Josh White

Nov 3, 2016

Josh White
Credit C.C. Rider

Muddy Bottom Blues

Program #83 (November 4 at 8:00PM)

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.

Josh’s life intersected some of the most exciting periods in American culture. In the 1920s, he was leading legendary blind blues singers around the South, and became the youngest soloist in the "race records" market. In the 1930s, he was a blues star, more popular than Robert Johnson and influencing a generation of Southern players.

In the 1940s, he discovered a white, New York audience, appearing alongside jazz figures like Billie Holiday, and becoming so popular in the folk world that Pete Seeger would look up to him as "Mr. Folk Music." His recording of "One Meat Ball" was a folk-pop smash, and he became one of the few black figures to star on Broadway and appear in Hollywood films, the only black guitarist to have his own national tour, and a daring sex symbol with adoring fans on both sides of the color line.

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.

(story provided by Elijah Wald – Josh White: Society Blues)