Josh WhiteMay 19th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1914-1969 Josh White was one of the most popular African American entertainers of his era. Combining blues roots with an acute political conscience, he was an early mainstream crossover artist and arguably the greatest black folk singer of all time. Despite setbacks in the McCarthy period, he had a seminal influence on several styles of music, and on many well-known performers.
White was born in 1914 in Greenville, South Carolina. His father was a preacher and his mother sang in church choirs, as did White. When he was seven, his father was unjustly arrested for throwing a white bill collector off his land, and consigned to a state institution, where he would die. White worked to help support the impoverished family, serving as “lead boy” for blind blues and gospel musicians around the South. This exposed him to many great artists, and more: he witnessed a Georgia lynching while still a child.
White practiced guitar and sang, inspired by the musicians. At the age of 14, he made his first recordings of gospel and blues, with Blind Joe Taggart. He moved to New York City in 1932, where he married and began a solo career. His material was traditional blues and gospel, targeted to the “race records” audience of rural African Americans; but White was distinguished by his graceful guitar and rich smooth voice in the Piedmont Blues style, and enjoyed greater popularity than Delta Blues greats such as Robert Johnson. He recorded blues under the name “Pinewood Tom” and gospel as Josh White, while earning a reputation as one of the first black sex symbols whose womanizing and music knew no racial boundaries. One recording, 1936’s “No More Ball and Chain,” gave evidence of his emerging political message, but an injury to his right hand kept him from playing for four years.
His return brought him into a new musical realm and to new audiences, with an appearance in a Broadway show, John Henry, alongside the famous black singer Paul Robeson. In contrast to his earlier period, White was now involved with a largely white, urban, and cosmopolitan consort, epitomized by the club Café Society where he became a headlining performer. This group was also politically left-leaning, and many members were sympathetic to socialist ideals.
The Sound of Protest
In 1940, White recorded an unprecedented album for Columbia Records called Chain Gang. Sponsored by the producer John Hammond, with a group that included civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, the album was a collection of prison songs adapted by White and his colleagues. Songs like “Trouble” represented the first time racial issues were explicitly treated in a recording. White was catapulted into the folk music stratosphere. He began playing with such luminaries of the left as Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and Woody Guthrie, and their ad hoc ensemble which recorded for Keynote Records. White was also heard on CBS radio programs produced by Alan Lomax, the folk musicologist.
Keynote Records released White’s next album, 1941’s seminal Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues. The songs were all originals by White, working with Harlem Renaissance poet Waring Cuney, and they fulfilled the title’s promise. It was the first such overt album ever released, and the first blues recording to receive serious coverage in the New York Times and other white media outlets. One song in particular, which addressed segregation in the Armed Forces, attracted the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He invited White to perform the song, the first African American White House command performance, and several times thereafter, which earned White the sobriquet “The Presidential Minstrel”; but he also had serious conversations with the President and the First Lady about racial issues.
With the U.S. entry into World War II, the Soviet Union became an ally. Communism was embraced in liberal circles, and admired for its anti-racist stance. White and his cohorts played benefit concerts for socialist causes and organizations. During this period his range of material expanded to include pop-influenced tunes, jazz, and European ballads. In 1944, his “One Meat Ball” became a million-selling hit, a first for a black artist. “St. James Infirmary” is also well known. Other songs, like “Strange Fruit,” drew from his childhood experience. His popular “Free and Equal Blues” attacked racism at its roots. Later in the decade, he appeared in two Hollywood films and another Broadway show. He was the first African American performer to make a solo tour of the U.S. in 1945, and made his first European tour in 1950.
With the end of World War II came the Cold War, and the ascent of McCarthyism. A formal blacklist and an unofficial publication called Red Channels purported to name communists in the entertainment industries, including White. Confronted with a threat to his livelihood, and responsible for a family with five children, he volunteered to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. By doing so, he alienated his left-wing friends and associates; and by failing to incriminate others in his testimony and adhering to his rigorously anti-racist stance, he antagonized the conservative camp. White’s soaring career came to a screeching halt. He managed to support himself and his family with frequent European appearances through the 1950s.
At the end of the decade, a folk revival brought him back into the public eye with TV appearances and a Billboard magazine student poll rating as America’s third most popular male folksinger. White avoided overtly political music, and his final two albums, for Mercury in 1963, had established blues musicians backing him in a return to his earlier style. He was a featured performer that year at the historic March on Washington. Following years of heart disease, White died during heart surgery in 1969, the best-known folk-blues artist in America. He left as a legacy his introduction of the blues to a broad white audience, his influence on an entire generation of folk and political singers, and the effect they in turn had on society.