Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 11 February 1908, Greenville MS; d 5 September 1969, Manhasset NY) Blues/folk singer, guitarist. Some sources give year of birth as 1914 or 1915. His father was a Baptist clergyman; he left home working as eyes for blind street singers including Blind Lemon Jefferson. To NYC c.1930; played Jefferson in play John Henry (starring Paul Robeson), recorded for ARC labels (chiefly Banner) 1932-6, secular material as Pinewood Tom (or Tippy Barton) to avoid offending his family, spirituals as Joshua White (the Singing Christian). Dixon and Godrich's Blues And Gospel Records 1902-1943 says, 'From this point Josh White's recordings become increasingly inclined to commercialism, and are only included for completeness.' In other words his self-confidence and his diction allowed him to transcend his social condition to become a top cabaret artist.

He made two 12-inch 78 sides for Blue Note '40 as the Josh White Trio, with Sidney Bechet on clarinet, Wilson Myers on bass; spirituals for Columbia as Josh White and his Carolinians (with Bayard Rustin, first tenor); sang with the Golden Gate Quartet (concert in Coolidge Auditorium, Washington DC partly recorded by Library of Congress, and there was a tour of Mexico in 1941), had an NBC radio show with group the Southernaires; stayed for three years at Café Society Uptown in NYC and sang at Franklin Roosevelt's White House. In the mid-1940s he broadcast for the Office of War Information and had a show on WNEW New York. He recorded for Keynote '41, on one side with the Almanac Singers including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie; other tracks included 'Bad Housing Blues', 'Jim Crow Train', 'Southern Exposure', 'Uncle Sam Says', 'Defence Factory Blues' etc. Having associated with leftwingers and recorded songs about being black in the USA he was not much liked by the post-war anti-Communist brigade in Congress, but as a black cabaret artist he was not likely to have any top ten hits anyway. Josh White: Blues Singer on Columbia had tracks from 1932-6; The Legendary Josh White was an Allegro CD; his most political material, which got him an audition with Roosevelt, on a Document CD (Josh White Vol. 4 1940-41) with good notes by Dave Moore. Compilation LPs on MCA, Stinson, Tradition, Mercury, Period etc. are long out of print.

He made an album for Nixa in London '55 backed by UK jazzmen, reissued on Wooded Hill '97. His longest association was with Elektra '55-61: albums Josh At Midnight and Josh included songs like Cole Porter's 'Miss Otis Regrets'; 'One Meat Ball' (by Hy Zaret and Lou Singer '44) which White did on stage with pantomimist Jimmy Savo, about a down-and-out who's only got a dime and is loudly told 'You gets no bread with one meat ball!'; an affecting song about a man who wakes up at night to find his wife's not there, but she's just 'turnin' the children in the bed'. Other Elektra LPs were Chain Gang Songs '59, Spirituals And Blues '61, The House I Live In '62; he also recorded for ABC and Mercury. His folk music was slick but it kept the flame alive in the '50s; he appeared on TV's Hootenanny, was badly injured in a car crash, died three years later during open-heart surgery.

He once got in trouble with Billie Holiday for singing 'Strange Fruit', but they made up. Later he helped the career of the teenaged Eartha Kitt, and was close to her for a number of years. Elijah Wald's award-winning biography Josh White: Society Blues was praised for its fairness by Pete Seeger.

His son Josh White Jr (b 1940) received an award as Best Child Actor on Broadway in How Long Till Summer? '47; did more plays and appearances on TV as a singer, and straight dramatic roles in TV plays; wrote music for documentary The Freedom Train '67; LPs Josh White Jr '78 on Vanguard, Sing A Rainbow on Mountain Railroad, Jazz, Ballads And Blues (A Tribute To Josh White Sr.) '87 on Rykodisc.