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Josh White - Joshua Daniel White (February 11, 1914 – September 5, 1969), better known as Josh White, was an American singer, guitarist, songwriter, actor, and civil rights activist. He also recorded under the names "Pinewood Tom" and "Tippy Barton" in the 1930s.
White grew up in the Jim Crow South. During the 1920s and 30s, he became a prominent race records artist, with a prolific output of recordings in genres including Piedmont blues, country blues, gospel, and social protest songs. In 1931, White moved to New York, and within a decade his fame had spread widely; his repertoire expanded to include urban blues, jazz, traditional folk songs, and political protest songs. He soon was in demand as an actor on radio, Broadway, and film.
White also became the closest African-American friend and confidant to president Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, White's anti-segregationist and international human rights political stance presented in many of his recordings and in his speeches at rallies resulted in the right-wing McCarthyites assuming him a Communist. Accordingly, from 1947 through the mid 1960s, White became caught up in the anti-Communist Red Scare, and combined with the resulting attempt to clear his name, his career was damaged. White's playing style influenced many future generations of guitarists, including Blind Boy Fuller, Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Lonnie Donegan, Eartha Kitt, Alexis Korner, Odetta, Elvis Presley, The Kingston Trio, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Merle Travis, Dave Van Ronk, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Eric Weissberg, Judy Collins, Mike Bloomfield, Danny Kalb, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Richie Havens, Don McLean, Roy Harper, Ry Cooder, John Fogerty, Eva Cassidy and Jack White.
Two months after his father's death, Joshua left home with a blind, black street singer named Blind Man Arnold, who he had agreed to lead across the South to collect coins after performances. Arnold would then send White's mother two dollars a week. Arnold soon realized that he could profit from this gifted boy who quickly learned to dance, sing, and play the tambourine. Over the next eight years, he rented the boy's services out to 66 different blind street singers, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, and Blind Joe Taggart, and in time young Joshua quickly mastered the varied guitar stylings all his blind masters. In order to appear sympathetic to the onlookers tossing coins, the old men kept Joshua shoeless and in ragged short pants till he was sixteen years old. At night he would have to sleep in the cotton fields or in the horse stables, often on an empty stomach, while his master slept in a black hotel.
While guiding Taggert in 1927, White arrived in Chicago, Illinois. Mayo Williams, a producer for Paramount Records, recognized White's talents and began using him as a session guitarist. He backed up many artists for recordings before recording his first popular Paramount recording as the lead vocalist and lead guitarist on "Scandalous and a Shame" and billed as "Blind Joe Taggert & Joshua White," while becoming the youngest artist of the `race records' era. Yet he was still shoeless, sleeping in the horse stable, and with all his recordings payments going to Taggert and Arnold. After Mayo Williams left Paramount to start his own label in Chicago, he threatened Taggert that if he didn't pay White for his recording services he would call the authorities and have him arrested for indentured servitude and keeping the boy out of school. For a few months after Taggert released him from his servitude, White shared a room with Blind Blake at Williams' home before finding his own room in a boarding house. Finally, he was being paid for his recordings, and for the first time in his life able to buy and wear proper clothes and shoes. For the next two years, White continued an active recording schedule in Chicago, until he had saved enough money to return to Greenville and take care of his mother and younger siblings.
1930s: "The Singing Christian" and "Pinewood Tom"
After his signing, White moved to New York City, billed as "Joshua White - The Singing Christian". Within a few months, after recording all of his religious repertoire, ARC explained to White that he could make more money if he also recorded the blues repertoire he had learned, in addition to working as a session man for other artists. White, at 18 and still underage, signed a new contract under the name "Pinewood Tom" in 1932, although this was only used on his blues recordings. ARC used his birth name for new gospel recordings, and soon added "The Singing Christian" to the title. ARC also released his recordings under the name Tippy Barton during this period. As a session guitarist, he recorded with Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, Buddy Moss, Charlie Spand, The Carver Boys, Walter Roland, and Lucille Bogan.
In February 1936, he punched his left hand through a glass door during a bar fight, and the hand became infected with gangrene. White was advised by doctors to amputate the hand, and White repeatedly refused. Amputation was averted, but his chording hand was left immobile. Afterwords, he retreated from his recording career to become a dock worker, an elevator operator, and a building superintendent. During the time when his hand was lame, he squeezed a small rubber ball to try and revive it.
One night during a card game, White's left hand was revived completely; and he immediately began practicing his guitar, and soon put together a group called "Josh White & His Carolinians" with his brother Billy and close friends Carrington Lewis, Sam Gary, and Bayard Rustin. They soon began playing private parties in Harlem. At one of these parties, on New Year's Eve 1938, Leonard DePaur, a Broadway choral director, was intrigued by Josh's singing. For the past six months, DePaur and the producers of the Broadway musical in development, John Henry, had been searching America for an actor/singer/guitarist to play the lead role of Blind Lemon, a street minstrel who would wander back and forth across the stage narrating the story in song. Their initial auditions with native New York singers proved to be unsuccessful, so they looked through previous race record releases to find a suitable artist. They eventually narrowed their search down to two people, "Pinewood Tom" and "The Singing Christian", both used as pseudonyms by White.
1940s: "Josh White and his Guitar"
Throughout the 1940s, as a major matinee idol with magnetic sexual charisma and a commanding stage presence, White not only was an international star of recordings, concerts, nightclubs, radio, film, and Broadway, he also achieved a unique position for an African American of the segregated era by becoming accepted and befriended by white society, aristocracy, European royalty, and America's ruling family, The Roosevelts. One of his most popular recordings during the 1940s was "One Meatball," lyrics a song about a little old man who could afford only one meatball. The song is an adaptation by the American songwriters Hy Zaret and Lou Singer of a song called "Lay of the One Fishball" lyrics by Harvard Professor George Martin Lane, which was to the tune of an English folk song called "Sucking Cider Through a Straw" lyrics. When offered the song he immediately recorded it and it became the first million-selling record by an African American male artist; according to his biographer, Elijah Wald, it was "Josh's biggest hit by far". The Andrews Sisters and Jimmy Savo soon recorded their own versions, which also became hits (other cover versions were recorded in subsequent years by Bing Crosby, Lightnin' Hopkins, Lonnie Donegan, Dave Van Ronk, Ry Cooder, Washboard jungle, Tom Paxton, and Shinehead).
White's hits during the 1940s include "Jelly, Jelly" (a tune with very sexual lyrics, composed by Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine); "The House I Live In (What Is America To Me)", a major patriotic American song during World War II, written by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan (the lyrics discuss what White hoped America would become after the war and government-sanctioned segregation would end; White had the first hit record with the song, then taught it to Frank Sinatra for his MGM film short about the song which won an Academy Award); "Waltzing Matilda" (an Australian sailor taught this old jaunty, up-tempo Australian folk song to Josh backstage at the Cafe Society; White re-arranged the song into a waltz tempo, then donated his services to the government by recording it the next week for the government's "V Disc" label to boost the moral of the troops overseas, and it became an immediate hit); "St. James Infirmary" (new words and music by White); the old English folk song, "Lass With the Delicate Air"; "John Henry" (new words and music by Josh), "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" (new words and music by White), "The Riddle Song (I Gave My Love a Cherry)" (an old English traditional folk song), "Evil Hearted Man" (words and music by White), "Miss Otis Regrets" (by Cole Porter), "The House of the Rising Sun" (new words and music by White; recorded subsequently by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, and in 1964 in a rock beat by The Animals), and "Strange Fruit.
White recorded in a wide variety of contexts, from recordings in which he was accompanied only by his own guitar playing, to others in which he was backed by guitar and string bass or piano, or jazz ensembles, gospel vocal groups, or even a big swing jazz band, as was the case with his popular 1945 recording, "I Left A Good Deal in Mobile". He also performed and recorded with the great jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, and besides his duets with Libby Holman and with Leadbelly, he recorded and performed duets with Buddy Moss, and performed often in duets with his friend Billie Holiday. He also recorded songs of social and political protest with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and Lee Hays in their folk cooperative group the Almanac Singers.
In 1945, with the immense success of his hit single "One Meatball", in addition to his national radio show, his appearance in the film Crimson Canary, and all the publicity emanating from the Cafe Society, Josh White became the first African-American popular music artist to make a national concert hall tour of America, with the Jamaican singer/dancer Josephine Premice as his opening act. Other African-American concert tours to follow included Ethel Waters, Willie Bryant, Timmie Rogers, The Katherine Dunham Company, The Hall Johnson Choir, Mary Lou Williams, Lillian Fitzgerald, The Chocolateers, and The Three Poms. The success of this tour created a demand for a return tour of America's concert halls the following year. On this second tour, White brought the innovative dancer/choreographer Pearl Primus, who had worked with him at the Cafe Society, as his opening act. Primus had choreographed several performance pieces to the music of Josh White, and on this tour they would perform these numbers together. For the remainder of Pearl Primus's career, she would perform these pieces created with Josh White as a major part of her concert program.
As an actor between the years of 1939 and 1950, White would appear in dozens of radio dramas, including the classic Norman Corwin plays, and star or co-star on the New York stage in three musicals and three dramatic plays, in addition to appearing in several films. In February, 1945, Paramount Pictures in Hollywood optioned John Lomax’s projected autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, with Bing Crosby to star as Lomax and Josh White as Lead Belly. Lead Belly stayed in California until the end of the year, hoping to be involved in the project, but the film never got past the pre-production stage. However, White would appear in other films, including: The Crimson Canary (1945), in which he portrayed himself; the Hans Richter film Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947), co-starring with Libby Holman, which won the Special Prize at the Venice Film Festival and was a major contributor to the "avant-garde" film movement; and the John Sturges film The Walking Hills (1949), in which he co-starred with Randolph Scott, John Ireland, Ella Raines, and Arthur Kennedy, in one of Hollywood's first films where an African American was portrayed as a racially equal character in the story.
As a leading artist/activist of the era, who had begun writing and recording political protest songs as early as 1933, and who would speak and sing at human rights rallies, Josh White was prominently associated with the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1940s. This activism made White's politics suspect in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, and accordingly, The Walking Hills would be his final film role.
Josh White at the Cafe Society
One day, John Hammond asked Josh to meet Barney Josephson, the owner of the club. As soon as Josephson heard White and saw the charisma he exuded, he told Hammond that Josh was going to become the first black male sex symbol in America. It was Josephson who decided at that first encounter, on the stage apparel he would have designed for Josh - that would become a Josh White trademark for years to come - a black velvet shirt open to the stomach and silk slacks. While starring at the Cafe Society over the next decade and becoming exposed to audiences, performers and beautiful music from around the world, White expanded his musical interests and repertoire to include a variety of styles which he would then subsequently record. He had remarkable success in popularizing recordings with a diverse group of musical genres, which ranged from his original repertoire of the Negro blues, gospel and protest songs, to Broadway show tunes, cabaret, pop, and white American, English and Australian folk songs.
The Greenwich Village club was so successful that Josephson soon opened a larger Cafe Society Uptown, at which Josh also performed, gaining him recognition by the New York Times as the "Darling of Fifth Avenue". The Roosevelt family, New York society, international royalty, and Hollywood stars regularly came to see White at the Cafe Society, and he used his fame and visibility to create, foster and develop relations between blacks and whites, making him a national figure and voice of racial integration in America.
He was thought to have numerous romantic liaisons with wealthy society women, singers, and Hollywood actresses, but the rumors were never substantiated. The women in question always referred to Josh as their close friend, and Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt also referred to him as a mentor.
The Cafe Society made White a star and put him in a unique position as an African American man. However, because of the club's unique social status of mixing the races, it also became a haven for New York's social progressives whose politics leaned to the Left. As it played a vital role in White's ascendance to stardom, it would also one day play a crucial role in his fall from grace.
Josh White and the Roosevelts
Beginning in 1940, White established a long and close relationship with the family of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and would become the closest African American confidant to the President of the United States; and the Roosevelts were the godparents of Josh White, Jr. (born November 30, 1940). In January 1941, Josh performed at the President's Inauguration, and two months later, he released another highly controversial record album, Southern Exposure, which included six anti-segregationist songs with liner notes written by the celebrated and equally controversial African American writer Richard Wright, and whose sub-title was "An Album of Jim Crow Blues". Like the Chain Gang album, and with revelatory yet inflammatory songs such as "Uncle Sam Says", "Jim Crown Train", "Bad Housing Blues", Defense Factory Blues", "Southern Exposure", and "Hard Time Blues", it also was forced upon the southern white radio stations and record stores, caused outrage in the South and also was brought to the attention of President Roosevelt. However, instead of making White persona-non-grata in segregated America, it resulted in President Roosevelt asking White to become the first African American artist to give a White House Command Performance, in 1941. Upon completing that first White House Command Performance, the Roosevelts invited White up to their private chambers, where they spent more than three hours talking about Josh's life story of growing up in Jim Crow South, listening to his songs written about those experiences, and drinking Café Royale (coffee and brandy). At one point during that evening, the President said to Josh, "You know Josh, when I first heard your song `Uncle Sam Says,' I thought you were referring to me as Uncle Sam....Am I right?" White responded, "Yes Mr. President, I wrote that song to you after seeing how my brother was treated in the segregated section of Fort Dix army camp. . . However that wasn't the first song I wrote to you. . . In 1933, I wrote and recorded a song called `Low Cotton,' about the plight of Negro cotton pickers down South, and in the lyrics I made an appeal directly to you to help their situation." The President, interested and impressed at the candor of his response, then asked Josh to sing those songs to him again. A friendship developed, five more Command Performances would follow, in addition to two appearances at the Inaugurations of 1941 and 1945; and the Josh White family would spend many Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with the Roosevelts at their Hyde Park, New York mansion (now the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum). The President sent White to give concerts overseas as a "Goodwill Ambassador" and he was often referred to in the press as the "Presidential Minstrel." More importantly, it was White's songs of social protest, such as "Uncle Sam Says"listen and "Defense Factory Blues,"listen which caused the President to begin exploring how to desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces. Meanwhile, White's recordings of "Beloved Comrade" (the President's favorite song), "Freedom Road", "Free and Equal Blues", and "House I Live In (What is America to Me)", were great songs of inspiration to the Roosevelts and the country during World War II. After the President's death, White's younger brother William White became Eleanor Roosevelt's personal assistant, house manager and chauffeur for the remainder on her life.
In 1949, Fisk University honored White with an honorary doctorate; and the NBC National Radio series Destination Freedom produced and aired a one-hour dramatized biography on White's life titled "Help The Blind". In 1950, Eleanor Roosevelt (then the United Nations Ambassador in charge of War Relief) and White made a historical speaking and concert tour of the capitals of Europe to lift the spirits of those war-torn countries. The tour built to such proportions that when they arrived in Stockholm, the presentation had to be moved from the Opera House to the city's soccer stadium where 50,000 came out in the pouring rain to hear Mrs. Roosevelt speak and White perform. All during this tour, audiences across Europe enthusiastically requested White to sing his famed anti-lynching recording of "Strange Fruit", but on each occasion he would respond, "My mother always told me that when you have problems in your background you don't give those problems to your neighbor.....So, that's a song I will sing back home until I never have to sing it again, but for you, I would now like to sing its sister song, written by the same man ('The House I Live In')."
1950s: Josh White and the Blacklist
For a decade, White had been a leading voice of black America and a voice that reminded America of its social injustices, while also becoming a major pop star and sex symbol from his platform at the Cafe Society. However, when Barney Josephson's brother and attorney Leon, who was also a lawyer for the International Labor Defense (a politically progressive organization), was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 and refused to testify, he was sent to prison. The Right Wing media publicity centered on the Cafe Society as a hot bed of Communists. By December of that year, the original downtown club had to close, and by 1949, the uptown club was forced to shut its doors. Virtually every artist who regularly worked at the club had contributed to Left-leaning benefits and was suspected as being a Communist sympathizer. White was not a Communist, and was not active in any political party. However, when he was told that people's human rights were being threatened and asked to participate in a benefit or a rally, he was always willing to lend his voice to the cause. Whether it was the plight of African Americans in the South or oppressed people in Yugoslavia, it was all the same to him. Since his return from Europe in June, 1950, White had been interrogated every week, and was threatened that his career would be finished and that he would lose his family. Controversially, in a fervent desire to defend his reputation, and challenge his accusers and the blacklist (while under intense pressure from his manager and his family), White told the FBI that he would go to Washington, appear before the HUAC Committee and set the record straight.
With the assistance of his daughter Bunny, White began writing a lengthy letter about his life and his beliefs that he would plan to read as a statement at his HUAC appearance. Before going to Washington, he made trips to visit two trusted friends and have them read his statement - Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Robeson. Bunny accompanied him on his trip up to Hyde Park to visit Mrs. Roosevelt. She recalled the visit in an interview with Josh White Estate Archival biographer Douglas Yeager, "Mrs. Roosevelt told Daddy that he had written a good letter. However, she cautioned him not to go to Washington, explaining that the HUAC Committee would turn his testimony against him if he appeared and they weren't satisfied with his statement." A few days later, White drove up to Paul Robeson's Connecticut home by himself.
Paul Robeson, a former All-American football player, was a Columbia University-trained African American attorney fluent in 12 languages, who lived most of the 1920s and 1930s in London, and was very active in world human rights and the movement to decolonize Africa. However, he was best known as an international star of recordings and film, the most celebrated stage Othello in history, and the highest paid concert performer in the world. He also was the most respected and admired artist/activist throughout the world, with friendships that included the leaders of many countries including the Soviet Union, where Robeson was considered a cultural and social giant and iconic figure. To the social progressives in America, he was the most respected and important voice of truth and social justice in the world. In 1939, at the onset of World War II in Europe, Paul Robeson and his family returned to America and maintained a residence in Connecticut. Robeson had been White's friend and artistic collaborator for many years and was the godfather to White's daughter Beverly. They did not always agree on everything politically, however White held great respect for Robeson. Years later in a radio interview, White stated that Robeson never once mentioned the Communist Party to him, and in fact advised White not to get too involved with any political party. Paul Robeson supported America's war effort and was considered a patriotic champion of freedom and liberty after his national radio broadcast concert performance and subsequent record album of "Ballad For Americans." However, when American Negro soldiers returning from the war were still confronted with government sanctioned segregation, racism and even lynchings, it became evident that Robeson was greatly disappointed with the American government. In the post war years, his socialist belief structure seemed better aligned to the Soviet Union, which had been America's ally in the war, but by 1947 had become their bitter enemy. In 1949, America's media and press reported a speech Robeson had made in [Paris], alleging that he said if a war would ever take place between the USSR and America that American Negroes would not fight in America's army (the U.S. media and press version of the speech has since been found to be inaccurate and slanted).
Before going to Washington, White felt he had to meet with Robeson, have him read his statement and tell him of decision to go to Washington. In White's statement which he showed to Robeson, and which would later be read before the HUAC Committee, one paragraph out of the long biographical letter referred to Robeson: "I have great admiration for Mr. Robeson as an actor and a great singer, and if what I read in the papers is true, I feel sad over the help he's been giving to people who despise America. He has a right to his own opinions, but when he, or anybody, pretends to talk for a whole race, he's kidding himself. His statement that the Negroes would not fight for their country, against Soviet Russia or any other enemy, is both wrong and an insult: because I stand ready to fight Russian or any enemy of America." In the biography, Robeson: Lives of the Left, Martin Duberman wrote about the encounter. Apparently White and Robeson went up to the bathroom of Robeson's master bedroom, turned on all the faucets so that the FBI listening devices couldn't hear their conversation, and began discussing White's statement and his upcoming appearance before HUAC. Robeson read the prepared statement, told White that he personally felt it would be wrong to go to Washington and appear before the HUAC Committee. He continued that he would never appear before the Committee, but that this was a decision White would have to make on his own. Reportly, White painfully told him, "I feel like a heel Paul, but they've got me in a vice...I have to go." White was called into the FBI offices dozens of times between 1947 and 1954, but no one is absolutely certain what special vice they had him in - besides threatening to destroy his career and family, as many of the pages found in his FBI files (via the Freedom of Information Act) are still blacked out by the government. It is the belief of Josh White, Jr. and many others however, that the FBI, displeased with White's prowess with white women, used it against him (as they had done with Jack Johnson years earlier), by threatening him with imprisonment and saying that they would concoct a trumped up charge of violating the Mann Act, "for transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes."
On September 1, 1950, Josh White, appearing without counsel and with only his wife Carol at his side, sat down before the HUAC Committee in Washington, D.C., regarding Communist influence in the entertainment industry and African American community. He did not give the HUAC Committee names of Communist Party members. At length, he told them of his life story as a child, seeing his father beaten and dragged through the streets of Greenville by white authorities, and having to leave home at the age of seven to lead street singers across America in order to feed his family. He defended his right and responsibility as a folksinger to bring social injustices to the attention of the public through his songs, and then passionately read the chilling lyrics of one of his most famous recordings, the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" (written by Abel Meeropol) which was then placed into the Congressional Record. He also included his words about Paul Robeson regarding the alleged statement Robeson had made in Paris.
White would later defend his testimony as a 'friendly witness' (a term applied to those who appeared voluntarily before the HUAC Committee) by claiming that he had a right to defend his name against unjust accusations, that the scope of his testimony was limited, that he did not state anything that was not already known, that he never gave the FBI or the HUAC Committee names of members of the Communist Party, and that he was sincerely opposed to Communism. However, testifying before the committee and speaking out against Paul Robeson angered his large socially progressive fan base, who believed that testifying before the HUAC Committee acknowledged their right to exist. Not being privileged to know the details of his FBI interrogations, many of this group also suspected that he had given the FBI names of Communist Party members, which he had not. The fact that the future career and reputation of baseball legend Jackie Robinson was not hampered when he appeared before the HUAC Committee one year earlier, while expressing virtually the same words as White had about Robeson's alleged statement in Spain, did not seem to matter to White's detractors. Robinson's fan base did not derive from the political Left as White's had. Josh White's HUAC appearance greatly affected his posthumous reputation in America, causing him to become the only artist of the era to be blacklisted by both the Right and Left. He felt immense pressures from several sides to appear before the HUAC Committee, and based upon his harsh early life experiences learned in Jim Crow South, it was apparent that White believed his only option to protect the lives of his family and career and to survive, was to figuratively "ride the fence post" -- go to Washington, denounce the Communist Party, but not name any names of Communist Party members. In the end, Mrs. Roosevelt had an asute understanding of the political climate in Washington and in America when she warned White that the government would turn his testimony against him. Indeed, this was the case, and Josh White's blacklisting would not be lifted for years.
With work rapidly drying up in America, White relocated to London for much of 1950 to 1955, where he hosted his own BBC radio show, My Guitar Is Old As Father Time, resumed his recording career, with new successes such as "On Top of Old Smokey", "Lonesome Road", "I Want You and Need You", "Wandering[disambiguation needed]", "Molly Malone" and "I'm Going to Move to the Outskirts of Town", and gave concert tours throughout Europe and beyond. However, back in the United States—the country of his birth—the McCarthy anti-communist hysteria had already greatly dismembered White's career as early as 1947, when he lost his record contract and his national radio show, and was barred from appearing on other radio shows. His Hollywood blacklisting began in 1948, after completing his final film role in The Walking Hills, and he would not be allowed to appear on U.S. television from 1948 until 1963. Meanwhile, the 1940s politically Left-leaning social progressives who had survived the Red Scare, had begun reviving the folk music industry in America. They would keep Josh White shut out from their folk festivals, their folk magazines, their emerging record companies, and their media and press for most of the remaining years of his life. However, in 1955, a brave, young owner of a new American record company, Jac Holzman, who wasn't afraid of the political pressure from the Right or the Left, offered White the opportunity to record again in his home country. He could only offer him $100, but he promised him artistic control and the best recording equipment available. They recorded the Josh White: 25th Anniversary album, which established Elektra Records and slowly began reviving Josh's career by finding a young, new audience who made it possible for him to work again in America. Accordingly, his name and reputation in America has only begun to recover in recent years.
UK guitarist/entrepreneur Ivor Mairants worked with White to create The Josh White Guitar Method (Boosey & Hawkes) in 1956. It was an extremely influential book for the fledgling UK blues/folk scene and was the first blues guitar instruction book ever published. UK guitarist John Renbourn and American guitarist Stefan Grossman (who was living in the UK at the time) have cited it as a critical influence on their playing. The success of the book prompted Mairants to commission a Zenith “Josh White” signature guitar based on Josh's Martin 0021 from German guitar maker Oscar Teller. Scottish guitarist Bert Jansch owned one of these models in his early playing years. The Guild Guitar Company in the US was rumored to be working with Josh on a signature model in the early 1960s.
In 1961, White's health began a sharp decline as he experienced the first of the three heart attacks and the progressive heart disease that would plague him over his final eight years. As a lifelong smoker he also had progressive emphysema, in addition to ulcers, and severe psoriasis in his hands and calcium deficiency in his body that would cause the skin to peel off of his fingers and leave his fingernails broken and bleeding with every concert. During the last two years of his life, as his heart weakened dramatically, his wife Carol would put him in the hospital for four weeks after he completed each two-week concert tour. Finally, the doctors felt his only survival option was to attempt a new procedure to replace heart valves. The surgery failed.
He died on the operating table on September 6, 1969 at the North Shore Hospital in Manhasset, New York.
When Associated Press interviewed Harry Belafonte, upon learning of White's passing, he said, "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 was seen as an influence on hundreds of artists of diverse musical styles, including: Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Oscar Brand, Ed McCurdy, Lonnie Donegan, Alexis Korner, Cy Coleman, Elvis Presley, Merle Travis, Joel Grey, Bob Gibson, Dave Van Ronk, Phish, Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Shel Silverstein, John Fahey, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Mike Bloomfield, Danny Kalb, Ry Cooder, John Fogerty, Don McLean, and Eva Cassidy; in addition to those African American artists, such as Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson, Brownie McGhee, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Pearl Primus, Josephine Premice, Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Ray Charles, Josh White, Jr., Jackie Washington, the Chambers Brothers, and Richie Havens, who in the footsteps of White were also able to break considerable barriers that had hampered African American artists in the past.
Song tributes and Poems
Bob Gibson & Shel Silverstein. (revered folk singer Bob Gibson, and
his equally well known writing partner Shel Silverstein - both disciples
of Josh White), in 1979, wrote and recorded a song tribute, "Heavenly
Choir", to three of their most beloved artists, Josh White, Hank
Williams and Janis Joplin....all brilliant artists, who had lived hard,
fought hard, and died young. (the first verse is to Josh, followed by
In 1933, White married a New York gospel singer, Carol Carr. They raised Blondell (Bunny), Julianne (Beverly), Josh Jr., Carolyn (Fern), Judy, and a foster daughter, Delores, in their home in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, New York. White's younger brother Billy (who he moved up from Greenville) and Carol's mother all lived with them in the Josh White household. Josh's father died in a South Carolina mental institution in 1930, the result of beatings at the hands of Greenville deputies a decade earlier. His mother, Daisy Elizabeth, a very stern and religious woman, remained in her hometown of Greenville, South Carolina and lived into her 80s. She came to visit White in New York several times a year and he traveled to see her in South Carolina, but she didn't allow his non-religious recordings in her home. Except for his childhood performances in her Greenville church in the 1920s, she never again saw her son perform, refusing to attend concerts where he sang non-sacred songs. His brother Billy and (future civil rights leader) Bayard Rustin, Sam Gary and Carrington Lewis performed and recorded with White in "Josh White & His Carolinians" (from 1939 to 1940) and appeared with him in the Broadway musical John Henry. After World War II, Billy became Eleanor Roosevelt's house manager and chauffeur for the remainder of her life.
On occasion in the early 1940s, when the grandmother watched the children, Carol would join Josh in singing, performing and recording with the folk collaborative group, the Almanac Singers. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Carol would appear as a guest on Eleanor Roosevelt's television talk show; and in 1982, she was a featured speaker at the Smithsonian Institution's 100th Anniversary Celebration of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Birth in Washington, while her son, Josh White, Jr., performed a musical program of songs his father had presented at one of his White House Command Performances. Josh White, Jr., a successful singer-songwriter, guitarist, actor, educator, and social activist for the past 60 years, performed and recorded with his father as a duet from 1944 to 1961, in addition to performing together with him in two Broadway plays (Josh White, Jr. won a 1949 Tony Award for the play How Long Till Summer). At various times in the 1950s and 1960s, daughters Beverly, Fern, and Judy also performed, recorded and appeared on radio and television with White. In 1964, when new anti-segregationist legislation made it easier for African Americans to purchase real estate in previously all-white neighborhoods, Josh and Carol bought a duplex home in the Rosedale, Queens section of New York City. While daughter Beverly and her family lived upstairs, Josh and Carol lived in the downstairs home. Josh lived in this semi-suburban lifestyle for the remainder of his life, while wife Carol would continue to live there and work into her 80s, first as a clothing boutique manager, and then as a social worker to elderly people in nursing homes, until her sudden passing in 1998. One week before her fatal heart attack, Carol received final confirmation that the United States Postal Service would be honoring Josh White in 1998 with his own postage stamp. When shown a mock-up photograph of the stamp by Josh's estate manager, Douglas Yeager, she expressed joy, gratitude and a long-awaited satisfaction—that after all those painful years of social isolation from the McCarthy era, Josh would finally be receiving the recognition he deserved. She felt that she could finally go now in peace. [The above information has been compiled by Josh White Archival biographer and manager of the Estate of Josh White (Sr.), Douglas Yeager].
In 1983, Josh White, Jr., starred in the long-running and rave
reviewed biographical dramatic musical stage play on his father's life
Josh: The Man & His Music, written and directed by Broadway veteran
Peter Link, which premiered at the Michigan Public Theatre in Lansing,
Michigan. Subsequently, the State of Michigan formally proclaimed April
20, 1983, as "Josh White & Josh White, Jr. Day."
Source: Wikipedia (The Free Encyclopedia)