I guess it was about four years ago when I met Odetta. She was one of the guests for a winter show for Mountain Stage. I was recording interviews for their Black History Month program, and I was should absolutely try to get her. A typical child of the 80s, I had no idea who she was, had no idea about anything other then the big, brush strokes of the civil rights era that filtered through television dramas. God knows they didn't teach that stuff much in class. I graduated from a high school where the class president was the only black kid and history was never more than partly cloudy.
If I remember correctly, we spoke right after the show. I was told not to keep her long, but she didn't mind. She seemed glad to talk, even though I was clearly ignorant. My questions, quite frankly, sucked and were just shy of being of the "What's your favorite pizza topping?" variety. After plodding through a quick five minutes of nothing, I asked her what she thought of the politics of now. She shook her head and told me we were in a lot of trouble.
"But you can't let the bastards win," she said.
At the time, I was amused by a frail, 74 year-old woman casually swearing, but I've remembered what she meant as much as the strange jolt of her words. The bastards weren't just the Bush administration, though yes, she believed they were bastards. The bastards were the oppressors, the people who manipulate, connive and threaten to make the rest of us do as they say.
Not every lesson is a new lesson. I've certainly heard the phrase, "You can't let the bastards win" a hundred times. Her telling of it was the one that made it stick for me.
Odetta died yesterday. I got to spend a few minutes with her. It was a good few minutes.