December 3, 2008 12:01 AM EST

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Some people sing; Odetta testified. Martin Luther King Jr. called Odetta, who died Dec. 2 at 77 of heart disease, “the queen of American folk music.” In a career spanning nearly 60 years, she wrapped her booming, classically trained contralto around traditional hymns, work songs and pop tunes. A solid, inspiring figure at 1960s civil rights events, Odetta brought art-song precision to the gospel and blues repertoire. If a line could be drawn from Mahalia Jackson to Janis Joplin, it would have to go through her.

Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., and raised in Los Angeles, she sang in musical theater as a teenager, and in the early ’50s helped form the vanguard of the folk-music movement. Bob Dylan said that her 1956 LP, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, was “the first thing that turned me on to folk singing.” She returned the favor by recording an album of Dylan songs in 1965.

Odetta kept that light shining into her 70s, with tribute albums to Leadbelly and Ella Fitzgerald. She could still do justice to songs identified with her: “Water Boy,” “Midnight Special,” “We Shall Overcome.”

Recently hospitalized for kidney failure, she kept willing herself to live in the hope she’d be able to sing at Barack Obama’s inauguration as President. That won’t happen, but on Jan. 20 the echo of Odetta’s majestic urgency will be there. Some voices can’t be stilled.

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