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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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