Josh White: Society Blues
Only those of a certain age, raised by parents of a particular political persuasion, are apt to remember the folk singer Josh White. Even then, if one went on to listen to music seriously, his work was probably abandoned as little more than an easy-listening entry point to a darker, richer world. Perhaps, later, one would encounter the earlier bluesman, Josh White.
The best thing about Elijah Wald’s careful, kind, well-researched biography of White is that it makes you wish to hear his records from both eras again, and with new ears. Along the way, you will meet an extraordinarily gifted and complicated man.
To condense: Around 1921, maybe 1922 (which made him seven or eight years old), Josh White left his fatherless home in Greenville, South Carolina (dad was in an asylum, having been judged insane for hitting a white man), to accompany a 265-pound blind blues singer by the name of John Henry Arnold. White’s job was to play the tambourine, collect the money, and serve as a kind of seeing-eye child.
He would have other employers, and it is possible that he traveled briefly with Blind Lemon Jefferson; regardless, he became a guitar virtuoso and a singer, and one of the youngest bluesmen (sorry, the “Singing Christian” so far as his mother knew) to be recorded in the late 1920s.
And then things went bad. The economy went bad, his hand went through a window (or something). By the end of World War II he had learned to play within his new limitations; he re-emerged as an overtly political entertainer (something about seeing a man lynched at an early age never quite left his memory) and a very smooth — if no longer bluesy — stylist.
Based in New York by then, White became a star (notably, “One Meat Ball”): handsome, sexy, suave, and arguably the template for Harry Belafonte’s fame. He appeared with Paul Robeson on Broadway (the show closed quickly), and became the darling of the emerging white, liberal folk scene; or, at least, of the New York iteration of that breed, who hung out in cabarets.
And then things went bad again. Wald argues, persuasively, that White’s political agenda had everything to do with civil rights, and very little to do with ideology. Because he had played benefits for and was friends with various members of the Communist Party (one of the few political entities in the 1940s and early ’50s sympathetic to the black cause), he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A pragmatist, arguably an entertainer (and a family man) first, he tried to split the difference. It didn’t matter. His old friends felt abandoned (or felt emboldened to abandon him), musical fashions changed, and White’s career never quite recovered.
Throughout this turbulence, White was a happily married man who in later years traveled with one or more of his children. He was also a very public womanizer who conducted a series of one-night and long-term romances with women of all races. In the 1950s. And, if they happened to be in New York, he invited them home for dinner, to meet the wife and kids.
That is the short version of a long, but never tedious, story which Wald tells far more elegantly. White emerges as a singular, largely forgotten figure, a transitional voice between Lead Belly and, say, Dylan.
And so one revisits the records on the shelves, and hears White, for the first time.