For a time in the early sixties Josh White was considered a pre-eminent folk-bluesman-which was unfortunate, since he was really basically a cabaret performer who did any kind of material needed to get across to his crowd. He paved the way for open-shirted black men with charisma, who appealed to white audiences (especially the ladies), by presenting slick and easily digested exotic music forms. (What White was to blues music, his protégé Harry Belafonte was to calypso.) The problem was that when the "folk-boom" began, many "real" bluesmen like Son House, Skip James and Big Joe Williams were located and began performing for folk audiences. White's brand of
stylized, theatrical songs seemed pale and empty by comparison, devoid of any real emotion or grit, and knowledgeable blues fans never took him very seriously.
Author Wald delves into Whites life in great detail, (interviewing wife, children & mistresses, mining library clipping files) but at 334 pages, this book (now just re-issued in paperback) fails to justify such in-depth treatment of a minor figure, whose lasting claim to fame is mostly the people he played with, like Lead Belly and Sonny Boy Williamson II. The picture that emerges is of a man who knew how to seize opportunity, with a knack for being in the right place. White, known for the forties hit "One Meat Ball" began as a gospel and blues performer, recording first in 1932. He displayed a certain guitar facility, but lacked any depth of feeling. He moved on to the big city, performing in a Broadway play. There he discovered the left-wing folk music scene in Greenwich Village, added English ballads to his repertoire, and began writing songs about racial discrimination. For several years he was a fixture at Café Society, a high-toned night spot where he played with Lead Belly, and after playing Roosevelt's inauguration became a White House regular.
When the post-war Red Scare came along and committees investigated communist infiltration into the arts, Josh incurred the wrath of most of his peers when he voluntarily testified, and even wrote an article saying it was because he didn't know anything about subversive plans. "How could we find out things like that?" he said. "We're simple people who are mostly dominated by our emotions." Which pretty much blew his role as proud black spokesman. When his career cooled in the US, he found there was a market
overseas, and he began regular appearances in Europe and the UK. His US situation improved in 1955 when he cut an album of mostly blues-styled numbers for Elektra. A later (1963) album session for Mercury was mainly notable for inclusion of harpman Sonny Boy Williamson II as a sideman-his grit and fire blew away White's studied manner and innuendo. White continued touring and recording but health problems arose, and he died in September 1969.
Wald is a respectable enough writer (he did the booklet for the Arhoolie label box set), though he likes to show off his dictionary skills, with phrases like "But I have avoided the procrustean stretchings and choppings, the imaginative jumps and elisions..". Both here and in the booklet notes he wrote for the video, he also seems to apologize for White a bit too much and credit him with a bit more than he deserves. Was White really the father of the singer-songwriter movement? (And IF so-is this something to be proud
of?) As it stands, the book is rather rambling, and probably mostly for die hard fans.
The black & white 55 minute video draws its footage from four sources: a two
verse film clip from the 40's of Josh doing "The House I Live In" (his up-with-America number), a 1965 British TV show, and clips from Sweden in 1962 and 1967.
The UK footage is a mini-concert with a typical; sampling of Josh's stock in trade-there are sly, slick and sweaty blues-tinged seduction songs ("What You Gonna Do When Your Meat Gives Out", "You Know What I Want", even Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To"). Then there's pseudo-folk numbers, done with hyper-dramatic style ( the sing-along bouncy "Cindy", "Danny Boy" (yep) and "Scarlet Ribbons"). Add in "Waltzing Matilda", a full-blooded Aussie drinking song for some done as a mournful ballad, and Josh's trademark cigarette bit where he stows a lighted butt behind his ear
during the next number, and that's pretty much his essence right there.
The 1965 British session is a little mini-bio piece, with Josh doing song intros with narratives from his life. On four numbers he's backed by a small acoustic combo which includes a barely audible Alexis Korner (mentor to Jagger & Richards among others) on guitar. This session has a couple of Josh's socially conscious protest numbers, the other important main ingredient in his career. "Strange Fruit" was a Billie Holliday classic,
performed with method-acting touches here. "Uncle Sam Says" was written about armed forces segregation during WW II-its illustrated with period photos. "Free & Equal Blues" is a clever cabaret number about how all races have the same chemical components.
The last footage, from Sweden, has a number in the same vein "I Wish The World Were Colorblind" (valid sentiment, boring tune), and the standard "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out", where Josh is joined on a few verses and chorus by Judy, his 19 year old daughter who sometimes toured with him.
The video illustrates all that's right and wrong with him; he's a slick compelling performer with a easy-going sexual swagger and appeal, yet he does some god-awful tunes with such earnest intensity its almost painful to watch. Society Blues indeed-easily digestible, with no annoying emotional content for white folks to have to deal with.
Wald summed it up when he noted that people complained about White being "slick" in his later career, pointing out that, in fact, "he was slick all along."
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