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Josh White

Joshua Daniel White (February 11, 1914–-September 5, 1969), best known as Josh White, was a legendary American singer, guitarist, songwriter, actor, and civil rights activist. Today, he is widely remembered for his powerful and highly sensual stage presence, while some still remember that he almost single-handedly introduced Negro folk, blues, and gospel music to a world audience in the 1940s.

Few, however, are aware that White had suffered the most severe oppression growing up in the Jim Crow South, and despite these hardships would become in the 1920s and 1930s the youngest star of the "race records" era, with a prolific output of recordings in genres including Piedmont blues, country blues, gospel, and social protest songs, and billed in concert as "The Sensation of the South." In 1931, White moved to New York and within a decade his fame had spread widely, and his repertoire expanded to include urban blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, cabaret, folk songs from around the world, and hard-hitting political protest songs. When acquiring this broader audience he believed it was vitally important to improve his singing diction so that his story songs could be understood by the world masses, a fact that has dismayed some folk and blues purists who felt he should have stayed true to his roots as the rural country blues artist from South Carolina. His presentation and performance also became more polished and crafted for the main stage, and he soon was in demand as an actor on radio, Broadway, and film. However, his pioneering guitar playing never altered or diminished, while some would even argue it broadened with the expansion of his musical repertoire.

White also would become the closest African American friend and confidant to the president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ironically, 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 incorrectly assuming that he must have been a Communist. Accordingly, from 1947 through the mid 1960s, White was caught in the vise grip of the anti-Communist Red Scare, and combined with his resulting attempt to clear his name, his career was harmed immeasurably. However, regardless of the purists' debate over the artistic change in his presentation or from those who opposed his politics, White unarguably inspired several generations of guitarists with his new and unique stylings and techniques, and is cited as a major musical and social influence by dozens of future stars, including Blind Boy Fuller, Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Lonnie Donegan, Eartha Kitt, Alexis Korner, Odetta, Ray Charles, 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, and Eva Cassidy.

Career

Early years

Born into the very strict religious home of the Reverend Dennis and Daisy Elizabeth White in the black section of Greenville, South Carolina on the day before Abraham Lincoln's birthday, 1914, young Joshua was always told by his father that he had been named after Joshua in the Bible--and that, not unlike the Joshua of old, he would be destined in his life to tear down the walls of injustice in America. Life was hard and cruel for African Americans of this era living in the South under the Jim Crow laws, which created state and local government-sanctioned segregation with the intent to negate the federal government's 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

Amidst this oppression, however, the family of Reverend White was very proud and applied formal etiquette standards in their home and in their dress and speech. The family was home-educated, and though very poor by national standards, their little house was maintained daily in a clean and spotless condition. Joshua never heard his parents address each other with any name other than Mr. White and Mrs. White, and in their household, it was demanded that everyone dress up formally for the nightly dinner meal. By the age of five, Joshua was taught to read the Bible by his parents, and he loved singing with his mother in the church choir. He had four younger siblings, and as the oldest child, he worked hard at his daily home chores of scrubbing the walls and floors till they shone. In addition, in order to help make financial ends meet at home, he also assisted his father with their horse and buggy whenever a white family requested they move a piece of furniture.

One day in 1921, an extremely rude and unfriendly white bill collector came to their home for the late payment of a bill. After disrespecting the family and home by spitting on Mrs. White's clean parlor floor, Reverend White grabbed the bill collector by his collar and pants and threw him out the door with a strong admonishment. One hour later, the seven-year-old Joshua witnessed five white deputies from the sheriff's office walk into their home and beat his father nearly to death. They then tied him up and dragged him through the streets of Greenville behind a horse -- to set an example to Greenville's African American community. After more beatings in the jailhouse, they sent Reverend White to a mental institution where he eventually died in 1930. Joshua now felt a responsibility to be the man of the house, and the quick life-lessons he would soon adopt, and which would guide him for the remainder of his life, were: in order to survive in America he had to learn to stay one step ahead of the competition, he had to be adaptable and change like a chameleon whenever necessary, and he could never really trust white authority.

Two months after his father's death, Joshua left home with an old blind, black street singer named Blind Man Arnold. It was agreed that Joshua would lead Man Arnold across the South and collect the coins for him from each street performance, and that Arnold would send White's mother and his four younger siblings two dollars a week. Arnold soon realized that he could profit from this gifted boy who quickly learned to dance, sing, play the tambourine, and artfully collect the coins from the onlookers; and 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 Taggert. Joshua walked his blind men as far south as Miami, Florida, as far west as Dallas, Texas, and as far north as the cold streets of Chicago -- always barefoot and dressed in ragged shorts (to gain sympathy from the onlookers who would throw coins).

The dusty dirt roads and towns of America's South in the 1920s were not always a safe place for an old blind black man with a young boy. Most days the boy was only fed one meal, and most nights he and his street singer would sleep in the cotton fields so as to safely hide from the Ku Klux Klan. However, on more than one occasion while sleeping in those fields, Joshua and his blind man were awakened with sounds of screams, shouts, and laughter in the near distance, as the boy would witness with horror and whisper his visions to the old man of the Klan tar and feathering black men, lynching them, and in one instance, burning a man at the stake. Amidst experiencing these terrifying life horrors as a child, his tough task masters cruelly demanded that he learn his trade quickly. Within a year he would soon learn all the street singers' repertoires, and soon thereafter begin mastering the various styles of all the guitarists he worked with until he would become the pioneer blues guitarist of the late 1920s and 1930s.

White arrived in Chicago with Blind Joe Taggert in 1927. Mayo Williams at Paramount Records recognized the boy's prodigious talents and began using him as a session guitarist. He backed up many artists for recordings before finally scoring his first popular Paramount recording "Scandalous and a Shame", singing and playing in the duet "Blind Joe Taggert & Joshua White" in 1928 -- while becoming the youngest blues star of the era. Yet he still lived under the yoke of servitude of Arnold and Taggert (who was renting his services), as he continued sleeping in the horse stables of Chicago or the cotton fields of the South and not allowed to wear shoes or long pants. Mayo Williams had left Paramount to start his own label in Chicago, but still remained close with the young boy. In late 1928, angry with how Taggert was treating the boy, Williams threatened the blind man that if he didn't pay the boy for his recording services, buy him a suit and shoes and move him from the horse stables to a black hotel, he would call the authorities and have him arrested for indentured servitude and keeping the boy out of school. White was finally free. For a few months thereafter, White shared a room with Blind Blake at Mayo Williams' home before finding his own place and a sense of freedom and independence at the advanced age of fifteen. For the next two years, White continued an active recording schedule in Chicago, until he finally had saved enough money to return to Greenville and take care of his mother and the younger children.

1930s: "The Singing Christian" and "Pinewood Tom"

Late in 1930, New York's ARC Records (predecessor to Columbia Records) sent two A&R men on the road to find Joshua White, the lead boy who had recorded for Paramount and had led all the old street singers across America while mastering their repertoires of Negro folk, blues and gospel songs. After months of searching, they found the boy at his mother's home in Greenville, and for one week labored to convince Mrs. White to sign a recording contract for her underage son. After promising Mrs. White that they would not record the "Devil's Music" (the blues), and only have Joshua record religious songs, she finally agreed to sign a contract for $100, allowing them to record and own every song Joshua knew.

With contract signed, the boy moved to New York and began a new career as "Joshua White - The Singing Christian". Within a few months, after recording all of his religious repertoire and achieving immediate success, ARC explained to the boy that he could make significantly more money if he also recorded the blues repertoire he had learned, in addition to working as a session guitarist for their other artists. Figuring that his mama, who only listened to religious music, would not learn of his new venture, the 18 year old Joshua, now of legal age, signed a new contract and began to record blues songs under the name "Pinewood Tom".

By 1933, he had become a recording star. He was the only artist recording with equal success in blues and gospel music. As a session guitarist, he recorded with Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, Buddy Moss, Charlie Spand, the Carver Boys, Walter Roland, and Lucille Bogan, to name a few. White's best known recordings of the era were "Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed" (covered by Led Zeppelin in 1975 as "In My Time of Dying"), "Blood Red River", "Low Cotton", "Lay Some Flowers On My Grave" (covered by many artists), "Lord I Want to Die Easy" (covered by many artists), "Paul & Silas Bound In Jail", "Black Man", and "Silicosis is Killing Me." lyrics On February 26, 1936, White went into the studios to record the popular "When The Sun Goes Down", which would become his last recording of this era. One week later, in a bar fight, he put his fist through a glass door, and the hand became infected with gangrene. For two months the doctors urged him to amputate, and White repeatedly refused their warnings. Amputation was averted, but the famed pickin' hand was immobile. In his despair, he felt that he could not separate his vocals and his guitar accompaniment, and he retreated from his successful recording career amidst the Great Depression, to become a dock worker, an elevator operator, and a building superintendent. Despite his shortened recording career which ended at the age of 22, White's output as a race records artist from 1928 to 1936 was staggering--placing him as the tenth most prolific race recording artist of the two decades of the 1920s and 1930s.

During this period when his hand was lifeless, he constantly squeezed a little rubber ball in hopes that it would bring vitality back to his hand. His favorite hobby had always been playing cards, and Bid Whist was his favorite. One night, in a card game, life miraculously came back to his pickin' hand. And for the remainder of Josh's life, whenever playing cards, he kept his guitar on his lap and mischievously sang and strummed a blues ditty with each play of the cards. With the resurrection of his hand, White immediately started practicing his guitar, soon put together a group "Josh White & His Carolinians" with his brother Billy and close friends Carrington Lewis, Sam Gary, and Bayard Rustin (the future civil rights leader who organized the 1963 March on Washington), and they started playing private parties in Harlem. At one of these parties, on New Year's Eve 1938, the famed choral director Leonard DePaur, stayed transfixed throughout the night watching and listening to Josh. 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 key role of Blind Lemon in the musical, a street minstrel who would wander back and forth across the stage narrating the story in song, while the great African American actor and bass-baritone Paul Robeson would be portraying John Henry. Their auditions immediately uncovered that no New York actor was either capable or believable as a southern street singer, so they began combing through stacks of old old race records of the southern blues singers. DePaur recalled that they had narrowed down their search to two artists: Pinewood Tom and The Singing Christian (both Josh White recording monikers). Much of what you read above about his early recording career is a fairy tale. His first Blues records were issued as by Joshua White in 1932. In late 1933 when he recorded both Blues and Gospel music at the same session, the gospel records only were listed as Joshua White; Big House Blues/Low Cotton were issued as by Pinewood Tom. A couple of gospel records later, they added the subtitle "The Singing Christian". When some earlier records were re-pressed in 1936 they were also listed as Pinewood Tom.

1940s: "Josh White and his Guitar"

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. John Henry didn't have a long run, but it introduced Josh to a new audience and gave rebirth to his career. Soon thereafter, Josh began co-starring with Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Burl Ives, and The Golden Gate Quartet in a groundbreaking national CBS radio series Back Where I Come From, written by the legendary folk song collector Alan Lomax and directed by Nicholas Ray (who, within a decade would become a major Hollywood film director, including the classic Rebel Without a Cause). Nicholas Ray would also produce live engagements and recordings for two historic Josh White duos. The first one, with Leadbelly, became a six month engagement at New York's Village Vanguard nightclub, teaming the young and virile city blues singer--the "Joe Louis of the Blues Guitar", with the older, white haired country blues singer--the "King of the 12 String Guitar" (monikers given the blues legends by Woody Guthrie in his Daily Worker Communist newspaper review of their show). "Josh White & Leadbelly" achieved great publicity, the excitement of sold-out shows, rave reviews, recordings, and film shorts. 45 years after the event, Max Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard, would write in his book Live At The Village Vanguard, "The greatest conversations ever heard at the Vanguard was the carving out of the guitars between Leadbelly and Josh White." The second Nicholas Ray duo production for White was with the infamous Libby Holman, the legendary white `torch singer' of the 1920s who was branded an immoral woman for killing her millionaire husband on her wedding night. This duo pairing created even more publicity and immense controversy for Josh, as they also became the first mixed-race male and female artists to ever perform together, record together and tour together in previously segregated venues across the United States. They would continue performing off and on for the next six years, while making an album and a film together. 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. Meanwhile, Josh's album Harlem Blues: Josh White Trio (with Sidney Bechet and Wilson Myers, on Blue Note Records) produced the hit single "Careless Love", while his highly controversial Columbia Records album Joshua White & His Carolinians: CHAIN GANG, produced by John H. Hammond, was the first race record ever forced upon the white radio stations and record stores in America's South and caused such a furor that it reached the desk of President Franklin Roosevelt. On December 20, 1940, White and the Golden Gate Quartet, sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt, made a historic Washington, D.C. concert at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium to Celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which abolished slavery (the live recording of this concert was recently released on CD in 2005). One month later, Josh and The Golden Gate Quartet would perform at President Roosevelt's Inauguration in Washington. Ever the chameleon, Josh White refashioned his music, performance and image with his re-emergence on the entertainment scene in 1939 and 1940. The industry and audiences alike no longer saw a young southern black country boy, but instead a mature, self-educated, articulate, outspoken yet sophisticated 26-year-old man, who possessed a strikingly handsome and sexual bearing and personality both on and off the stage. He soon became the first blues performer to attract a large white and middle-class African American following, and was the first African American artist to perform in previously segregated venues in America, as he transcended the typical racial and social barriers of the time who associated blues with a rural and working-class African American audience, while performing in prestigious nightclubs and theaters during the 1930s and 1940s.

Throughout the 1940s, as a major matinee 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. One of his most popular recordings during the 1940s was "One Meatball," lyrics a song about a little old man who could afford only one meatball. The song is an adaptation by the American songwriters Hy Zaret and Lou Singer of a song called "Lay of the One Fishball" lyrics by Harvard Professor George Martin Lane, which was to the tune of an English folk song called "Sucking Cider Through a Straw" lyrics. When offered the song he immediately recorded it and it became the first million-selling record by an African American male artist. The Andrews Sisters and Jimmy Salvo soon recorded their own versions, which also became hits (other cover versions were recorded in subsequent years by Bing Crosby, Lightnin' Hopkins, Lonnie Donegan, Dave Van Ronk, Ry Cooder, and Shinehead).

White's hits during the 1940s include "Jelly, Jelly" (a tune with very sexual lyrics, composed by Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine); "The House I Live In (What Is America To Me)", a major patriotic American song during World War II, written by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan (the lyrics discuss what White hoped America would become after the war and government-sanctioned segregation would end; White had the first hit record with the song, then taught it to Frank Sinatra for his MGM film short about the song which won an Academy Award); "Waltzing Matilda" (an Australian sailor taught this old jaunty, up-tempo Australian folk song to Josh backstage at the Cafe Society; White re-arranged the song into a waltz tempo, then donated his services to the government by recording it the next week for the government's "V Disc" label to boost the moral of the troops overseas, and it became an immediate hit); "St. James Infirmary" (new words and music by White); the old English folk song, "Lass With the Delicate Air"; "John Henry" (new words and music by Josh), "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" (new words and music by White), "The Riddle Song (I Gave My Love a Cherry)" (an old English traditional folk song), "Evil Hearted Man" (words and music by White), "Miss Otis Regrets" (by Cole Porter), "The House of the Rising Sun" (new words and music by White; recorded subsequently by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, and in 1964 in a rock beat by The Animals), and "Strange Fruit.

White recorded in a wide variety of contexts, from recordings in which he was accompanied only by his own guitar playing, to others in which he was backed by guitar and string bass or piano, or jazz ensembles, gospel vocal groups, or even a big swing jazz band, as was the case with his popular 1945 recording, "I Left A Good Deal in Mobile". He also performed and recorded with the great jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, and besides his duets with Libby Holman and with Leadbelly, he recorded and performed duets with Buddy Moss, and performed often in duets with his friend Billie Holiday. He also recorded songs of social and political protest with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and Lee Hays in their folk cooperative group the Almanac Singers.

In 1945, with the immense success of his hit single "One Meatball", in addition to his national radio show, his appearance in the film Crimson Canary, and all the publicity emanating from the Cafe Society, Josh White became the first African-American popular music artist to make a national concert hall tour of America, with the Jamaican singer/dancer Josephine Premice as his opening act. The success of this tour created a demand for a return tour of America's concert halls the following year. On this second tour, White brought the innovative dancer/choreographer Pearl Primus, who had worked with him at the Cafe Society, as his opening act. Primus had choreographed several performance pieces to the music of Josh White, and on this tour they would perform these numbers together. For the remainder of Pearl Primus's career, she would perform these pieces created with Josh White as a major part of her concert program.

As an actor between the years of 1939 and 1950, White would appear in dozens of radio dramas, including the classic Norman Corwin plays, and star or co-star on the New York stage in three musicals and three dramatic plays, in addition to appearing in several films. In February, 1945, Paramount Pictures in Hollywood optioned John A. Lomax’s projected autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, with Bing Crosby to star as Lomax and Josh White as Lead Belly. Lead Belly stayed in California until the end of the year, hoping to be involved in the project, but the film never got past the pre-production stage. However, White would appear in other films, including: The Crimson Canary (1945), in which he portrayed himself; the Hans Richter film Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947), co-starring with Libby Holman, which won the Special Prize at the Venice Film Festival and was a major contributor to the "avant-garde" film movement; and the John Sturges film The Walking Hills (1949), in which he co-starred with Randolph Scott, John Ireland, Ella Raines, and Arthur Kennedy, in one of Hollywood's first films where an African American was portrayed as a racially equal character in the story.

As a leading artist/activist of the era, who had begun writing and recording political protest songs as early as 1933, and who would speak and sing at human rights rallies, Josh White was prominently associated with the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1940s. This activism made White's politics suspect in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, and accordingly, The Walking Hills would be his final film role.

Josh White at the Cafe Society

It is impossible to divorce White's unprecedented rise to international fame in the 1940s from the Cafe Society nightclub. Located in New York's Greenwich Village, the Cafe Society was the first integrated nightclub in the United States, where blacks and whites could sit, socialize and dance in the same room and enjoy entertainment. It opened in late 1938 with a three-month engagement of Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, Billie Holiday and comedian Jack Guilford, immediately making it New York's hottest club.

One day, John Hammond asked Josh to meet Barney Josephson, the owner of the club. As soon as Josephson heard White and saw the charisma he exuded, he told Hammond that Josh was going to become the first black male sex symbol in America. While starring at the Cafe Society over the next decade and becoming exposed to audiences, performers and beautiful music from around the world, White expanded his musical interests and repertoire to include a variety of styles which he would then subsequently record. He had remarkable success in popularizing recordings with a diverse group of musical genres, which ranged from his original repertoire of the Negro blues, gospel and protest songs, to Broadway show tunes, cabaret, pop, and white American, English and Australian folk songs.

The Greenwich Village club was so successful that Josephson soon opened a larger Cafe Society Uptown, at which Josh also performed, gaining him recognition by the New York Times as the "Darling of Fifth Avenue". The Roosevelt family, New York society, international royalty, and Hollywood stars regularly came to see White at the Cafe Society, and he used his fame and visibility to create, foster and develop relations between blacks and whites, making him a leading national figure and voice of racial integration in America.

He was thought to have numerous romantic liaisons with wealthy society women, singers, and Hollywood actresses, but the rumors were never substantiated. The women in question always referred to Josh as their close friend, and Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt also referred to him as a mentor.

The Cafe Society made White a star and put him in a unique position as an African American man. However, because of the club's unique social status of mixing the races, it also became a haven for New York's social progressives whose politics leaned to the Left. As it played a vital role in White's ascendance to stardom, it would also one day play a crucial role in his fall from grace.

Josh White and the Roosevelts

Beginning in 1940, White established a long and close relationship with the family of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and would become the closest African American confidant to the President of the United States; and the Roosevelts were the godparents of Josh White, Jr. (born November 30, 1940). In January 1941, Josh performed at the President's Inauguration, and two months later, he released another highly controversial record album, Southern Exposure, which included six anti-segregationist songs with liner notes written by the celebrated and equally controversial African American writer Richard Wright, and whose sub-title was "An Album of Jim Crow Blues". Like the Chain Gang album, and with revelatory yet inflammatory songs such as "Uncle Sam Says", "Jim Crown Train", "Bad Housing Blues", Defense Factory Blues", "Southern Exposure", and "Hard Time Blues", it also was forced upon the southern white radio stations and record stores, caused outrage in the South and also was brought to the attention of President Roosevelt. However, instead of making White persona-non-grata in segregated America, it resulted in President Roosevelt asking White to become the first African American artist to give a White House Command Performance, in 1941. 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 (now the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum). The President sent White to give concerts overseas as a "Goodwill Ambassador" and he was often referred to in the press as the "Presidential Minstrel." More importantly, it was White's songs of social protest, such as "Uncle Sam Says" listen and "Defense Factory Blues," listen which caused the President to begin exploring how to desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces. Meanwhile, White's recordings of "Beloved Comrade" (the President's favorite song), "Freedom Road", "Free and Equal Blues", and "House I Live In (What is America to Me)", were great songs of inspiration to the Roosevelts and the country during World War II. After the President's death, White's younger brother William White became Eleanor Roosevelt's personal assistant, house manager and chauffeur for the remainder on her life.

In 1949, Fisk University honored White with an honorary doctorate; and the NBC National Radio series Destination Freedom produced and aired a one-hour dramatized biography on White's life titled "Help The Blind". In 1950, Eleanor Roosevelt (then the United Nations Ambassador in charge of War Relief) and White made a historical speaking and concert tour of the capitals of Europe to lift the spirits of those war-torn countries. The tour built to such proportions that when they arrived in Stockholm, the presentation had to be moved from the Opera House to the city's soccer stadium where 50,000 came out in the pouring rain to hear Mrs. Roosevelt speak and White perform. All during this tour, audiences across Europe enthusiastically requested White to sing his famed anti-lynching recording of "Strange Fruit", but on each occasion he would respond, "My mother always told me that when you have problems in your background you don't give those problems to your neighbor.....So, that's a song I will sing back home until I never have to sing it again, but for you, I would now like to sing its sister song, written by the same man ('The House I Live In')." lyrics

1950s: Josh White and the Blacklist

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.

For a decade, White had been a leading voice of black America and a voice that reminded America of its social injustices, while also becoming a major pop star and sex symbol from his platform at the Cafe Society. However, when Barney Josephson's brother and attorney Leon, who was also a lawyer for the International Labor Defense (a politically progressive organization), was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 and refused to testify, he was sent to prison. The Right Wing media publicity centered on the Cafe Society as a hot bed of Communists. By December of that year, the original downtown club had to close, and by 1949, the uptown club was forced to shut its doors. Virtually every artist who regularly worked at the club had contributed to Left-leaning benefits and was suspected as being a Communist sympathizer. White was not a Communist, and was not active in any political party. However, when he was told that people's human rights were being threatened and asked to participate in a benefit or a rally, he was always willing to lend his voice to the cause. Whether it was the plight of African Americans in the South or oppressed people in Yugoslavia, it was all the same to him. Since his return from Europe in June, 1950, White had been interrogated every week, and was threatened that his career would be finished and that he would lose his family. Controversially, in a fervent desire to defend his reputation, and challenge his accusers and the blacklist (while under intense pressure from his manager and his family), White told the FBI that he would go to Washington, appear before the HUAC Committee and set the record straight.

With the assistance of his daughter Bunny, White began writing a lengthy letter about his life and his beliefs that he would plan to read as a statement at his HUAC appearance. Before going to Washington, he made trips to visit two trusted friends and have them read his statement - Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Robeson. Bunny accompanied him on his trip up to Hyde Park to visit Mrs. Roosevelt. She recalled the visit in an interview with Josh White Estate Archival biographer Douglas Yeager, "Mrs. Roosevelt told Daddy that he had written a good letter. However, she cautioned him not to go to Washington, explaining that the HUAC Committee would turn his testimony against him if he appeared and they weren't satisfied with his statement." A few days later, White drove up to Paul Robeson's Connecticut home by himself.

Paul Robeson, a former All-American football player, was a Columbia University-trained African American attorney fluent in twenty languages, who lived most of the 1920s and 1930s in London, and was very active in world human rights and the movement to decolonize Africa. However, he was best known as an international star of recordings and film, the most celebrated stage Othello in history, and the highest paid concert performer in the world. He also was the most respected and admired artist/activist throughout the world, with friendships that included the leaders of many countries including the Soviet Union, where Robeson was considered a cultural and social giant and iconic figure. To the social progressives in America, he was the most respected and important voice of truth and social justice in the world. In 1939, at the onset of World War II in Europe, Paul Robeson and his family returned to America and maintained a residence in Connecticut. Robeson had been White's friend and artistic collaborator for many years and was the godfather to White's daughter Beverly. They did not always agree on everything politically, however White held great respect for Robeson. Years later in a radio interview, White stated that Robeson never once mentioned the Communist Party to him, and in fact advised White not to get too involved with any political party. Paul Robeson supported America's war effort and was considered a patriotic champion of freedom and liberty after his national radio broadcast concert performance and subsequent record album of "Ballad For Americans." However, when American Negro soldiers returning from the war were still confronted with government sanctioned segregation, racism and even lynchings, it became evident that Robeson was greatly disappointed with the American government. In the post war years, his socialist belief structure seemed better aligned to the Soviet Union, which had been America's ally in the war, but by 1947 had become their bitter enemy. In 1949, America's media and press reported a speech Robeson had made in [Paris], alleging that he said if a war would ever take place between the USSR and America that American Negroes would not fight in America's army (the U.S. media and press version of the speech has since been found to be inaccurate and slanted).

Before going to Washington, White felt he had to meet with Robeson, have him read his statement and tell him of decision to go to Washington. In White's statement which he showed to Robeson, and which would later be read before the HUAC Committee, one paragraph out of the long biographical letter referred to Robeson: "I have great admiration for Mr. Robeson as an actor and a great singer, and if what I read in the papers is true, I feel sad over the help he's been giving to people who despise America. He has a right to his own opinions, but when he, or anybody, pretends to talk for a whole race, he's kidding himself. His statement that the Negroes would not fight for their country, against Soviet Russia or any other enemy, is both wrong and an insult: because I stand ready to fight Russian or any enemy of America." In the biography, Robeson: Lives of the Left, Martin Duberman wrote about the encounter. Apparently White and Robeson went up to the bathroom of Robeson's master bedroom, turned on all the faucets so that the FBI listening devices couldn't hear their conversation, and began discussing White's statement and his upcoming appearance before HUAC. Robeson read the prepared statement, told White that he personally felt it would be wrong to go to Washington and appear before the HUAC Committee. He continued that he would never appear before the Committee, but that this was a decision White would have to make on his own. Reportly, White painfully told him, "I feel like a heel Paul, but they've got me in a vice...I have to go." White was called into the FBI offices dozens of times between 1947 and 1954, but no one is absolutely certain what special vice they had him in - besides threatening to destroy his career and family, as many of the pages found in his FBI files (via the Freedom of Information Act) are still blacked out by the government. It is the belief of Josh White, Jr. and many others however, that the FBI, displeased with White's legendary prowess with white women, used it against him (as they had done with Jack Johnson years earlier), by threatening him with imprisonment and saying that they would concoct a trumped up charge of violating the Mann Act, "for transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes."

On September 1, 1950, Josh White, appearing without counsel and with only his wife Carol at his side, sat down before the HUAC Committee in Washington, D.C., regarding Communist influence in the entertainment industry and African American community. He did not give the HUAC Committee names of Communist Party members. At length, he told them of his life story as a child, seeing his father beaten and dragged through the streets of Greenville by white authorities, and having to leave home at the age of seven to lead street singers across America in order to feed his family. He defended his right and responsibility as a folksinger to bring social injustices to the attention of the public through his songs, and then passionately read the chilling lyrics of one of his most famous recordings, the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit", which was then placed into the Congressional Record. He also included his words about Paul Robeson regarding the alleged statement Robeson had made in Paris.

White would later defend his testimony as a `friendly witness' (a term applied to those who appeared voluntarily before the HUAC Committee) by claiming that he had a right to defend his name against unjust accusations, that the scope of his testimony was limited, that he did not state anything that was not already known, that he never gave the FBI or the HUAC Committee names of members of the Communist Party, and that he was sincerely opposed to Communism. However, testifying before the committee and speaking out against Paul Robeson angered his large socially progressive fan base, who believed that testifying before the HUAC Committee acknowledged their right to exist. Not being privileged to know the details of his FBI interrogations, many of this group also suspected that he had given the FBI names of Communist Party members, which he had not. The fact that the future career and reputation of baseball legend Jackie Robinson was not hampered when he appeared before the HUAC Committee one year earlier, while expressing virtually the same words as White had about Robeson's alleged statement in Spain, did not seem to matter to White's detractors. Robinson's fan base did not derive from the political Left as White's had. Josh White's HUAC appearance greatly affected his posthumous reputation in America, causing him to become the only artist of the era to be blacklisted by both the Right and Left. He felt immense pressures from several sides to appear before the HUAC Committee, and based upon his harsh early life experiences learned in Jim Crow South, it was apparent that White believed his only option to protect the lives of his family and career and to survive, was to figuratively "ride the fence post" -- go to Washington, denounce the Communist Party, but not name any names of Communist Party members. In the end, Mrs. Roosevelt had an asute understanding of the political climate in Washington and in America when she warned White that the government would turn his testimony against him. Indeed, this was the case, and Josh White's blacklisting would not be lifted for years.

With work rapidly drying up in America, White relocated to London for much of 1950 to 1955, where he hosted his own BBC radio show, My Guitar Is Old As Father Time, resumed his recording career, with new successes such as "On Top of Old Smokey", "Lonesome Road", "I Want You and Need You", "Wandering", "Molly Malone" and "I'm Going to Move to the Outskirts of Town", and gave concert tours throughout Europe and beyond. However, back in the United States--the country of his birth--the McCarthy anti-communist hysteria had already greatly dismembered White's career as early as 1947, when he lost his record contract and his national radio show, and was barred from appearing on other radio shows. His Hollywood blacklisting began in 1948, after completing his final film role in The Walking Hills, and he would not be allowed to appear on U.S. television from 1948 until 1963. Meanwhile, the 1940s politically Left-leaning social progressives who had survived the Red Scare, had begun reviving the folk music industry in America. They would keep Josh White shut out from their folk festivals, their folk magazines, their emerging record companies, and their media and press for most of the remaining years of his life. However, in 1955, a brave, young owner of a new American record company, Jac Holzman, who wasn't afraid of the political pressure from the Right or the Left, offered White the opportunity to record again in his home country. He could only offer him $100, but he promised him artistic control and the best recording equipment available. They recorded the Josh White: 25th Anniversary album, which established Elektra Records and slowly began reviving Josh's career by finding a young, new audience who made it possible for him to work again in America. Accordingly, his name and reputation in America has only begun to recover in recent years.

Later life

From the mid-1950s until his death in Manhasset, New York in 1969 of heart disease, White primarily performed in concert halls, nightclubs, and folk music venues and festivals around the world, and in 1961 starred in the Josh White Show for the Granada Television network in the United Kingdom. Carol White would vividly recount to Josh's archival biographer, Douglas Yeager, that in 1963-1964, the engineers of a new guitar company in development, spent several months with their paperwork and drawings on her dining room table, as Josh and the engineers designed the first round-bodied guitar. Upon completion, the first Ovation Guitar was titled the "Josh White Model". Much to her dismay, however, the company never followed through with their verbal promise of giving Josh stock shares of the company. Meanwhile, Josh's blacklisting in the television industry in America was finally broken in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy invited him to appear on the national CBS Television's civil rights special "Dinner with the President." Later that year he was seen again on national television performing for the masses on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the historical March on Washington. In 1964, White gave a Command Performance for the Prime Minister of Canada, Lester Pearson; and in January 1965 he performed at the Presidential Inauguration of Lyndon Baines Johnson. In his final years, he would make American television appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, Hugh Hefner's Playboy's Penthouse and Hootenanny, among others. Meanwhile, he starred in two Josh White Concert Specials for national Swedish television in 1962 and 1967; starred in the 1965 ITV Network Special Heart Song: Josh White in the United Kingdom (with guest artists Julie Felix and Alexis Korner); while also guest starring on Canada's CBC-TV's Let's Sing Out with Oscar Brand in 1967; and making his final television appearance in May, 1969 on the Canadian CBC-TV variety show One More Time.

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. His manager, Len Rosenfeld, recalled to the Josh White Estate Archival Biographer, Douglas Yeager, "Since 1953, Josh required novocaine injections under each fingernail before 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 and he died on the operating table on September 6, 1969 at the age of 55.

Josh White was seen as an influence on hundreds of artists of diverse musical styles, including: Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Oscar Brand, Ed McCurdy, Lonnie Donegan, Alexis Korner, Cy Coleman, Elvis Presley, Merle Travis, Joel Grey, Bob Gibson, Dave Van Ronk, Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Shel Silverstein, John Fahey, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Mike Bloomfield, Danny Kalb, Ry Cooder, John Fogerty, Don McLean, and Eva Cassidy; in addition to those African American artists, such as Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson, Brownie McGhee, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Pearl Primus, Josephine Premice, Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Ray Charles, Josh White, Jr., Jackie Washington, the Chambers Brothers, and Richie Havens, who in the footsteps of White were also able to break considerable barriers that had hampered African American artists in the past.

Song tributes

  • Bob Gibson & Shel Silverstein. (legendary folk singer Bob Gibson, and his equally renowned writing partner Shel Silverstein - both disciples of Josh White), in 1979, wrote and recorded a song tribute, "Heavenly Choir", to three of their most beloved artists, Josh White, Hank Williams and Janis Joplin....all brilliant artists, who had lived hard, fought hard, and died young. (the first verse is to Josh, followed by the chorus):
  • Peter Yarrow: After Josh White's funeral, one of his dearest protégés, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary, eulogized him in the song "Goodbye Josh", which he included on his first solo album Peter. The song's lyrics are:
  • Fellow South Carolina native Jack Williams wrote and recorded "A Natural Man" a masterful tribute to Josh White on his "Walkin' Dreams" CD in 2002.

Personal life

In 1933, White married a New York gospel singer, Carol Carr. Together, they would raise Blondell (Bunny), Julianne (Beverly), Josh Jr., Carolyn (Fern), Judy, and a foster daughter, Delores, in their home in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, New York. White's younger brother Billy (who he moved up from Greenville) and Carol's mother all lived with them in the Josh White household. Josh's father would eventually die in a South Carolina mental institution in 1930, as a result of his beatings at the hands of Greenville deputies a decade earlier. His mother, Daisy Elizabeth, a very stern and religious woman, would remain in her hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, live into her 80s and almost outlive her son. She would come to visit Josh in New York several times a year and he would travel to see her in South Carolina, but she wouldn't allow any of his non-religious recordings in her home. Except for his childhood performances in her Greenville church in the 1920s, she would never again see her son perform - refusing to attend a concert where he would sing non-sacred songs. Brother Billy, along with (future civil rights leader) Bayard Rustin, Sam Gary and Carrington Lewis, would perform and record with Josh in "Josh White & His Carolinians" (from 1939 to 1940) and appear with him in the Broadway musical John Henry. After World War II, Billy would become house manager and chauffeur for Eleanor Roosevelt for the remainder of her life. Upon occasion in the early 1940s, when the grandmother watched the children, Carol would join Josh in singing, performing and recording with the folk collaborative group, the Almanac Singers. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Carol would appear as a guest on Eleanor Roosevelt's television talk show; and in 1982, she was a featured speaker at the Smithsonian Institution's 100th Anniversary Celebration of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Birth in Washington, while her son, Josh White, Jr., performed a musical program of songs his father had presented at one of his White House Command Performances. Josh White, Jr., a successful singer-songwriter, guitarist, actor, educator, and social activist for the past 60 years, performed and recorded with his father as a duet from 1944 to 1961, in addition to performing together with him in two Broadway plays (Josh White, Jr. won a 1949 Tony Award for the play How Long Till Summer). At various times in the 1950s and 1960s, daughters Beverly, Fern, and Judy also performed, recorded and appeared on radio and television with White. In 1964, when new anti-segregationist legislation made it easier for African Americans to purchase real estate in previously all-white neighborhoods, Josh and Carol bought a duplex home in the Rosedale, Queens section of New York City. While daughter Beverly and her family lived upstairs, Josh and Carol lived in the downstairs home. Josh lived in this semi-suburban lifestyle for the remainder of his life, while wife Carol would continue to live there and work into her 80s, first as a clothing boutique manager, and then as a social worker to elderly people in nursing homes, until her sudden passing in 1998. One week before her fatal heart attack, Carol received final confirmation that the United States Postal Service would be honoring Josh White in 1998 with his own postage stamp. When shown a mock-up photograph of the stamp by Josh's estate manager, Douglas Yeager, she expressed joy, gratitude and a long-awaited satisfaction--that after all those painful years of social isolation from the McCarthy era, Josh would finally be receiving the recognition he deserved. She felt that she could finally go now in peace.

Posthumous honors

  • In 1983, Josh White, Jr. starred in the long-running and rave reviewed biographical dramatic musical stage play on his father's life JOSH: The Man & His Music, written and directed by Broadway veteran Peter Link, which premiered at the Michigan Public Theatre in Lansing, Michigan. Subsequently, the State of Michigan formally proclaimed April 20, 1983, as "JOSH WHITE & JOSH WHITE, JR. DAY" in the State of Michigan.
  • In 1987, the Josh White, Jr. tribute album to his father's music, Jazz, Ballads and Blues (RYKODISC, produced by Douglas Yeager) received a GRAMMY nomination.
  • In 1996, Josh White, Jr. released a well received second tribute album to his father's music, entitled House of the Rising Son (Silverwolf, produced by Josh White, Jr., Douglas Yeager and Peter Link).
  • On June 26 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a 32-cent postage stamp honoring Josh White, unveiling it on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall, followed by a concert tribute of his songs by Josh White, Jr.
  • From 2002 to 2006, the historic Americana show Glory Bound, which starred Odetta, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Oscar Brand, and Josh White, Jr., toured America, in a salute to the first three folk and blues artists to be honored with U.S. Postage Stamps, Josh White, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

What artists have said about Josh White

  • Elvis Presley, in a 1956 Jet Magazine article, listed Josh White as a major influence to his music.
  • Elvis Presley: While relating a story about Elvis and a Josh White recording, West Side Story film star/dancer, Russ Tamblyn, told the following to Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick in the book Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, ". . . I thought Nick (Adams) was just going to bring Elvis over, and it ended up like twenty people came pouring into the room….I had a record on, it was a Josh White record, that Elvis just flipped over! I can't remember the title, but it was a weird song, it was a good one with a real low, gutty guitar sound – I could never quite figure out what it was about – and we played it about ten times in a row until Elvis finally asked if he could borrow it. As he listened to the music, he started doing his dance with his knees like he does, and I said, `Great, Throw those knees…..Throw those knees out more. So I showed him, and he said, 'What did you do? Show me again.' I could see right away with little exaggerated movements it would look better – it would just take it on another level and make it a little stronger, and he got some of that in (the film) 'Jailhouse Rock'."
  • Lonnie Donegan (who launched the British skiffle craze in the 1950s—-which was the sound of the early Beatles), said in a 1999 interview with Jennifer Rodger of The Independent, "Josh White's 'House of the Rising Sun,' inspired me to go into music. This was the first American folk song I heard and the experience kicked off my career, started me singing American blues and folk. I believe Josh started the British rock scene."
  • John Fogerty, in an interview with Jim Steinblatt for ASCAP's PLAYBACK magazine, said, "I saw a movie late one night on TV and it was this black guy singing and playing the guitar, and I must’ve been eight years old as I asked my mom, 'Who’s that?' and she said, 'That's Josh White.' And it just went into my memory banks and stayed. It was one of the most chilling things I had ever seen."
  • Bill Wyman (of the Rolling Stones) wrote in his book Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey: A Journey to Music's Heart: "Josh White was an excellent player in the piedmont tradition with a melodious voice. On Friday evenings (in Britain) a program called Harry Parry's Radio Rhythm Club sometimes played blues records, such as Josh White's 'House of The Rising Sun.' Slowly the blues began to capture the imagination of a small minority of British youth. A factor in the unexpected rebirth of country blues (in America) was provided by Josh White, whose Elektra recordings sparked interest from younger people who were eager to know where some of this music came from. The man who gave many young white liberal Americans their first taste of the blues died in New York in 1969."
  • Jimmy Page reported in a British press interview that he heard Josh White's 1933 recording of "Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed", and altered the lyrics and tempo for Led Zeppelin's recording of "In My Time Of Dying." (Bob Dylan earlier recorded a similar adaptation.)
  • George Harrison (of The Beatles), from his biography Here Comes The Sun by Joshua M. Greene: "One of George's earliest memories was standing on a leather stool and singing folksinger Josh White's "One Meatball" to his family's great delight."
  • Charlie Watts (of the Rolling Stones), from his biography Charlie Watts, by Alan Clayson, "…in 1947, I fell in love with Josh White's 'House of the Rising Sun' backed by 'Strange Fruit' on black labeled Brunswick."
  • David Crosby wrote in his 1988 autobiography Long Time Gone: "Josh White put my head on 'tilt' at the age of ten, when hearing his recording of 'Strange Fruit'."
  • The Chambers Brothers, who pioneered the psychedelic gospel rock era of the 1960s, which spawned Sly & The Family Stone, revered Josh White and sang at his funeral.
  • Micky Most, producer of The Animals, heard White's "House of the Rising Sun", bought the record, suggested to the band that they re-do it with a rock beat, and it became a million-selling record and a major spearhead for the British blues rock revolution.
  • Janis Joplin, learned "No More Ball and Chain" from Josh White’s 1936 recording, and then recorded it on her 1968 album.
  • Scotty Moore (Sun Records' and Elvis Presley's session guitarist), from The Electric Guitar: A History of An American Icon by Andre Millard: "Scotty stated that Tal Farlow, Django were among his principal influences, along with Josh White. These were the guitarists he emulated..."
  • Phish (Platinum selling rock band of today), have been performing White's composition "Timber" (Jerry the Mule) in their concerts since the 1980s.
  • Ry Cooder (esteemed guitarist, producer, musicologist, and film soundtrack composer). Cooder's bio begins, "Largely self-taught, Ryland Peter Cooder began playing guitar at the age of 3, influenced by recordings of blues legend Josh White."
  • John Renbourn (dean of British acoustic blues guitarists), in a British press interview: "I was first caught up by the blues after my mother took me to a Josh White concert. Josh's guitar instruction book was the only good one available, and provided the basis for most of the players of my generation."
  • John Fahey (legendary country-blues guitarist) in an interview with Josh White's Archival biographer Douglas Yeager: "I still can't figure out where Josh learned his stylings and techniques? His style was totally different, and so much more diverse than his southern contemporaries. A mixture of country blues, Chicago blues, New Orleans jazz and New York's sophisticated jazz. Totally unique for that time! Josh White's recording of his song 'Jim Crow Train', with its powerful lyrical message, haunting melody, biting vocals and his guitar work--where he actually had his acoustic guitar make the sounds of a train engine and train whistles, was the greatest folk/blues record ever recorded!"
  • Robert Hunter (of the Grateful Dead, writing in the book, In A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of Grateful Dead): "I Adapted Josh White's "Betty & Dupree."
  • Eddie Cochrane and Gene Vincent (from Three Steps of Heaven: The Eddie Cochrane Story) "....We spoke at length about the merits of Ray Charles, Brenda Lee, Josh White and other American stars."
  • Richie Havens (the Woodstock legend, in his 1999 autobiography, Richie Havens wrote): "It was at this concert that I saw one man (Josh White) and his guitar on a fifty-foot stage with a black velvet curtain behind him, with one leg over the back of a chair, playing for so many people. It was incredible how he connected with the entire audience. He sang songs from the past and songs he had written about the struggles of mankind. All of them moved me. It was a very inspiring night for me; I was never the same after that. I felt even stronger about the direction I was heading."
  • Don McLean (of "American Pie" renown, has written many magazine articles about his idol Josh White, and in sharing the writing of the liner notes of Elektra Record’s memorial double album The Best of Josh White he wrote): "Josh White is one of the finest artists America has ever produced, and his music will live on along with all the other good things he did. To be a young white singer, who worked with Josh only two months before his death, he seemed to be as energetic as ever. He would create a spectrum of rhythmic edges without losing a beat and as the rock-steady bassist walked along, it seemed as if Josh was throwing musical jabs and dancing with fancy footwork on the high strings so that he might throw his bassman out of step. His music mirrored the struggle he fought all his life whether it was the fight to be heard in a white man’s world or a bout with the devil. He probably won the first more often than the second but he could still sing 'Jelly, Jelly' and move right into 'Just a Closer Walk With Thee' with no apparent contradiction. That was the struggle and the paradox of Josh White. The cigarette tucked behind his ear could curl a set of Satan's horns or a blue halo over his head and they both seemed to belong."
  • Judy Collins (in her 2000 autobiography, Singing Lessons, she wrote): "I was learning from great talent like Josh White, the African American folk singer whose version of 'St. James Infirmary' still gives me chills. When Josh would break a string on stage he would put his guitar behind his back and sing 'Summertime' a cappella while he restrung his guitar, finishing up with a great flourish as he brought the guitar around to its proper place. It never failed to bring the house down."
  • Bob Shane (founder of The Kingston Trio): "Josh took me under his wing when he was in Hawaii for a few weeks in 1956. He mentored me on performing, talked me into hanging up the ukulele, gave me guitar lessons, and took me to buy a Martin just like his on the day he left town."
  • Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary): "I was shocked the first time I saw him up close in his dressing room, around 1959-1960…..that this legendary guitarist had to hold a cup of coffee between his two palms—because his fingers were too raw to hold the cup—shocked me! The pain he must have been going through just to play—without picks—on those thick bronze strings must have been incredible."
  • Lee Hayes (co-founder of The Almanac Singers and the Weavers, who co-wrote "If I Had a Hammer" with Pete Seeger, penned in the liner notes of Elektra Records' memorial double album The Best of Josh White: "All his life, no matter what his health was, or his fortunes, or his troubles, Josh always had 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 the pose, cigarette behind the ear, foot on the chair, guitar at ready, and wait until his silence reached out like a living force and whamied 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 ought to hear, and he was determined to be heard, on his own terms."
  • Oscar Brand (curator of The Songwriters Hall of Fame, legendary folk singer, folk historian, writer, radio and TV personality), in an interview with Josh White Archival biographer, Douglas Yeager: "Josh White was the first black man to have a million seller ('One Meatball'), and he was the first black man to be accepted into white 'society' in America. Whereas Paul Robeson lectured his white audience on civil rights from the stage—which made them feel uncomfortable, Josh gave them the same message and expression of racial anger in his songs, and then would charm the pants off them when he got off the stage. The white men were fascinated by his unique mixture of southern charm, machismo, and smoldering energy....and the women—well, they were just blown over by his raw sexuality and wanted to taste the forbidden fruit."
  • Liam Clancy (famed Irish actor, author, racounteur and youngest member of the legendary Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem writes in his autobiogrpahy The Mountain of the Women): "Josh White was a phenomenon. His command of an audience bordered on the hypnotic. His manipulation of his audience, especially young white femailes, was a skill to be awed by and envious of. He packed the club every night, and when he turned up the heat, there wasn't a dry seat in the house. . . I learned more about stagecraft from that man than I'd learned from all the theatrical people I'd every encountered."
  • Merle Travis (legendary country music singer, guitarist and composer of the million seller "Sixteen Tons", relates in the Country Music Encyclopedia): "I stole pieces of two Josh White songs and wrote `Sixteen Tons.'"
  • Eric Weissberg (legendary banjo player/guitarist/singer, member of the The Tarriers, and composer/banjo player of million seller "Dueling Banjos" from the film Deliverance, writes in his blog): "I think Josh was the greatest showman I ever worked with or saw. Just thinking and writing about it now is kind of freaking me out. Don't forget he played wonderful stuff and got everything that was in that little Martin, to come out. And he did the whole show with his right leg slung over the back of, and foot on the seat of a chair - no strap. Difficult to convey with words, how powerful he and his shows were. WOW. I'd love to see one tomorrow night. Anyone want to go with me?"
  • Richard Wright (revered, controversial and exiled African American novelist of the 1930s - 1950s), wrote in the liner notes of the 1941 Josh White album Southern Exposure: "Josh White's Southern Exposure album is a landmark in blues recordings. White's vocals and stinging guitar lines rank with his finest work. However it is his material which sets it apart from other blues recordings as we know them….for they depict the 'other side' of the blues, the side that criticizes the environment, the side that has been long considered 'non-commercial' because of its social militancy….Where the Negro cannot go, his blues have always gone, affirming kinship in a nation teeming with indifferences, creating unity and solidarity where distance once reigned."
  • Langston Hughes (revered African American novelist, poet, and songwriter of the 1930s – 1950s), wrote in the liner notes of the 1944 Josh White album Songs by Josh White: "You could call Josh White 'The Minstrel of the Blues'… except that he is more than just 'The Minstrel of the Blues.' The Blues are Negro music, but although he is a Negro, Josh is a fine folk singer of anybody’s songs—southern Negro or southern white, plantation work songs or modern union songs, English or Irish ballads…Songs that come from the heart of the people."
  • Jac Holzman (founder of Elektra Records/producer of Josh White), wrote in the liner notes of the 1970 Memorial album The Best of Josh White: "Josh was an acrobat with the guitar before the world knew of Jimi Hendrix. He could play with his teeth, with a guitar wrapped behind his back, and probably even while making love!" [NOTE: Josh White's 25th Anniversary album for Elektra in 1955 (his first in America in eight years—after the blacklisting) put Elektra Records on the map].
  • Lawrence Cohn (archivist/writer/producer for Columbia Records), wrote in the liner notes of the 1999 Sony CD Josh White Blues Singer 1932 - 1936: "Seeing White for the first time in person, I was struck not only by his professional expertise, but also by his overwhelming magnetism and projected sexuality. Tom Jones on his very best day couldn't come close."
  • Alan Lomax (legendary folklorist, song writer and song collector, manager of Leadbelly, record producer, radio and TV show writer, producer and documentarian, writer of books, and former curator at the Library of Congress’s Department of Folk Music division) in GLORY ROAD The Story of Josh White: "Josh could tune a guitar faster than anybody else…..he'd tune it and get the pitch in a matter of seconds, just like somebody wiping his hand across a table—he had absolutely perfect pitch. When somebody was playing off (flat) he would just reach over and tune their instrument….and he could accompany anything, picking up new melodies within moments….I saw him accompany whole concerts of international music, Chinese, Spanish, whatever!"
  • Barney Josephson (legendary owner/show producer at New York’s hottest nightclub -- and America's first integrated nightclub, from 1939 to 1947, Café Society, in an interview with Josh White Archival biographer, Douglas Yeager): "Josh played sex to the hilt! He was bigger at this than anybody else I ever saw in show business. He knew exactly what he was doing….so that when he stroked his guitar, women in his audiences felt as though he was stroking their vaginas! There was nobody like him."
  • Chris Van Ness (noted rock journalist, wrote in his memorial tribute to Josh). "....There was a kind of peace about the man that was almost overpowering, and this was part of what made him great. Josh and his guitar could literally captivate an audience for hours at a time. And if there was ever any malice in the man, you never felt it. Josh's anger came out in his songs--but always with a grin. As a musician, he had complete command over his instrument, and it was not unusual for him to let his guitar talk for him when the message got too strong. And he was a devil. Once during a ten minute intermission at one of his concerts, I was backstage with Josh watching him drain a full pint of Cutty Sark much as somebody else would drink a glass of Coke. And amazingly enough, the liquor seemed to affect him hardly at all. As Josh was drinking, he asked me what songs I thought he should do for the second half. . . My first suggestion was "Sam Hall". It wasn't much of a suggestion, really; Josh always did "Sam Hall", it was almost a trademark. He would do "Sam Hall". Then I suggested "Empty Bed Blues". Josh kind of looked at me out the corner of his eye. "Are there any kids in the audience?" he asked. Well, it was one 3:00 pm in the afternoon, and I had to admit that there were. "No, I can't do 'Empty Bed Blues'." After a few minutes, it was time for him to go back on stage. Josh walked out, threw his leg over the back of his specially padded chair, and looked around the audience. Then he turned to me and, in what couldn’t have been more than a second, gave me that devilish grin, that I will remember for a long time—the kind of look a child gets when he knows he’s about to get into trouble and is enjoying every minute of it---Josh’s hands then came down hard on this guitar strings, and he was into “Jelly, Jelly” one of the most outrageous songs in his entire repertoire!"
  • Elijah Wald (musician, writer, and biographer of JOSH WHITE: Society Blues; in addition to Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues; and (co-authored with Dave Van Ronk) Dave Van Ronk: The Mayor of MacDougal Street): "Josh White took the blues around the world, introduced it to Broadway, Hollywood and hundreds of concert and nightclub stages, and made it the voice of the Civil Rights movement that often rejected his contemporaries' work as 'backward' and demeaning. He did more than any artist until B. B. King to make the blues singer a recognized cultural icon, and his rediscovery as a seminal musical giant and a unique American voice is long overdue."

Filmography

Films containing recordings by Josh White

  • 1994 - Earl Robinson: Ballad of an American. Directed by Bette Jean Bullett.
  • 2001 - Jazz, Episode Seven: "Dedicated to Chaos". Directed by Ken Burns.
  • 2003 - Strange Fruit. Directed by Joel Katz.
  • 2006 - Red Tailed Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Directed by Pare Lorentz.
  • 2006 - Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power. Directed by Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts.

Footnotes

References

  • Wald, Elijah (2000). Josh White: Society Blues. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
  • Josh White from the Website of Josh White Jr. retrieved on May 17 2007
  • Siegel, Dorothy Schainman (1982). The Glory Road: The Story of Josh White. San Diego, California: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Shelton, Robert (1963). The Josh White Songbook (with Biography). Quadrangle Books, Inc.
  • Yeager, Douglas. Since 1976, Yeager is the Archival Biographer and Estate Manager of the Estate of Josh White (Sr.)

External links

Video

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