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Odetta headlines weekend events at the Armory

A young singer named Odetta in 1949 faced the fact that her idol, Marian Anderson, perhaps the world's greatest contralto, could not perform with a U.S. opera company because she was black. Odetta soon gave up classical music and took to hanging out in the coffee houses of San Francisco, playing the guitar and building a repertoire of Negro spirituals, folk and work songs.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Odetta headlines the Seventh Annual Rogue Valley Blues Festival slated for Friday through Saturday, Jan. 12-14 at the old Ashland Armory. She will perform in Friday night's acoustic concert along with Michael "Hawkeye" Herman and Lauren Sheehan. A dance show on Saturday night will feature Sista Monica, Ben Rice and the Youth of Blues and the Roadmasters. Doors will open at 6 p.m.

The doors will open at 5:30 p.m. Sunday for a big Under 21 Band Contest featuring four finalists chosen from submitted CDs.

"Evening events will entertain, daytime events will educate," says organizer Ariella St. Clair.

That's a reference to a roster of workshops on the theory and practice of the blues planned for Saturday and Sunday. The festival also includes free performances by blues artists during the day at Alex's and the Standing Stone in Ashland, and Avalon in Talent.

The fact that Odetta has been nominated for a 2007 Grammy in the Best Traditional Folk Album category testifies to an extraordinarily long period of not only musical work but work in the field of human rights. It was in 1964 that Martin Luther King Jr. dubbed Odetta the "Queen of American Folk Music."

Before Odetta, no solo woman performer (let alone an African-American woman) had toured or recording singing blues, folk, work and protest songs.

She sang at the 1963 March on Washington, she took part in the march on Selma, she performed for President Kennedy and along with Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson was in the first group of artists to be honored with the Duke Ellington Fellowship Award.

Her album "Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues" (1956) was the inspiration for a young Janis Joplin. She helped inspire Bob Dylan to become a folk singer.

She's acted in films and theater, sung with symphony orchestras and operas, hosted the Montreux Jazz Festival and starred in countless TV specials.

She's been nominated in the past few years for multiple Grammy awards and several W.C. Handy Awards for the blues. In 2005, she celebrated the 60th anniversary of her career.

In 2005, she recorded a live album of Negro spirituals called" Gonna Let it Shine," her first in 45 years.

In November and December she made a triumphant trip to Europe and on New Year's Eve celebrated her 75th birthday with a concert at Boston's Berklee School of Music.

"No one can dub you with dignity," she says. "That's yours to claim."

Her latest album, "Gonna Let It Shine," (MC Records), was recorded live at New York's Fordham University. It offers songs of inspiration done with the help of the singer's friends the Holmes Brothers and pianist Seth Farber.

Songs include her signature tune, "This Little Light of Mine," "Shout for Joy," "Down by the Riverside" and "Freedom Trilogy" (reprised from her Lincoln Memorial performance at the 1963 March on Washington).

Real Blues magazine said it was "quite possibly" the greatest modern gospel CD.

Odetta's performance at the Seventh Annual Rogue Valley Blues Festival is sponsored in part by a grant from the Western States Art Federation and the National Endowment of the Arts.

Michael "Hawkeye" Herman performs a wide variety of traditional blues, ballads, swing and original tunes, on six-string and 12-string guitar, and is adept on slide guitar and slide mandolin. It's as a music educator that he has taken his love of blues music to students from pre-school to university campuses, through his "Blues in the Schools" program, which he initiated in 1980.

He has taught guitar for more than 25 years, and has presented blues and slide guitar instructional workshops at major folk and blues festivals. In 1998 he received the "Keeping the Blues Alive" Award for achievement in education from the Blues Foundation in Memphis.

He was the composer/musical director/musician for the hit play "El Paso Blue," which has had successful runs in San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Chicago, Portland, at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., in Philadelphia (where he was awarded the prestigious Barrymore Theater Award for Best Original Music in a play for the '99/'00 season) and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

In 2002, he collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan on the music for the West Coast premiere of Schenkkan's play "Handler" at OSF.

Lauren Sheehan is an interpreter of the songs of some of America's greatest folk and blues artists. Her material ranges from unaccompanied ballads to boozy Memphis blues to old time banjo tunes, country songs and modern folk.

Her CD "Two Wings" was nominated for 2006 Album of the Year in the Independent Music Awards' Americana category.

Singer-songwriter Sista Monica is a record producer and one of the most sought-after women in blues, soul and gospel. In 2005 and 2006, she was nominated for a W.C. Handy Blues Award.

Born and raised in Gary, Ind., Sista Monica sang in her church's gospel choir. It wasn't until 1992 that she began performing full time, sharing stages with Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Taj Mahal and other greats.

In 2002, Sista Monica was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer and underwent more than 18 months of aggressive chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and physical therapy. Although the tumor was removed she was left with damaged nerves and muscles on her right side, leading to a struggle to regain mobility in her microphone-holding arm and hand.

"It was surely the music and the grace of God that kept me alive," she says.

Her latest release is called "Can't Keep A Good Woman Down."

"It's a comeback album," she says. "The focus and the theme is speaking to the truth &

my truth."

Ben Rice and the Youth of Blues were nominated for five Cascade Blues Association awards in 2005, won the Waterfront Blues Festival Band Contest in 2006 and in February will be the only Oregon band competing in The International Blues Challenge in Memphis.

Rice played rock before discovering blues and starting the Youth of Blues. The band has played with Dave Mason, Coco Montoya and jammed on stage with Mississippi Bluesman Kenny Neal.

The Roadmasters &

Tom Frederick, Tom Freeman and Craig Martin &

are a Rogue Valley favorite, performing at private functions and music venues.

New this year at the festival is an Under 21 Band Contest. Bands have submitted CDs to be judged. Four finalists will perform Sunday evening. The winning band will take $500 and get to record a song at Groveman Recording Studio.

The seventh annual Rogue Valley Blues Festival is sponsored in part by the Ashland Food Co-op, Windmill Inn of Ashland, the City of Ashland and Southern Oregon Public Television.

Reach reporter at 776-4478 or bvarble@mailtribune.com.