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Life on a String: The Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theatre Audio Tour


16. Unknown, Odetta, Ca. 1950s


Odetta, the famous 1960s folk singer, musician, and human rights activist, first got her start as a young actor at the Turnabout Theater.


I don't remember how old I was when my mother started working at the Turnabout Theater. […] On Saturdays, many a times my mother would take my sister and I to the theater and we would help her clean the theater.


Harry Burnett loved opera and would frequently have his Victrola playing […] his opera records. And Odetta would become absolutely entranced by what she heard and would often not clean the theater because she was so focused on the music. As she became familiar with some of the recordings she would sing along. And that is how Harry Burnett first heard her singing.


One day, Harry asked if Odetta would come in for an audition.


And I got up there. At that point I was a coloratura soprano, very high voice, and I screeched out a few notes and they heard something evidently (laughs) that led them to believe that maybe it would be good to give me voice lessons and […] so Harry Burnett sponsored my voice lessons.


Odetta eventually lowered her voice, and after falling in with a band of young bohemian singers in San Francisco, switched to folk music. Her soaring ballads of liberation cemented her fame as the "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement" and the "Queen of Folk."


She was an incredible singer. […] Anytime she did a concert and if Harry Burnett was in the audience, she would stop the concert, have him stand up and would give him credit for the life that she was living.