Odetta said she wrote this song because of voter registration day. “In this country we elect presidents, vice presidents, and those who will represent us in Congress. We do that through voting in elections. There are some people who do not feel their vote can make a difference, and that is sad. When this song came to me I thought about how as an individual we can feel powerless. We as individuals can make life better for ourselves and for other people. This song encourages us to be the best we can in whatever we do and to take advantage of the privilege of the vote. No one gives you a country; you really have to claim it.”
Odetta was born Odetta Holmes in 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama. One of her teachers in elementary school noticed that she had a good singing voice and encouraged her mother to get her formal training. After high school she went on to study music at Los Angeles City College. After graduating with a degree in music, she landed a role in the chorus of a traveling production of Finian's Rainbow. She soon fell in love with folk music.
In 1956, Odetta released her first solo album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues. She was an important singer during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Her music has been called the “soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement,” and she influenced many other performers of the time, such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin. She won many prestigious awards in her lifetime and continued performing right up until her death in 2008, at the age of 77.
1. Discuss dynamics and who Odetta’s use of dynamics in her voice and the guitar makes the song more powerful.
2. Discuss music as a force for social change—as a way to encourage people to adopt a certain idea or take a certain action. Have students heard other songs with this purpose? What is the idea or action intended? (They might think of patriotic songs, protest songs, etc.) Have students choose an idea or action they want to persuade other people to take and write songs about it.
3. Discuss the right to vote and the history of voting in America. Could all people always vote? When did women and minorities gain the right to vote? What do students think about this right? What types of roles in our community, state, and nation are performed by elected officials?
4. Discuss Odetta’s comment about why she wrote this song. Do the students ever feel powerless? What positive actions could they take to change their situation?