Josh White broke racial and music barriers, yet his politics nearly erased his legacy

Ellen Harold and Peter Stone tell White’s story for the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE), which was founded by legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

Joshua Daniel “Josh” White was born on Feb 11, 1914, one of five brothers and sisters, in Greenville, South Carolina. His father Dennis was a tailor by profession and a minister by avocation; his mother, Daisy Elizabeth, played the autoharp. As a child Josh was musical and sang in church. He was precocious and by the age of five could read aloud passages from the Bible. Josh recalled his parents as an exceptionally formal and proper couple who always addressed each other as Mr. and Mrs. White. But his childhood ended prematurely and tragically in 1921, when a white bill collector came into his home and rudely spat on the family’s immaculate floor. Indignant at this insult to his wife, Dennis White grabbed the man by the collar and shoved him out the door. Shortly afterwards five white sheriff’s deputies showed up to arrest him. As an example to other blacks, they beat him, tied him behind a horse and dragged him through the town to jail. Incapacitated by the after effects of the beatings and ill treatment he had received, he spent the rest of his life as a patient in a mental institution (he died in 1930). The following year, Josh, who at eight years old was already a music lover, agreed to be “lead boy” and “tambourine man” to John Henry “Big Man” Arnold, whom he had befriended on the street. Arnold was one of the countless itinerant blind minstrels who busked and sang in small clubs and parties in the Southeast and Midwest. In return, Arnold agreed to send four dollars a week home to Josh’s mother.

The pair traveled the South from Florida to Texas, with Josh barefoot and in dressed in ragged short pants to garner sympathy. They slept in the open and often ate only one meal a day. On those tours, during the height of the Jim Crow reign of terror of the 1920s, they witnessed tar and featherings, lynchings, and a burning.

These childhood experiences clearly informed his performances of ”Strange Fruit” years later. Popularized by Billie Holiday in 1939, White recorded “Fruit” on multiple albums, and frequently performed it live. I have a personal connection to the song, the novel, and Broadway play of the same name written by Lillian Smith, since my father was one of the main cast members of the production; trust me when I say White’s version is worth a listen.

It is hard to imagine the sophisticated showman White became was once a beggar on the street, but as the ACE bio notes, those hard years were a crucial part of his story (even if it was not a time he remembered fondly).

Once, in Florida, Josh was mistaken for a fugitive and beaten up and jailed. Working for Arnold, Josh developed his crowd-pleasing showmanship to the hilt, dancing, singing, playing the tambourine, and collecting coins in a tin cup. He showed such aptitude that Arnold rented out his services to other blind singers, including Blind Blake (Arthur Phelps), Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Joel “Blind Joe” Taggart, and Joe Walker. Josh also diligently set himself to learn to play the guitar from the musicians he met and by the time he was 13 his picking rivaled and sometimes surpassed that of his mentors. He later claimed Willie Walker, considered the pre-eminent Piedmont-style guitar picker of the day, as his principal musical model. But though glad of the opportunity to learn from some of the best, Josh remembered these years with bitterness. Josh found wearing rags and having to pass the cup for coins humiliating, and Arnold and the other blind musicians were mean and suspicious.

More on Willie Walker and lead boys in a moment. First, White shares some of his early history—without mentioning any of the pain—in his introductions to these two short songs from his childhood during a 1967 performance in Sweden. 

Vincent Harris, writing for White’s hometown paper, digs a little deeper into his life as a lead boy and beyond, adding more details to what should be a better-known slice of musical history.

These men were often cruel to him, but White was a quick study when it came to their music. Through some sort of osmosis, he became a guitarist capable of lightning-fast runs, string bends and rhythmic riffs. He also developed an encyclopedic knowledge of songs, building a huge repertoire of blues and gospel classics. He began recording at the age of 14, first as a sideman and then on his own under a variety of names, including Pinewood Tom, Joshua White, The Singing Christian and Tipp Barton.

From the 1920s until 1939, White’s recording career operated in a series of fits and starts that saw White moonlighting as a boxer to earn extra money. But in late 1939, after recovering from a boxing injury to his hand, White reappeared as a confident, mature performer with a popular version of “Careless Love” on Blue Note Records. From then on, boxing wouldn’t be necessary. Over the next two decades, White starred on Broadway with Paul Robeson in “John Henry,” became the first blues artist ever to appear at New York’s famous Café Society club, released two racially charged protest albums (1940’s “Chain Gang” and 1941’s “Southern Exposure”) and toured with torch singer Libby Holman as part of the first racially mixed concert tour in American history.

Those protest albums landed on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s desk in the early 1940s. White was invited to the White House to perform, becoming the first black artist to give a Command Performance. He also formed a close friendship with the Roosevelts, to the extent that the press occasionally referred to White as the “presidential minstrel.”

Though most of us these days wouldn’t think twice about Black artists performing at the White House and hobnobbing with presidents, White performed at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third inauguration ball, went on a European “Goodwill Tour” with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1950, and Eleanor even hired White’s son, William, to work at Hyde Park

This photo of 33-year-old White with other musicians in the New York scene was taken the year I was born. Again, it is difficult to picture the suave and debonair White as a child, barefoot and begging.

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Gene Sedric, Cliff Jackson, Olivette Miller, and Josh White, Café Society (Downtown), New York, N.Y., ca. Mar. 1947 (William P. Gottlieb 15891). pic.twitter.com/MHrPuYY4oZ

— »★«F̾I̾R̾E̾ ̾A̾G̾A̾T̾E̾ ̾P̾R̾E̾S̾S̾»★« (@VIRGILKAY5) May 20, 2020

To take an even deeper dive into White’s remarkable story, check out musician and folk/blues writer Elijah Wald’s 2000 biography, Josh White, Society Blues.

Josh White’s life is the history of black American music finding a white audience, of folk music and the American left, and of a man who remade himself time and time again, fighting discrimination,stereotypes, and his own personal demons to become one of the world’s most successful black entertainers, then maintaining himself in that position through four decades. Josh was hailed at various times as king of the blues singers, king of the folksingers, king of the political singers, pioneering black sex symbol, “Presidential Minstrel” to the Roosevelt White House, and king of Cafe Society…

In the 1950s, Josh conquered Europe, then saw his achievements collapse in the polarized political ferment of the McCarthy era. Attempting to strike a balance that would keep his career afloat, he instead succeeded in alienating both political camps, declaring that he had been “a sucker for the Communists,” while maintaining his outspoken stance on civil rights. A star in England, he was the forgotten man at home. By the end of the decade, however, the folk revival had hit and he was climbing back to the top. By 1963, the height of the folk revival, he was ranked as America’s third most popular folksinger, after Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger but ahead of Bob Dylan, and was a featured performer at Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. At his death in 1969, he was the best-known folk-blues artist in America.

This televised concert was recorded in Sweden in 1962. White has such fun, encouraging the stoic Swedes to sing along with him and even turning to Australia for a unique rendition of “Waltzing Matilda.”

In his 2001 Washington Post review of Wald’s biography, Jabari Asim touches on reasons why White didn’t remain a household name after his death.

A singer-guitarist, White recorded some 78 albums during the course of a long and productive career. He became a popular blues and gospel musician before achieving his greatest success as a folk singer. At the peak of his renown in the mid-’40s, he was a nightclub headliner with a national hit (“One Meat Ball”), regular radio exposure and a dignified role in a Hollywood film to his credit. According to Wald, he “rivaled Burl Ives as America’s most popular folksinger.” Yet White has been almost completely neglected in the decades following his death in 1969.

Of the many possible reasons for this quick slide into obscurity, two stand out. The first involves notions of authenticity, always a loaded issue where art is concerned. For much of the latter portion of White’s career, his audience was overwhelmingly white. In the eyes of some of his contemporaries as well as music historians, White diluted his music to make it more palatable to his most loyal listeners, depriving it of that intangible “genuine” quality that made his songs compelling in the first place. Those who hold that view would not be inclined to devote much attention to White when writing about or discussing his era.

The second possibility is that White did irreparable harm to his own reputation during the McCarthy period, paving the way for his subsequent fade from history. Wald examines both scenarios and concludes that White’s reputation has suffered unfairly in each instance.

I find it interesting that critics questioned White’s “authenticity.” Perhaps he wasn’t “down home” enough, or appeared too “uppity” for those who sit as musical jurors and arbiters. Who could possibly question a man trained in a harder school than most could even imagine?

Who could question the bonafides of a musician who jammed and recorded with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Huddie Ledbetter, better known to music fans as the legendary Lead Belly?

Remember, this was a man whose early musical training came from legends like Blind Willie Walker.

Willie Walker was born blind, somewhere in rural South Carolina, in 1896. He relocated with his parents to Greenville when he was 16, and was soon playing with the Greenville String Band, where he may have played with the young Gary Davis. He also earned money by playing for tips on streetcorners, often accompanied by a ‘lead-boy’ who would lead him around, play tambourine and collect the coins. Josh White played that role for a while in the 20s, picking up some tips himself on how to play some spectacular Piedmont guitar. Willie had a complex and accurate technique, and Josh said “Blind Blake was fast, but Willie was like Art Tatum”. He often played in the key of C, which gave his music a bright feeling, and it is a Greenville trait that was passed down to local men like ‘Baby’ Tate and ‘Baby’ Brooks many years later.

Enjoy that “bright feeling” in this recording from just three years before Walker died.

Beyond the “authenticity” critiques, White was also a victim of the McCarthy era—whether or not to testify was a decision that created deep splinters and schisms on the left. I lived through the tension of this fraught time, though I was too young to fully comprehend why certain friends of my parents were no longer close friends—all due to who testified and who didn’t, who named names and who didn’t. Because White, under pressure, decided to testify—naming no names and even reading “Strange Fruit” into the Congressional Record—he was then blacklisted by the American left. He and his wife, gospel singer Carol Carr, left the country, settling in Great Britain. Years later, President John F. Kennedy would lift his blacklist status, inviting White to perform on ”Dinner with the President.” White would go on to perform at the March on Washington with Odetta, whom I profiled earlier this month.

One of the more significant and highly controversial actions taken by White to address the cause of racial equity was his decision to tour and perform with Libby Holman. Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman was a white “torch singer,” who was, to put it mildly, notorious. Though I don’t suggest you read Jon Bradshaw’s biography, The Tragic Life of Libby Holman, this very critical 1985 review of the book by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times introduces her.

Though she was already famous for her dark, smoky-voiced renditions of ”Body and Soul” and ”Moanin’ Low” and for her appearances on stage in ”The Little Show” and ”Three’s a Crowd,” the torch singer Libby Holman would go on to win a different kind of celebrity in 1932, when she was accused of murdering her husband, the flamboyant tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds. The charges were later dropped, but the case became something of a national sensation – it even inspired an M-G-M movie starring Jean Harlow – and would continue to cast shadows over the rest of the singer’s life. She committed suicide in 1971.

The Jewish Women’s Archive offers a detailed Holman biography.

In 1929, she sang her trademark torch song, “Moanin’ Low,” in Clifton Webb’s The Little Show. Framed by a theatrical sketch in which Holman played a two-timing “mulatto” lover, “Moanin’ Low” made her a legend. Her unusual basso contralto, Betty Boop lips, and untraditional beauty created what Times critic Brooks Atkinson labeled a “dark purple menace.” Many people believed that Holman was a “Negro” who passed as white, because of her rich black hair, dark skin, and “racial” style of singing. She always insisted, “Nothing could have pleased me more.” Inspired by her musical admiration for singers such as Ethel Waters, Holman cultivated racial ambiguity in her art.

During this period, Clifton Webb introduced Holman to Louisa Carpenter, a millionaire member of the du Pont family. By the time Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s Three’s a Crowd opened at the Selwyn Theater on October 15, 1930, Carpenter and Holman had become inseparable lovers. Her bisexuality became the talk of Broadway, only the first of many tabloid scandals she inspired in the thirties. Costarring with Fred Allen, Holman sang “Give Me Something to Remember You By” and “Body and Soul.” The latter was banned from the radio for obscenity but became one of the best-selling records of the time and the song most identified with Holman throughout her career…

In 1941, Holman met Leadbelly and Josh White at a Greenwich Village nightclub. For the next four years, as Holman’s guitar accompanist, White interested her in adapting songs previously sung only by black performers. Building on her earlier cross-over career, Holman researched American folk and blues songs at the Library of Congress, making use of the Lomax field recordings.

During her tragic life, Holman was also known for her commitment to civil rights causes

She also was a fierce champion of social causes and was an early supporter of the Civil Rights movement; indeed, it was through a grant from her foundation that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to travel to India to study first-hand the non-violent techniques espoused by Gandhi.

Those who didn’t live through the days of Jim Crow and segregation may not understand why a white woman touring and recording with a Black male accompanist (especially one who was considered to be very sexually attractive) created such a furor. It had never been done, and for many white audiences, such a pairing was in fact completely unacceptable

In the midst of the 1940s, in a world of almost total segregation, Libby and Josh toured around performing together on stage. This was in the days when Billie Holiday was expected to ‘black up’ to sing alongside the darker-skinned male members of Count Basie’s band, just in case people in the South thought she was a white woman consorting with black men.

Libby and Josh were beyond brave, although perhaps she did not quite realize what she was taking on in 1940s America. When they started rehearsals for their first show in a New York club, she arrived at the front door and was welcomed. Josh was directed to the staff entrance round the back. Libby waited till the day they were due to open, after the owners had spent a vast amount on publicity, and told them she was not going to sing in their club until they changed their racial door policy. She won.

In Philadelphia, Josh was refused a room at the hotel in whose bar they sang nightly. Libby ranted and told them: ‘Take down the American flag outside and fly the fucking swastika, why don’t you!’ When they were told by officials that the US Army did not tolerate mixed shows, Libby replied: ‘Mixed? You mean boys and girls?’ Josh and Libby insisted on touring the segregated black army barracks and billets all over the United States throughout the Second World War, which only reinforced their anger at the segregation and discrimination black soldiers fighting for democracy had to put up with.

The segregation of music venues continued into the era of rock and roll. Rolling Stone takes an in-depth look at this cruelty in 2017’s The Rope: The Forgotten History of Segregated Rock & Roll Concerts.

One night in the late 1950s, the Flamingos’ bus pulled up to a concert hall in Birmingham, Alabama, and a row of 30 to 50 police officers holding rifles and billy clubs was waiting for them. The cops escorted the six-member doo-wop group, famous for “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “The Ladder of Love,” to its dressing room and gave strict instructions: As black performers, they were to make eye contact with only the black fans, who were confined to the balcony, and not with whites on the floor.

“It was ridiculous,” recalls Terry Johnson, now 78, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–inducted group. “The cops were up there making sure we did not look at any white person. It was a rule when we came in: ‘I don’t want to see any of you darkies looking at the white women out there. If you do, your ass is mine.’ Cruel things like that.”

The Flamingos, like all African-American performers from that era, had to contend with Jim Crow absurdities. Often they couldn’t stay at hotels, were served rotten food at white restaurants and were outright banned from others; they would instead drive out of the way to eat at black friends’ homes. But that Birmingham performance stayed with Johnson.

Just imagine the reaction White and Holman must have sparked a decade earlier. Yet they persisted, recording several albums together, including one entitled The Scandalous Libby Holman

If Holman’s rendition seems both familiar and foreign, it’s because ”House of the Rising Sun” is an old folk standard, which in later years became a pop hit, as performed by The Animals. However, Josh White is often credited with the shifts in the lyrics and the key.  

Like Eric Bibb, son of Leon Bibb, and Toshi Reagon, daughter of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon—all of whom I wrote about this month— Josh White, Jr. has continued his father’s musical tradition.

Josh Jr. started performing with his dad at  the age of 4. Here he is doing an adorable duet with Dad, sharing duties on one of Josh Sr.’s biggest hits, ”One Meatball.”

Josh Jr., born in 1940, has spent almost his entire life in show business.

The youngster was immediately initiated into the performing world, taking the stage with his father at New York’s Café Society nightclub in a miniature version of his father’s onstage wardrobe. He was four years old. “I just went along with the program,” White told the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call. “It was just the thing to do, to wear the suits and put my foot up on the stool like he did—people thought it was cute.” For five years, this father-and-son show toured theaters around the northeast. By the time nine-year-old Josh Jr. won a role in a Broadway play called How Long til Summer?, he was a seasoned theatrical veteran. He won a special Tony award for Best Child Actor in 1949.

Attending the Professional Children’s School in New York, White continued his theatrical career. He appeared in a half-dozen different plays between 1949 and 1960 and added more than 50 television guest-star slots to his resume during that period. His recording career began with the See Saw album on the Decca label in 1956.

The following album, I’m On My Own Way, was released eight years later.

I’ll close with Josh Jr.’s live rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun,” recorded at Germany’s Orpheum Nuremberg in October 2016.

Josh White, Sr. died of cardiovascular disease in September 1969.

Peter Yarrow eulogized him the best way he possibly could: in music.

After Josh White’s funeral, one of his dearest proteges, 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:

“Goodbye Josh, goodbye old friend,
Your strings are quiet, the music ends.

What was it you said in a farewell to me?

(You said) ‘Live it hard and then let it be.’
Goodbye to Woody and to Cisco too,

Goodbye Leadbelly, and Josh, here’s to you.
You filled a morning with sunshine and light,

Part of your songs are memories,

a part of my life. Oh, time to listen, time to share,

Time to remember, time to care,
After the thunder comes the rain,

And in the morning, it start all over again.
Goodbye Josh, goodbye old friend.

Goodbye Josh, and here’s to you. ”

White’s influence can be heard in the catchy tribute.

In 1998—almost 30 years after his death—the United States Postal Service issued a Josh White commemorative stamp as part of their American Music series.

I hope this introduction to Josh White, both the senior and junior, as well as a few other folk and blues artists has wet your whistles for even more Black folk and blues history in these pandemic Sundays ahead. In the interim, stay safe, keep on social distancing, and please do let music soothe the frustrations of our continued isolation. 

Peace, love, and make sure you vote.

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