I’d never heard of Josh White until I bought this album. This only snuck into my collection because the cover jumped out at me and, at a single dollar, I couldn’t resist. After reading the gatefold I feel that painting did a terrific job at capturing the man’s prodigious swagger.
Josh always had a great style, as a man and as a performer. He had a kind of imperiousness that used to make audiences shut up and listen. God, how he could stare an audience down! He was there to sing, and if people at the tables were talking, he’d hold a post, cigarette behind the ear, foot on the chair, guitar at the ready, and wait until his silence reached out like a living force and whammied the people to attention. Then he’d begin. He was a black man making his way in a white man’s world, he knew he had something everybody out to hear, and he was to be heard, on his own terms.
-Lee Hays & Don McClean
I’m going to do something I don’t know normally do and compose this post almost entirely of Wikipedia excerpts. Now, don’t click away just yet. This man’s story is immensely interesting and a true portrait of the (mostly losing) struggle for free speech in America. In these excerpts you’ll find Josh leading blind guitarists across the U.S. as a barefoot child, portraying Blind Lemon in the story of John Henry on Broadway, serenading the Roosevelts at the White House, and ultimately being blacklisted during the Red Scare.
Of course, in true blues fashion, the story ends with Josh White broken down, both in career and health, and in the grave before his time. He lived a hard life, made beautiful music, and is up there with Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, or any other musician who’s had his life turned into a feature-length film.
So, get comfortable, sit back, and breeze through the beautifully tragic life of Josh White and his sad, sad guitar.
Sorry, no song previews as of yet. Posting previews is getting more and more of a bitch because of electronic copy”right” protection.
Joshua Daniel White (February 11, 1914 – September 5, 1969), better known as Josh White, was an American singer, guitarist, songwriter, actor, and civil rights activist. He also recorded under the names “Pinewood Tom” and “Tippy Barton” in the 1930s.
White also became the closest African-American friend and confidant to president Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, White’s anti-segregationist and international human rights political stance presented in many of his recordings and in his speeches at rallies resulted in the right-wing McCarthyites assuming him a Communist. Accordingly, from 1947 through the mid 1960s, White became caught up in the anti-Communist Red Scare, and combined with the resulting attempt to clear his name, his career was damaged. White’s playing style influenced many future generations of guitarists, including Blind Boy Fuller, Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Lonnie Donegan, Eartha Kitt, Alexis Korner, Odetta, Elvis Presley, The Kingston Trio, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Merle Travis, Dave Van Ronk, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Eric Weissberg, Judy Collins, Mike Bloomfield, Danny Kalb, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Richie Havens, Don McLean, Roy Harper, Ry Cooder, John Fogerty, Eva Cassidy and Jack White.
Two months after his father’s death, Joshua left home with a blind, black street singer named Blind Man Arnold, who he had agreed to lead across the South to collect coins after performances. Arnold would then send White’s mother two dollars a week. Arnold soon realized that he could profit from this gifted boy who quickly learned to dance, sing, and play the tambourine. Over the next eight years, he rented the boy’s services out to 66 different blind street singers, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, and Blind Joe Taggart, and in time young Joshua quickly mastered the varied guitar stylings all his blind masters. In order to appear sympathetic to the onlookers tossing coins, the old men kept Joshua shoeless and in ragged short pants till he was sixteen years old. At night he would have to sleep in the cotton fields or in the horse stables, often on an empty stomach, while his master slept in a black hotel.
In February of 1936, he punched his left hand through a glass door during a bar fight, and the hand became infected with gangrene. White was advised by doctors to amputate the hand, and White repeatedly refused. Amputation was averted, but his chording hand was left immobile. Afterwords, he retreated from his recording career to become a dock worker, an elevator operator, and a building superintendent. During the time when his hand was lame, he squeezed a small rubber ball to try and revive it.
One night during a card game, White’s left hand was revived completely; and he immediately began practicing his guitar, and soon put together a group called “Josh White & His Carolinians” with his brother Billy and close friends Carrington Lewis, Sam Gary, and Bayard Rustin. They soon began playing private parties in Harlem. At one of these parties, on New Year’s Eve 1938, Leonard DePaur, a Broadway choral director, was intrigued by Josh’s singing. For the past six months, DePaur and the producers of the Broadway musical in development, John Henry, had been searching America for an actor/singer/guitarist to play the lead role of Blind Lemon, a street minstrel who would wander back and forth across the stage narrating the story in song. Their initial auditions with native New York singers proved to be unsuccessful, so they looked through previous race record releases to find a suitable artist. They eventually narrowed their search down to two people, “Pinewood Tom” and “The Singing Christian”, both used as pseudonyms by White.
After months of rehearsals and out-of-town productions in Philadelphia and Boston, John Henry opened on Broadway on January 10, 1940, with Paul Robeson as John Henry and Joshua White as Blind Lemon. Although the musical did not have long run, it helped jumpstart his career. Soon thereafter, Josh began working with Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Burl Ives, and The Golden Gate Quartet in a CBS radio series Back Where I Come From, written by folk song collector Alan Lomax and directed by Nicholas Ray.
Josh and Libby frequently requested the War Department to send them overseas during World War II to give USO concert performances for the troops. However, despite a Letter of Recommendation from Eleanor Roosevelt, they were constantly rejected as “too controversial”, considering that the U.S. Armed Forces were still segregated throughout World War II.
Throughout the 1940s, as a major matinée idol with magnetic sexual charisma and a commanding stage presence, White not only was an international star of recordings, concerts, nightclubs, radio, film, and Broadway, he also achieved a unique position for an African-American of the segregated era by becoming accepted and befriended by white society, aristocracy, European royalty, and America’s ruling family, The Roosevelts.
In January 1941, Josh performed at the President’s Inauguration. Upon completing that first White House Command Performance, the Roosevelts invited White up to their private chambers, where they spent more than three hours talking about Josh’s life story of growing up in Jim Crow South, listening to his songs written about those experiences, and drinking Café Royale (coffee and brandy).
At one point during that evening, the President said to Josh, “You know Josh, when I first heard your song `Uncle Sam Says,’ I thought you were referring to me as Uncle Sam….Am I right?” White responded, “Yes Mr. President, I wrote that song to you after seeing how my brother was treated in the segregated section of Fort Dix army camp. . . However that wasn’t the first song I wrote to you. . . In 1933, I wrote and recorded a song called `Low Cotton,’ about the plight of Negro cotton pickers down South, and in the lyrics I made an appeal directly to you to help their situation.”
The President, interested and impressed at the candor of his response, then asked Josh to sing those songs to him again. A friendship developed, five more Command Performances would follow, in addition to two appearances at the Inaugurations of 1941 and 1945; and the Josh White family would spend many Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with the Roosevelts at their Hyde Park, New York mansion .
Josh White had reached the zenith of his career when touring with Eleanor Roosevelt on a celebrated and triumphant Goodwill tour of Europe. He had been hosted by the continent’s prime ministers and royal families, and had just performed before 50,000 cheering fans at Stockholm’s soccer stadium. Amidst this tour, while in Paris in June, 1950, White received a call from Mary Chase, his manager in New York, telling him that Red Channels (who had been sending newsletters to the media since 1947 about White and other artists who they warned as being subversive), had just released and distributed a thick magazine with subversive details regarding 151 artists from the entertainment and media industries who they labeled as Communist Sympathizers. White’s name was prominent on this list. There never had been an official blacklist—until now. White immediately went to discuss the situation with Mrs. Roosevelt—to ask her advice and help. With great empathy, she told him that her voice on his behalf would hinder his efforts to clear his name. She explained that if she wasn’t the widow of the president they would also be crucifying her. She continued that the Right Wing press had been calling her a “pinko”, citing her social activism and friendships with non-whites. That night, White called his manager back and alerted her that he would be flying back to America the next day so that he could clear his name. Upon arriving at New York’s Idlewild Airport, the FBI met him, took him into a Customs holding room, began interrogating him, and held him for hours while waiting word from Washington as to whether Josh White, who was born in America, would be deported back to Europe.
In 1961, White’s health began a sharp decline as he experienced the first of the three heart attacks and the progressive heart disease that would plague him over his final eight years. As a lifelong smoker he also had progressive emphysema, in addition to ulcers, and severe psoriasis in his hands and calcium deficiency in his body that would cause the skin to peel off of his fingers and leave his fingernails broken and bleeding with every concert. During the last two years of his life, as his heart weakened dramatically, his wife Carol would put him in the hospital for four weeks after he completed each two-week concert tour. Finally, the doctors felt his only survival option was to attempt a new procedure to replace heart valves. The surgery failed.
He died on the operating table on September 6, 1969 at the North Shore Hospital in Manhasset, New York.
A1. Free and Equal Blues
A2. Where Were You, Baby
A3. You Don’t Know My Mind
A4. Sam Hall
A5. Run, Mona, Run
A7. Takin’ Names
A8. St. James Infirmary
B1. One Meat Ball
B3. Jelly, Jelly
B4. Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed
B6. Prison Bound Blues
C1. Midnight Special
C2. Told My Captain
C3. Going Home, Boys
C5. Silicosis Blues
C6. Southern Exposure
C7. Empty Bed Blues
D1. The Story of John Henry