1963 civil rights movement's march to Washington where she sang "O Freedom." She considered her involvement in the Civil Rights movement as being "one of the privates in a very big army."
Broadening her musical scope, Odetta used band arrangements on several albums rather than playing alone, and released music of a more "jazz" style music on albums like Odetta and the Blues (1962) and Odetta (1967). She gave a remarkable performance in 1968 at the Woody Guthrie memorial concert and was interviewed by Milton Okun for his compilation of songs Something to Sing About! (New York: Macmillan Co.)
Odetta also acted in several films during this period, including Cinerama Holiday (1955), the film of William Faulkner's Sanctuary (1961) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974).
Her marriages to Dan Gordon and Gary Shead ended in divorce. Singer-guitarist Louisiana Red was a former companion.
In May 1975 she appeared on public television's Say Brother program, performing "Give Me Your Hand" in the studio, in addition to speaking about her spirituality, the music tradition from which she drew, and her involvement in civil rights struggles.
In 1976, Odetta performed in the U.S. Bicentennial opera "Be Glad Then America" by John LaMontaigne, as the Muse for America; with Donald Gramm, Richard Lewis and the Penn State University Choir and the Pittsburgh Symphony. The production was directed by Sarah Caldwell who was the director of the Opera Company of Boston at the time.
Odetta released only two new albums in the 20-year period from 1977-1997: Movin' It On, in 1987 and a new version of Christmas Spirituals, produced by Rachel Faro, in 1988.
Beginning in 1998, she re-focused her energies on recording and touring and her career took on a major resurgence. The new CD To Ella (recorded live and dedicated to her old friend Ella Fitzgerald upon hearing of her passing before walking on stage), was released in 1998 on Silverwolf Records, followed by three new releases on M.C. Records, which cemented a partnership with pianist/arranger/producer Seth Farber and record producer Mark Carpentieri, including: Blues Everywhere I Go, a 2000 Grammy Nominated blues/jazz band tribute album to the great lady blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s; Looking for a Home, a 2002 W.C. Handy Award nominated band tribute to Lead Belly; and the 2007 Grammy Nominated Gonna Let It Shine, a live album of gospel and spiritual songs supported by Seth Farber and The Holmes Brothers. These new recordings and an active world touring schedule created the demand for her guest star appearance on fourteen new albums of other artists (between 1999 and 2006), and the re-release of forty-five old Odetta albums and compilation appearances.
On September 29, 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Odetta with the National Endowment for the Arts' National Medal of Arts. In 2004, Odetta was honored at the Kennedy Center with the "Visionary Award" along with a tribute performance by Tracy Chapman. In 2005, the Library of Congress honored her with its "Living Legend Award".
The 2005 documentary film No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese, highlights her musical influence on Bob Dylan, the subject of the documentary. The film contains an archive clip of Odetta performing "Waterboy" on TV in 1959, and we also hear Odetta's songs "Mule Skinner Blues" and "No More Auction Block for Me".
In 2006, Odetta opened shows for jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, and in 2006 she toured the US, Canada, and Europe accompanied by her pianist, which included being presented by the US Embassy in Latvia as the keynote speaker at a Human Rights conference, and also in a concert in Riga's historic 1,000 year old Maza Guild Hall. In December, 2006, the Winnipeg Folk Festival honored Odetta with their "Lifetime Achievement Award." In February, 2007, The International Folk Alliance awarded Odetta as "Traditional Folk Artist of the Year."
On March 24, 2007 a tribute concert to Odetta was presented at the Rachel Schlesinger Theatre by the World Folk Music Association with live performance and video tributes by Pete Seeger, Madeleine Peyroux, Harry Belafonte, Janis Ian, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Josh White, Jr., Peter, Paul and Mary, Oscar Brand, Tom Rush, Jesse Winchester, Eric Andersen, Wavy Gravy, David Amram, Roger McGuinn, Robert Sims, Carolyn Hester, Donal Leace, Marie Knight, Side by Side, and Laura McGhee (from Scotland).
On January 21, 2008, Odetta was the Keynote Speaker at San Diego's Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration, followed by concert performances in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and Mill Valley, in addition to being the sole guest for the evening on PBS-TV's The Tavis Smiley Show.
On May 2 and 3, 2008, Odetta headlined the Oberlin College Folk Fest in Oberlin, Ohio, where she spoke about her life at the Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse and gave a concert in Finney Chapel.
Odetta was honored on May 8, 2008 at a historic tribute night hosted by Wavy Gravy. Fellow musicians David Amram, Guy Davis, Vincent Cross, and Christine Lavin performed; filmmakers D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus attended the concert, held at Banjo Jim's in the East Village.
In summer 2008, at the age of 77, she launched another North American tour, with concerts in Albany, New York and other cities, singing strongly and confidently from a wheelchair. Her set in recent years included "This Little Light of Mine (I'm Gonna Let It Shine)", Lead Belly's "The Bourgeois Blues", (Something Inside) So Strong", "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "House of the Rising Sun".
She made a special appearance on June 30th, 2008 at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, New York City for a Liam Clancy tribute concert. She opened the show with Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, and finished the first set with a duet with Clancy where they sang Blowin' in the Wind. Her strong voice was very much in evidence during her last solo piece, Something Inside So Strong. The finale saw her onstage with Clancy, Tom Paxton, Shane MacGowan, amongst others.
Her last "big concert," before thousands of people, was in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2008, for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. She last performed at Hugh's Room in Toronto on October 25.
In November 2008, Odetta's health began to decline and she began receiving treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. She had hoped to perform at Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009.
On December 2, 2008, Odetta died from heart disease in New York City.
At her memorial service in February 2009 at Riverside Church in New York City, participants included Maya Angelou, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Geoffrey Holder, Steve Earle, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Peter Yarrow, Tom Chapin, Josh White, Jr. (son of Josh White), Emory Joseph, Rattlesnake Annie, the Brooklyn Technical High School Chamber Chorus, and videotaped tributes from Tavis Smiley and Joan Baez.
In 2007, her album Gonna Let It Shine was nominated for a Grammy, and she completed a major Fall Concert Tour in the "Songs of Spirit" show, which included artists from all over the world. She toured around North America in late 2006 and early 2007 to support this CD.