Josh White, singer of “the fighting blues”

You could call [Josh White] the minstrel of the Blues, except that he is more than a minstrel of the Blues… Josh is a fine folksinger of anybody’s songs — southern Negro or southern white, plantation work songs or modern union songs, English or Irish ballads — any songs that come from the heart of the people…Josh White sings with such ease that you never feel like he is trying. This is the secret of true folk singing — for the folk song never tries to get itself sung. If it doesn’t ease itself into your soul and then out of your mouth spontaneously, to stay singing around your head forever, then it isn’t a folk song. And if the singer tries too hard and gets nowhere with such a song, that singer isn’t a folksinger. . . . From Blind Lemon to Burl Ives, from Bessie Smith to Aunt Molly Jackson, there runs a wave of singing easy. Josh White also sings easy.
— Langston Hughes, liner notes to Josh White Sings Easy (1944)

Last summer, sitting out on the porch at the lake house in New Hampshire, my mother somehow started reminiscing about Josh White, and the impact of his music. Mum grew up, came of age, in the folksinger era of the 1960s, and she remembered vividly his voice, his almost otherworldly guitar playing (Mum plays guitar, and gave guitar lessons all through my childhood). I started pulling up Josh White clips on my phone and we watched some of his live performances, and listened to some of the recordings. Mum was in tears. It was a beautiful bonding moment for us, and I was happy to be there with her as she walked down memory lane through the music of this artist.

It’s Josh White’s birthday today. When he died in 1969, the tributes poured out. Lena Horne counted him as a mentor. So did Eartha Kitt. He influenced generations of singers, across every genre. He merged “hillbilly” and blues, he merged gospel and blues, he brought jazz into the picture. He did it all, and often he did it first. Elvis loved him. When he died, Harry Belafonte put out a statement:

“I can’t tell you how sad I am. I spent many, many hours with him in the years of my early development. He had a profound influence on my style. At the time I came along, he was the only popular black folk singer, and through his artistry exposed America to a wealth of material about the life and conditions of black people that had not been sung by any other artist.”


Josh White and Leadbelly

There’s a reason why his name isn’t proclaimed alongside other folk singers of the 50s and 60s, even though his talent was wider and more diverse than many of them. His reputation took a hit after he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, and the full erasure of him was so complete that there is still reparative work to be done. The man was unfairly sidelined during the “Red Scare” of the 50s. The HUAC had a vested interest in breaking up the burgeoning folk movement, for obvious reasons: God forbid we care about the poor, God forbid we point out racism, it’s all gotta be the work of the REDS. This isn’t to say the Communist Party WASN’T giving funds to support the folk music movement, because it was. But these are complicated issues requiring context and nuance, dirty words to those who consider themselves ideologically pure.

White’s situation – while related to all of this, of course, since he was a folk singer and a famous one, roped into the Red Scare – was a little bit more nuanced.

He grew up in the Jim Crow South. He witnessed horrors. When WWII broke out, he sang songs criticizing the segregation of the armed forces, he sang songs about what he hoped America could be – a place of peace and racial equality – after the war. Admirable. Only racists would disagree. He was invited to the White House by FDR himself, who felt named and shamed by some of White’s songs. He wanted to hear more. White performed at the White House. In the early 1940s. He was a pioneer: he brought issues to the President that needed to be addressed. Top down leadership was necessary. So it’s really something to be a protest singer and have the President listen. (One thinks, too, of Eleanor Roosevelt’s public support of Marian Anderson.)

I also think it’s important to note that White was singing protest songs during WWII, not exactly a popular time for anyone criticizing the status quo. But White went hard. It was a time when social conflict was supposed to be put aside, we all were supposed to be in “unity” to fight the Nazis. We’ll address racism after the war, okay? But people like Langston Hughes and Josh White saw the inequality happening in all this unity and called it out (they collaborated on a radio play, with White performing in Hughes’ script). It’s one thing to be a protest singer in the middle of the Vietnam War, when basically everyone was protesting. It’s quite another thing to come out with a song called “Uncle Sam Says”, criticizing segregation in the the armed forces, in 1941. You see what I mean?

The HUAC used all of this against him. The HUAC’s tactics wreaked havoc on people’s lives, destroying a generation to such a degree it would be decades before peoples’ reputations would recover. The same thing happened in Hollywood, a particular target for the HUAC. White’s journey is worth going into a bit since he had the distinct honor of being blacklisted by both the right and the left. It’s hard to say which side did more damage. White volunteered to appear before the HUAC (sin #1 to the folk singer community), he did not name names (sin #2, to HUAC supporters), and in his testimony before the committee he spoke patriotically of his dedication to democracy (sin #3 – to both sides). When he spoke of democracy, he meant getting rid of racism, and equality for all. Only a racist would disagree.

September 1, 1950: White’s testimony before the HUAC:

I am proud of the fact that under our system of freedom, everyone is able to speak out — or in my case sing out — against what we consider wrong and what we consider right.

The love I have for America, the land of my birth, which has given me every opportunity, is far too great to permit me any other allegiance.

I am solely devoted to the principle of democracy like ours that stands for the welfare of all its people, regardless of race, creed, or color.

America is the best and freest country in the world. It is the kind of democracy that makes it possible to fight injustice and to achieve progress.

I got to hate Jim Crow for what it did to me personally and because Jim Crow is an insult to God’s creatures and a violation of the Christian beliefs taught by my father. That’s how I became a folksinger.

Besides the family, I decided that I have a duty to other folksingers and artists in general, especially young people just getting started.

They face the same things I did. I hope they will give themselves to good causes as generally I have tried to do.

As long as my voice and spirit hold out, I will keep on singing of the hope, joy, and grievances of ordinary folk.

I shall stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are pushed around and humiliated and discriminated against no matter what their race or creed may be.

But … in the phantasmagorical atmosphere of the 50s and 60s, he would not be forgiven for this statement.

White didn’t “come up” in the 40s and 50s, like his fellow travelers in folk music. He was born in 1914, first of all. He started making music in the 1920s. He toured with Leadbelly, he did duets with Billie Holiday. He sang gospel music. His guitar playing, though: his guitar is blues, influenced, of course, but with jazz thrown into the mix. A hybrid style. While rhythm & blues songs were sung from the perspective of the downtrodden, most weren’t explicitly political. They didn’t express any particular program for social change. But White did. He wrote and sang protest blues – a hybrid form not really explored until he came along. In 1941, he came out with an album called Southern Exposure: Jim Crow Blues sung by Josh White. He and Billie Holiday were way ahead of the curve (he heard her sing “Strange Fruit” and recorded it himself a couple years later.)

1941

Richard Wright, by the way, wrote the liner notes for Southern Exposure:

“The blues, contrary to popular conception, are not always concerned with love, razors, dice, and death. Southern Exposure contains the blues, the wailing blues, the moaning blues, the laughing-crying blues, the sad-happy blues. But it contains also the fighting blues.”

So good.

It’s important to point out that White was not a peripheral figure, he wasn’t one of those people who toiled in obscurity until being re-discovered by the rising folk music movement in the 60s. He achieved an almost unprecedented success at the time, enjoying a diverse and vibrant career in the 30s and 40s. He was a star. He was a sexy man, appearing in promotional photos with his shirt unbuttoned, the hair on his chest displayed. This was something new. Maybe not new in the ’60s, but new in the ’40s.

He appeared on Broadway in 1940 alongside Paul Robeson, in the musical John Henry, where he played Blind Lemon Jefferson. The play wasn’t a huge success but it raised his profile.


Paul Robeson as John Henry, on Broadway, 1940.

He was a recording artist, he released hit songs which were then covered by other people, and he also acted in movies. In the 1940s, his unprecedented collaboration with white jazz singer Libby Holman broke ground in desegregating audiences across the United States. A mixed-race musical duo was unheard of at the time. (Plus, Libby Holman was unbelievably controversial. Look it up. lol) Because of Holman’s reputation, there were sexual connotations in the pairing, also something new. You can hear it in the recordings: she sings and he plays, supporting her, weaving around her vocals, and there’s a current of feeling and passion, a kind of supernatural communication, which tread into dangerous American waters.


Josh White and Libby Holman

White had been singing protest songs for 25 years by the time the American folk movement came along. They followed his lead. And so it’s particularly shameful how this pioneering artist was treated by the folk music community. They shunned him, dis-inviting him from its festivals, banning him from their magazines, his records weren’t reviewed, it was a complete banishment. After 40 years singing folk music, it was over. So he moved to the much saner environment of Europe, where audiences were still in love with him, treasuring his singular mix of blues and gospel and jazz.

In recent decades, some reparative work has been done. Box sets have been released. His hometown, Greenville, South Carolina, acknowledges him with plaques and days named in his honor. He’s not hard to find. Once you Google him, a wealth of information comes up. He made it to a postage stamp.

I was Googling around and tripped over a YouTube series called Reverend Robert Jones’ Blues Chronicles. Here’s his video, well worth watching in full, on Josh Whites’ guitar playing:

What matters, at the end of the day, is his art. His voice, his music, his guitar. His lyrics. His dedication to making the world a better place, using his art to do so. His music is eternal and it still feels brand new. Ahead of our time, still. Mum and I did a deep dive into all of this, sitting out on the porch, huddled by my phone, watching him and listening to him do his thing. Tears were on Mum’s face. His music means a lot to her. It was such a special moment so this post is for her.

Thank you, Josh White.

So let’s get to some clips:

This is one of the earliest recordings I could find. “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed”, from the late ’20s:

Listen to that guitar.

Two singles from his collab with Libby Holman.

“Baby Baby”, 1942:

“Fare Thee Well”, 1942:

Now let’s hear some of his WWII protest songs, a very sparsely populated genre, in general.

“Uncle Sam Says”, from 1941. This song, about the segregation of the armed forces, is the one that got Roosevelt’s attention.

Another protest song from 1941, “Defense Factory Blues”

In 1942, Langston Hughes wrote a script about Black soldiers called The Man Who Went to War. It was performed on the BBC, with Josh White playing one of the roles. In the play, White performed a song called “Freedom Road”, with lyrics by Hughes, music by White:

“Freedom Road” shows White’s ease in any style. The song isn’t the blues, it isn’t jazz. It’s something else.

“The House I Live In” was another protest song, recorded in 1944, where White dreamed of racial equality, hoping it would come to “the house I live in” after the war:

There are multiple hit singles from the 1940s, some written by him, some covers of either traditional folk songs (from around the world, in some case) or penned by contemporary songwriters. I particularly love his cover of “Miss Otis Regrets”. Like Willie Nelson, like Jimi Hendrix, like Eddie Van Halen, like Jerry Reed, you can pick his guitar-playing out of a blind lineup. Some of his 1940s work:

“One Meatball” (1945) was a big hit for him:

“Jelly Jelly”, composed by Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine:

“Waltzing Matilda”, a traditional folk song which White re-arranged into a waltz tempo. This was a big hit for him, and was included on a record distributed to troops overseas to keep their spirits up:

“St. James Infirmary”, a classic, of course, which he added new lyrics to:

I love his 1940s recording of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets”:

I can’t let all this go by without mentioning “House of the Rising Sun”! Naturally it will always be associated with The Animals, who made it famous, although Bob Dylan got there first. But you can’t really say anyone got there “first” with this one. It’s one of those traditional folk songs written by … who the hell knows. “Trad.” is the author. Woody Guthrie recorded it in 1941. White wrote some new lyrics for it and recorded it in 1942.

Let’s hear his great song from 1958, “Hard Time Blues”:

His Hollywood career is also undiscovered territory but I do want to mention it. In the 1944 film noir Crimson Canary he appears as himself, performing in a nightclub:

Even more notable, he appears in the 1949 film The Walking Hills, directed by Preston Sturges, starring Randolph Scott, John Ireland, Ella Raines, and Arthur Kennedy. Again, he sings, and plays a character who’s not a stereotype. He exists on the same plane of reality as the other characters.

Again, it was a different time, and it may be hard to see it now, but such inroads are important factors in cracking apart the edifice of racist stereotypes in film. And he was a big star at the time, through his recordings with Libby Holman, his touring, his hit singles, his Broadway appearances, etc. So this is important context too. His appearance in The Walking Hills was a star cameo.

After his forced eclipse in the United States, he moved to Europe. I came across a treasure trove of actual live recordings of him at a concert in Sweden in 1962. There’s way more where this comes from but since there isn’t a ton of footage of him playing live, this is so wonderful to watch him work an audience, to watch his quiet command of the room, and to actually watch him make those amazing sounds on the guitar. It’s haunting.

Josh White died in 1969.

In 1979, Bob Gibson and Shel Silverstein collaborated in a song written in tribute to Hank Williams, Janis Joplin, and Josh White called “Heavenly Choir”:

In 1972, Peter Yarrow, of Peter Paul & Mary fame, wrote his tribute, called “Goodbye Josh”:

In 1970, poet Leatrice Emeruwa wrote “Josh White is Dead”, the year after his passing:

White’s legacy lives on in his son, Grammy-award winning artist Josh White, Jr. who has spent his career covering his father’s songs, giving interviews about his father, and carrying on the tradition his father helped create.


Josh White and his son, Josh White, Jr.

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