I hope a flood of comments to this post prove me wrong, but I bet many of my readers have never heard of, much less heard, Josh White. If you’re one who has never heard Josh White sing and play the guitar, or even if you have but not in a long while, you’re in for a treat. His obscurity today is hard to explain, given what a big star he was in his day. He performed, for one example, at Franklin Roosevelt’s third inauguration and later became the first African-American invited to perform in the White House.
Let me introduce him to you via one of my Josh White favorites, “Jelly Jelly!,” a tune written by big band stalwarts Earl Hines and Billy Strayhorn in the forties and covered by virtually every blues artist since, from John Lee Hooker to the Allman Brothers. Josh, here on guitar with a bassist, added a few of his own R-rated lyrics to the original.
Josh White was born in South Carolina in 1914. At age seven he began working for a blind singer, leading him around from place to place. Soon he began playing guitar and singing himself, learning various techniques while working for several blind musicians. He built a unique style in which he would in essence play rhythm and lead guitar simultaneously. His voice was rich and expressive, and he could use it equally well on blues, folk and occasionally pop music. Moreover, he had a commanding yet warm stage presence and was a superb entertainer, a talent he honed early when holding an audience’s attention meant more grocery money in the tip jar.
White’s talents took him from backwater joints and over many obstacles all the way to New York City where he became a nightclub mainstay in the 1940’s, specially at the Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, the first club in America to actively attract integrated audiences. White became an international star in nightclubs, concert halls, the movies and Broadway. His recording of “One Meat Ball” became the first million selling song by a male African-American and was later covered by Bing Crosby among many others.
Josh White along with the Weavers, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie were key drivers for the first folk boom in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Alas, almost all of these artists were driven underground, blacklisted by the McCarthy inspired witch hunts. White’s primary sin was that he mixed anti-segregationist songs like “JIm Crow Train,” “Free And Equal Blues,” and “Strange Fruit” into his repertoire of traditional folk and blues. McCarthyites used this aspect of his work to brand him a communist sympathiser, and he was blacklisted from performing in concerts, radio and television.
Fortunately for him, he was able to find club and concert work albeit far from home as an expat in Europe. Luckily for me, and I hope for many of you, the folk music revival ignited by The Kingston Trio brought many of these earlier artists back into the spotlight and record stores in the US. White never became nearly as big a star as he had been, but he had a good run on Elektra Records in the fifties and sixties. In 1963 his blacklisting from TV was lifted when President Kennedy included him on a CBS special, “Dinner With The President.” He battled heart issues throughout the sixties, finally succumbing in 1969.
Today there are a couple of “best of” compilations of his Elektra recordings and some individual albums as well available on iTunes and Amazon, so I assume on Spotify also. I recommend The Best of Josh White, with 22 songs, and there’s also a 39 tune collection on Elektra. These are songs recorded primarily in the fifties and early sixties. My ears prefer them to earlier recordings only because they’re in high fidelity which was not available in the forties. Both give a good survey of White’s repertoire. Here’s another favorite, the venerable New Orleans staple, “St James Infirmary.”
Two individual Elektra albums that I like are Empty Bed Blues, White’s last album for Elektra in 1962, and Josh White Sings Ballad And Blues recorded in 1956-57. Both are excellent and are near bookends to his Elektra run. Both are represented on the two compilation albums though not in entirety. Ballads and Blues intrigued me because it includes two pop songs from the Great American Songbook in addition to his usual folk and blues selections: “Miss Otis Regrets” and “One For My Baby.” Given the blues-like themes of both songs, White’s masterful renditions are not surprising.
Just a note of caution: when searching for Josh White’s music, you will likely also be shown albums by his son Josh White, Jr. as well as a contemporary white singer named Josh White. Neither is the the man I’m writing about, although Josh White, Jr. worthily followed his dad as a folk/blues singer.
Since most of my videos for White are static visually, I’ll close with this one and only excerpt I could find from a 1962 TV concert in Sweden. If you want to see the whole 30 minute show, you can search on YouTube for “Josh White in Sweden.” Most of the songs performed are fairly traditional folk and blues tunes. This one, however, is a bluesy Josh White style rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.”