Josh White: The forgotten singer

Issue 

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

Josh White: Society Blues
By Elijah Wald
University of Massachusetts Press, 2000
336 pp, $69 (hb)

Josh White is the forgotten singer of progressive blues and folk in the United States. Common coin has it that his obscurity is a result of his promiscuous genre-swapping with its smooth, polished, "slick", cabaret style setting him apart from the raw, untutored delta blues artists and the defiantly non-commercial folk troubadours.

Reinforcing these aesthetic judgments is White's testimony as a "friendly" witness at the Red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1950, an act which severed White's close ties with the cultural left.

Elijah Wald's welcome biography does much to reassess White's musical and political stature.

Born the son of a Methodist preacher in Greenville, South Carolina in 1914, White knew racist injustice and poverty at first hand. For ejecting a white debt collector, his father was hauled off to prison and then to an early death in an insane asylum. The seven-year-old Josh was forced out to work to support the family, becoming a guide and tambourine player for the town's blind blues artists.

On their travels, White observed a double lynching in Georgia, and was beaten by the Ku Klux Klan, and arrested and assaulted by the police, in Florida. The racist South had delivered an education for White the hard way, and social justice for black Americans became his lifelong cause.

White began a long recording career in blues, gospel and spirituals from the late 1920s. During the '30s in New York, he moved closer to the left, influenced politically by the internationally famous black singer, actor and Communist Party activist, Paul Robeson. Playing the blues legend, Blind Lemon Jefferson, in a 1939 musical, White, with Robeson, forced changes to the script to eliminate racial stereotyping and dialect.

People began to take notice of the outspoken and musically gifted White, a versatile entertainer who took his sophisticated popularisations of rural blues and folk to a new, urban audience. White's first album, Chain Gang, in 1940, was a direct, and commercially successful, salvo in musical form at America's racist "justice" system. His smooth delivery made the songs palatable to the mainstream music public.

White became a leading member of the cultural left, as the Popular Front of Communists, Socialists and liberals expanded into the arts. White was as politically prominent and musically active as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, recording union songs with Seeger's Almanacs and playing benefits for progressive causes.

White's second solo album, Southern Exposure, was explicitly political blues, attacking segregation and black poverty. Richard Wright, the black writer and Communist Party member, wrote the liner notes, highlighting White's presentation of "the other side of the blues — social militancy".

During the war, White continued to perform songs highlighting the race and class hypocrisies of a war, touted as saving freedom and equality, waged by a country that practised discrimination and segregation in the army and factories. If the US wanted blacks to fight to defend democracy, said White, they should "be given some democracy to defend".

In the mid-'40s, when White became a cabaret star at the left-wing, inter-racial nightclub, Caf‚ Society, in Greenwich Village, New York, he often became the victim of racist violence. On the streets, after the show, White was bashed for drinking with white women. Seven southern servicemen beat him for singing "Strange Fruit", Billie Holiday's signature song about the bodies of lynched men (strange fruit) hanging from trees. Often his knuckles were so swollen from fights, White could not play his guitar.

Further dangers, of a political kind, lay in wait for White with the commencement of the Cold War and the blacklisting of "subversive" entertainers. When his name appeared in Red Channels (the publication which "outed" Communists and their "sympathisers" in radio and TV), White quickly moved to dissociate himself from the left, claiming (implausibly) that he was unaware that the Popular Front organisations he played for were "Communist fronts".

White sought out the (ex-FBI) publishers of Red Channels for private talks. As Wald notes, the only reason blacklisted artists talked with the witch-hunters was to clear their name and get off the blacklist. On the instructions of his accusers, White voluntarily appeared before HUAC in 1950 and went to the popular magazines with the mandatory public confession ("I was a sucker for the Communists", was his lurid contribution).

The speed of White's capitulation to right-wing pressure disturbed and puzzled his leftist friends. Pete Seeger, who staunchly resisted HUAC at great personal cost, was shocked by White's HUAC testimony. Seeger could only speculate that White, who was a "ladies' man", must have been blackmailed by the FBI.

Seeger later softened his stance, happy to share a stage with White, but Harry Belafonte, whose style was much influenced by White, was hurt by the betrayal and still remains unforgiving. Others on the cultural left were saddened rather than angry, and sympathetic to the pressures on White, but for virtually all, their relationship with White was over.

As Wald argues, White's renunciation of the left is easy to explain as the logical outcome of liberal anti-communism. Liberals did not understand the purpose of HUAC. Its anti-communist crusade was the wedge for a much broader attack on all shades of progressive opinion and on liberal democracy itself. Liberals who joined in the anti-communist chorus were merely driving the wedge deeper into their own professed values. The liberal middle ground between the anti-Red witch-hunters and the communist left that White tried to stake out did not exist in the intensely polarised political climate of the Cold War.

White's surrender to anti-communism did not save him — he remained blacklisted until well into the 1960s. He "had tried to bend without breaking, to cooperate with his enemies without betraying his old friends, and the result had satisfied no one". By and large, the left snubbed him or treated him warily whilst to the right, he was suspect because of his past and because he remained a powerful voice for civil rights.

White never became entirely "safe" for the entertainment establishment. There would be no more national hits or magazine spreads, no more Broadway shows or Hollywood films. Despite good receptions in Europe, and a brief surge on the crest of the folk revival in the late 1950s and early '60s (a Billboard campus poll in 1963 ranked him third behind Belafonte and Seeger, and ahead of Bob Dylan), White's career never fully recovered in the period after HUAC until his death in 1969.

In Wald, White has found a biographer who enables a more fully rounded assessment to be made of White the man and artist. White's political failure in the face of anti-communist hysteria was the all too familiar failure of liberalism, but his lifelong commitment to anti-racism survived with honour. White's musical merits have as chequered a legacy as his politics.

Moving beyond traditional blues and folk, White merged both into a distinctive, and socially conscious, style influencing a large audience conditioned to more commercial styles of music. The easy judgment that White "sold his soul to the nightclub circuit", becoming a mere "cabaret singer", misjudges White's artistic achievement. The challenge is to assess White's music on its own terms. It is well worth the effort.