I’d like to share a story that I think is important and relevant to modern times about Joshua White. Today is the anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr.. Every morning after I get up and have my half of cup of coffee I do a bit of reading. I’ll scan my email and the news quickly and try to find something interesting. What gave me pause this morning was a tweet from the “People’s Daily”, the largest newspaper in China and the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China. The tweet1 referenced the words of “I have a dream” with images of the speech.
Although unrecognized by many folks, the movement that lead up to the “I Have a Dream” speech was largely initiated by the labor movement of organizations such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters2. The speech was made at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That march was organized by Philip Randolph3 and Bayard Rustin4. Rustin was able to pursue an education because he was an accomplished tenor vocalist and earned music scholarships to college. He performed with Josh White and the Carolinians in the recording6 below.
Joshua White7 was born in Greenville, South Carolina in 1914. His father threw a white bill collector from his home in 1921 for which he was beaten so badly that he nearly died. His father was subsequently locked away in a mental institution and died there several years later. Two months after his father died, White left home to drift with a blind street singers often sleeping in fields and stables while still a teenager. This was documented by Barlow, William Barlow in his 1989 book “Looking Up at Down”: The Emergence of Blues Culture. White eventually returned to Greenville to take care of his mother and siblings working various labor jobs. Later, in the 30’s, White was sought out back in the Carolinas by A&R men interested in his talent. He eventually was cast as Blind Lemon Jefferson in the Broadway play John Henry to which he received some notoriety. but late run the 40’s he recorded “One Meatball”, the first million-selling record by a male African-American artist.
In the 1940s Joshua White became close friends with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. He would spend Thanksgivings and Christmas at their home in New York. They became the godparents of his child and he became a friend and confidant of the president. After the death of the president, White’s younger brother William White became Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal assistant, house manager and chauffeur for the remainder of her life.
In the 1950s White was tagged by Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television8. In an effort to clear his name, he consulted Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Robeson. On September 1, 1950, White, appearing with only his wife Carol at his side, sat down before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and explained his childhood background and read the lyrics to the song anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” which was placed into the congressional record. Because he volunteered to testify before the HUAC, it greatly affected his posthumous reputation in America, causing him to become the only artist of the era to be blacklisted by both the political right and left. Mrs. Roosevelt had an astute 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 White’s blacklisting would not be lifted for years. White relocated to London for much of 1950s, where he hosted his own BBC radio show, My Guitar Is Old as Father Time. White’s blacklisting in the American television industry was finally broken in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy invited him to appear on the national CBS television’s civil rights special “Dinner with the President”.
Joshua White died in 1969 during heart surgery. He was the first black singer to give a White House command performance (1941), to perform in previously segregated hotels (1942), to get a million-selling record (“One Meatball”, 1944), and the first to make a solo concert tour of America (1945). He was also the first folk and blues artist to perform in a nightclub, the first to tour internationally, and (along with Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie ) the first to be honored with a US postage stamp. The 1956 book The Josh White Guitar Method9 is still in print. While White has undeniably left an indelible mark on American culture, this story should serve as a warning that a friend of presidents and the organizer of one of the most significant civc events in American history could be pushed into virtual obscurity by a political process motivated by fear.
I find this little artifact significant and timely, given the recent press about the rapid deforestation in the Amazon, the ongoing protest in Hong Kong, Boris Johnston trying to push through a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and the press that Trump has financial ties to the same folks campaigned for him using fear tactics. Often times, the juxtaposition of newsworthy items and cultural artifacts are fascinating enough to me that warrant sharing. This story started just a couple mile up the road from me when a young teenager left home with a blind musician because he father had accosted a white bill collector. I’m just guessing here, but I’d put my money on the the bill collector being a crook. I played an Ovation guitar for some time because I liked the ease on my fingers. That guitar evolved from White’s bleeding fingers. The song Jerry, by Josh White and the Carolinians is about a prized mule who’s driven hard because “Lord, this timber gotta roll”. Jerry got spooked from the sound of timber crashing and “kicked the boss in the rump”. The “Boss tried to shoot him in the head” and Jerry the mule “stomped him dead”. Jerry is a poignant folk story. The warning of Joshua White’s life being pushed by fear, racism, and political process, is similar to the the fear in a mule driven hard leading to the demise of the boss. It’s a fable that’s has contemporary implications. My favorite reference to Joshua white is from Shel Silverstein and Bob Gibson who remembered White with the first verse of Heavenly Choir10.
Last night I heard Josh White playing
From somewhere on the other side
In an orchard full of strange fruit hangin’
With his head thrown back, he stood there singin’ He snapped those strings till his fingers bled
He bent those notes till his guitar wept… now he’s…
Part of the Heavenly Choir
Where all the poor restless souls can be found Ain’t that a heavenly choir
Ain’t that a hell of a sound