There is no way to do justice to the myriad accomplishments and massive legacy of Josh White (1914-1969) at anything less than book length. Fortunately, there are a couple of biographies, and I’ll share info about them at the bottom of this post. Meantime, we want to do our bit to make you aware of a career that crossed cultural and musical boundaries — as well as the color line.
White was the son of a Greenville, South Carolina preacher. When he was seven, his father was badly beaten and thrown into a mental asylum for confronting a a white bill collector who’d accosted him at his home. He died in the institution nearly a decade later. When still a boy, White left home and worked with a succession of blind blues singers. Initially he worked as a guide and companion to Blind Arnold, a street singer who traveled throughout the South. But White, who’d sung in church choirs, could also carry a tune, and he quickly turned to dance and play the tambourine and perform along with Arnold. Still shoeless and dressed in rags, he next toured with Blind Blake and Blind Joe Taggart, acquiring guitar skills at their knee. With the latter in 1928 he made his first recordings in Chicago, still only 14 years old. He was thus the youngest recording artist of the classic blues period. In 1930 he became a solo artist in his own right, in a couple of guises: Joshua White, the Singing Christian (for spirituals), and Pinewood Tom (for naughty blues).
In 1936, White suffered a potentially catastophic setback when he put his hand through a window during a barfight. The wounds became infected and doctors advocated for the amputation of the limb. Naturally this would have been fatal to the career of a guitar player, and White resisted. The hand healed but remained paralyzed for many months however before he finally regained the use of it in late 1937.
White next formed a new jazz group, Josh White and his Carolinians, and moved up to Harlem. It was here that he was spotted by scouts and cast in the 1940 Broadway show, John Henry with Paul Robeson. White played the character of Blind Lemon Jefferson. The show only played a short time, but it put White on the map. He then became the toast of New York, singing on the radio and at chic jazz clubs like the Village Vanguard and Cafe Society, teamed up with performers like Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and Libby Holman (historically important for being the first mixed-race male and female musical collaboration in the U.S.) In 1940, he performed at FDR’s third inaugural, and became a close friend and advisor to the Roosevelts on race relations. (His younger brother William was to become Mrs. Roosevelt’s personal assistant).
White became a popular recording artist throughout the ’40s, charting both singles and LP albums. He popularized many historically important songs: he recorded and/pr performed “One More Meatball” before Jimmy Savo, “The House I Live In (What Is America to Me)” before Frank Sinatra, and “House of the Rising Sun” before nearly everybody else. He sang duets with Billie Holiday; both performed “Strange Fruit”. Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt both called him a mentor. He worked with major folk producers like Alan Lomax and John Hammond, and with groups like the Almanac Singers. He appeared in three Hollywood movies, The Crimson Canary (1945), Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947) and The Walking Hills (1948). He returned to Broadway in the shows Blues Holiday (1945), A Long Way Home (1948), and How Long Til Summer (1949).
White’s days of glory hit a brick wall in 1950 when his name was published in Red Channels, he was called before HUAC, and blacklisted. White had never been a card carrying Communist, but he had definitely supported many worthy causes tarred as “left wing” by prejudicial leaders. He was finished in movies and on Broadway but by the mid ’50s he was recording again and appearing on television shows like Shindig, The Tonight Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Joey Bishop Show. John F. Kennedy invited him back to the White House to perform for the first time since the Roosevelt years. He thus became an elder statesman in the great folk revival of the late ’50s and ’60s.
When Josh died in 1969, Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary penned the song “Goodbye Josh”, which was included on his first solo album Peter. White’s son Josh White Jr was (and is) a major figure in the folk scene.
A discography of Josh White is here.
For more reading, there are the books Josh White: Society Blues by Elija Wald, and The Glory Road: The Story of Josh White by Dorothy Shainman Siegel.