At the peak of his popularity in the 1940s and early 1950s, Josh White was internationally famous as an interpreter of blues and folk music. A suave, sexy figure who paved the way for Harry Belafonte and other top African-American entertainers, he held the stage at top nightclubs and concert halls, singing in a smooth baritone voice with his shirt partly unbuttoned and a lit cigarette perched daringly behind one ear. His career extended back to the 1930s, when he was well known as a blues singer and guitarist among African-American audiences in the Southeast, and forward to the 1960s, when the folk revival he had nurtured reached its full flowering. After his death in 1969, however, White was often overlooked by a rock and roll audience that preferred rootsier blues styles. In the words of his biographer Elijah Wald, White "helped to create and popularize the modern concepts of 'folk' and 'blues' music but was not 'folk' or 'blues' enough for the audience he had developed."
That was ironic in the extreme, for the conditions under which Josh White learned the art of music were as severe as those that confronted many other blues musicians. Joshua Daniel White was born in Greenville, South Carolina, on February 11, 1914, at the height of violently enforced Southern racial segregation. His father, Dennis, a tailor and Methodist minister, was thrown in an insane asylum after he told a white bill collector to leave his house when the man spit on the floor. White's mother, who gravitated more toward the local Holiness church than toward Methodism, agreed to let her son go on the road as a sighted leader to blind blues singer John Henry Arnold; she thought that her son would be doing God's work by leading the blind, and also counted on her agreed percentage of the money Arnold and Josh took in as they traveled across the South.
It was a hard life, punctuated by arrest and police maltreatment. As they prepared to sleep in a field near Waycross, Georgia, White and Arnold saw flames from a fire illuminating two partially naked hanging bodies, and realized with horror that they were witnessing the aftermath of a lynching; Arnold put his hand over White's mouth to keep him from screaming. White spent most of the 1920s as leader to a succession of blues musicians including Arnold, Joe Taggart, and possibly the great Blind Lemon Jefferson; he later spoke of having been taught guitar by Jefferson, but it is unclear how much time they actually spent together. In any event, White had plenty of chances to observe blues guitarists in action. By the time Taggart went to Chicago to record in 1928, White was a skilled player who outshone the older bluesman on recordings they made together.
White followed hundreds of thousands of other African Americans to New York after making a group of successful recordings for the ARC label there in 1932; he married Carol Carr in 1934, and the two remained together for the rest of White's life, despite his numerous extramarital affairs. Influenced more by the smooth and enormously popular Indianapolis vocalist Leroy Carr than by Southern blues stylists, White was a consistently strong seller in the mid-1930s, especially among black audiences in his native Carolinas.
White specialized in gospel music and was billed for a time as "Joshua White, The Singing Christian." For raunchier secular blues numbers he sometimes recorded under the name of Pinewood Tom. His career was interrupted for several years in 1936 by a severe hand cut—caused, he said at different times, either by the sharp edge of a milk bottle that broke when he slipped on some ice, or by a glass door he punched during a dispute with a romantic rival. For several years, White worked as an elevator operator and at other odd jobs.
Released Songs of Social Comment
One of the last recordings White made before the accident was a song called "Silicosis Blues," an unusual piece that referred to the dangerous working conditions faced by coal miners. As he struggled to regain his playing skills, that song helped bring him to the attention of left-wing white New Yorkers who looked on him as an authentic voice of the Southern black experience. White met both the legendary talent scout John Hammond and the folklorist Alan Lomax, and new opportunities began to open up. He appeared on a radio program called "Harlem Fantasy," and released a pair of 78 rpm albums. One, titled Chain Gang, featured a vocal group called the Carolinians that included White's brother Bill and future civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. Chain Gang moved White's music further in the direction of pointed social commentary. White also joined with the Golden Gate Quartet in concert explorations of the roots of the blues.
White began appearing at the ironically named Cafe Society nightclub (the club emphasized blues, jazz, and other roots styles) in 1939, becoming one of the first performers to sing blues in a nightclub setting. His profile was raised even higher the following year when he appeared as Blind Lemon Jefferson in the Broadway play John Henry, which was loosely based on a famous railroad-building ballad that White began to include in his own shows. Early in 1941, White joined with other folk performers in a command performance at the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt and his family. He was invited back on numerous occasions, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt became a lifelong friend. By 1944, Wald wrote, White "rivaled Burl Ives as America's most popular folksinger."
White's nightclub act and his many recordings were carefully calibrated to the tastes of his new urban audience. He mixed blues with Anglo-American ballads like "The Riddle Song" that fit his romantic style, and his music appealed strongly to white female listeners. Identified with the growing civil rights movement, he often performed "Strange Fruit," a powerful anti-lynching song introduced by jazz vocalist Billie Holiday. His biggest hit of all was "One Meat Ball," a song that mixed comedy and pathos in its depiction of a man brought to ruin by the Depression who tries to order one meat ball in a restaurant; the song was adapted from earlier sources going back to around 1850, but White made it his own.
Testified Before House Committee
In the late 1940s White rode a rising tide of folk music along with such performers as Ives, the Weavers, and the bluesman Leadbelly. He began to gain admirers in Europe as well as in the United States. The anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950s, however, threw a monkey wrench into the development of his career. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, White had been the subject of articles in Communist newspapers. The publication Red Channels, later dubbed "the bible of the blacklist" that kept suspected Communists from working in the entertainment industry, named him as a suspicious figure when it appeared in 1950. White broke off a tour of Great Britain and returned to the United States to combat the charges, and he soon agreed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a decision that earned him enmity among his former cohorts on the political left.
For the Record …
Born Joshua Daniel White on February 11, 1914, in Greenville, SC; died on September 5, 1969, in Manhasset, NY; married Carol Carr, 1934; children: five, including Josh White Jr. (a folk singer). Education: Learned to play blues guitar while leading blind blues performers in the rural South.
Made first recordings with Joe Taggart in Chicago, 1928; recorded for ARC label, New York, 1932; appeared on Harlem Fantasy radio program, late 1930s; recorded 78 rpm album Chain Gang, 1939; appeared in Broadway play John Henry, 1940; appeared at Cafe Society nightclub, early 1940s; recorded for Mercury and other labels, 1940s and 1950s; toured college campuses, 1960s.
In fact, White did not back down from his civil rights stance during his testimony. He claimed that in the past he had been deceived into performing for the benefit of organizations whose links to Communism had been unknown to him at the time. White stated that he could not support a statement by Paul Robeson, his former mentor, that asked whether African Americans, facing oppression in their own country, should take up arms against the Soviet Union; Robeson's highly nuanced original statement had been twisted by media outlets, but White did not know that at the time. The result was that White's testimony really satisfied no one; he was never blacklisted, but the taint of controversy slowed his career considerably, just as the new medium of television, ideally suited to his talents, began to take off.
By the late 1950s the influence of the blacklist had diminished, and White began to find bookings on college campuses as the folk revival kicked into gear. As musicians and fans began to investigate the work of surviving rural Southern blues musicians, White's smoother variant of the blues fell out of favor somewhat. But his appealing performing style remained undiminished in its effectiveness, and he was still recognized as an authority on many kinds of music. The Josh White Songbook, with an introduction by New York Times music critic Robert Shelton, was published in 1963 and became an important document of the folk revival. White himself had always been slightly amused by his status as a legend in the folk world. "I soon heard myself called a 'repository of rare Southern music,'" he told the New York Times, reflecting on the earlier part of his career. "That's quite something, don't you think, to call a man who just loves to sing old songs?"
Years of heavy drinking took their toll on White's health and slowed his activities in the late 1960s. Surgery to repair a damaged heart valve was scheduled, but he died on the operating table in the New York City suburb of Manhasset on September 5, 1969. Among the most energetic promoters of his legacy was his son Josh Jr., who had begun performing at his father's knee in the 1940s and who developed a one-man show devoted to the remarkable career of Josh White.
Josh White Sings, Vol. 1, Mercury, 1949.
Ballads, Decca, 1952.
Strange Fruit, 1954.
The Story of John Henry, Elektra, 1955.
The Josh White Program, London, 1956.
Josh White's Blues, Mercury, 1957.
Chain Gang Songs, Elektra, 1958.
Ballads & Blues, Elektra, 1960.
The Beginning, Mercury, 1963.
Josh White, Decca, 1964.
Josh White: Roots of the Blues, Legacy, 1994.
Empty Bed Blues, Sepia Tone, 2003.
Josh White at Midnight, Elektra.
Wald, Elijah, Josh White: Society Blues, University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1969, p. 10.
New York Times, September 6, 1969, p. 29.
Sing Out!, Summer 2002, p. 142.
Washington Post, September 7, 1969, p. 65.
"Josh White," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 24, 2005).
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