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My liquid ham-and-eggs - Fats Waller, speaking of Scotch

Author Topic: Josh White Jr in Glasgow Friday & Sunday  (Read 1968 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Josh White Jr in Glasgow Friday & Sunday
« on: January 23, 2008, 11:47:34 AM »
The following was sent to the Post War Blues discussion group by somebody in Belgium! Don't know if it will find much interest here but....

Singing the blues in the family firm
January 17 2008

Josh White Junior's Scottish debut - at Celtic Connections this  weekend - is long overdue. Fifty-seven years overdue, to be precise.  Back in 1951, the then 11-year-old was billed to appear alongside his  father, arguably the musician who did the most to introduce the blues  and black music generally to a white audience, at a concert in  Edinburgh. The events are slightly sketchy but as Josh Jr recalls, red  tape prevented a child under 12 from performing professionally onstage  in the UK at the time and he had to miss the trip.

Whether that's the official reason or not - his sister, Beverley, who  was 18 months older, was able to go - Josh Jr certainly wasn't excluded  owing to a lack of experience. He had already been singing with his dad  in concerts and clubs for seven years by then.

"Dad used to take us along to gigs and we were meant to sit quietly and,  I suppose, be seen and not heard," he says. "But there was one night in  a club in New York when I was four and I started singing along a little  too loudly and dad came over and picked me up and brought me on to the  stage. That was it. From then on I was a gigging musician and I'm so  happy that I've always followed my passion - it certainly beats the hell  out of working."

The downside of starting so young is that there's so much that happened  too fast, so many people he met or might have met, and he can't remember  early events with certainty. Did he appear with the Duke Ellington  Orchestra before his fifth birthday? He might have - Ellington and Josh  Sr shared radio show stages - but lots of radio shows had orchestras in  the 1940s. advertisement

His dad had a selective memory - or at least he affected one - about his  own early years because there were things that happened he never talked  about to his children, although they got to know about them. At the age  of eight, Josh Sr became guide to a blind street singer and guitarist,  Blind Henry John Arnold, in his home town of Greenville, South Carolina.  They hadn't been travelling together long when, one night while sleeping  under the stars, the youngster was woken up by his companion putting his  hands over his mouth and asking what was happening.

A lynching was in progress: two black men were already hanging from  nearby trees and a crowd of white men, women and children were  celebrating, dancing around the scene and taking hot pokers to the  bodies. If Josh Sr hadn't been able to lead Arnold quietly away, there  might have been four black bodies. In his later life, Josh Sr would sing Strange Fruit, the song Billie Holiday made her own, which describes  similar events.

"My sister, Beverley, and I always saw that eight-year-old boy's eyes  when dad sang that song," says Josh Jr, "and it got so that we couldn't watch him singing it because of this. We'd slip backstage until he was  finished."

The incident in question was by no means isolated. Having gone on to act  as a guide to other blind blues musicians, including Blind Willie  Johnson and Blind Blake, and served his guitar-playing apprenticeship  with them, Josh Sr was often on the fringes of violence and brutality -  he was once beaten up by police and dumped in a cell after being  mistaken for a vagrant. Which made criticism of him becoming "too  smooth" once he'd become established as a musician himself a little hard  to take for his family.

"Coming from South Carolina and leading the life he did, dad didn't have  a lot of schooling and he was always quite aware of that," says Josh Jr.  "But he was also aware that audiences had to understand what he was  singing. By developing the style he used, he wasn't betraying his roots  or knocking any of the other blues singers. He just always told us that  you have to let audiences know what you're singing so that they can  believe it."

It's a lesson that Josh Jr has taken into his own career. Now  approaching 68, he has enjoyed 64 years as a singer and actor. He's  starred in innumerable television series and appeared on five Broadway  productions - all dramas, no musicals, he says proudly - but the thing  he loves above all else is doing children's concerts.

"My dad, eclectic though he was, never did children's concerts and I  have to say that I avoided them for quite a long time," he says. "I  think it was through the fear of losing it, to be honest. But when I  started doing them, I found they were so much fun. I talk to them a  lot - well, I talk to audiences a lot anyway - and I have to change the  songs I sing. But for 45 minutes or so I'll sing to your children or  grandchildren and I don't know who they are or what goes on at home; I  can just guarantee that there'll be no negative effect on their psyche,  whatever walk of life they come from."

He'll be doing one of Celtic Connections' school concerts while he's  here, as well as helping to explore the links between Scottish and  American songs in Tayside Tae Tennessee and playing the Friday Night  Blues Session tomorrow. From children's songs to the blues involves no  big change, he says. "I think whatever you sing, you have to be honest.  When it comes to the blues, nobody's immune and I just sit down and let  flow the feeling that we're all going to enjoy ourselves because we've  all been there."

His father's influence remains strong and he wouldn't change that for  anything. He's forever being asked if he gets tired of people talking to  him about Josh Sr - and the answer is always "no".

He can't always answer the questions he's asked, such as did his father  really influence Robert Johnson, although he's heard stuff Josh Sr  played early on where a different sound to his guitar playing might  suggest that a musical connection could have been made.

He can confirm, however, that House of the Rising Sun wouldn't have come  to sound the way we know it without his father's contribution. "Dad,  Leadbelly and I think it was Pete Seeger heard an Appalachian singer  singing that song and it had no minor chord," he says. "But my old man  heard it more as a lament and he added the minor chord and that's the  version that became famous. It's that legacy of being an interpreter  that I think he handed on. I'm not a prolific writer, so I tend to  choose lyrics that, if they touch me, I know I won't be the only one to  feel that way. There's always room for interpretation and we  non-singer-songwriters may not have all the ideas but I believe we  interpret well."

Josh White Jr appears at the Friday Night Blues Session in the Quality Hotel, Glasgow, tomorrow and in Tayside Tae Tennessee at St Andrew's in  the Square, Glasgow, on Sunday.

Online Johnm

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Re: Josh White Jr in Glasgow Friday & Sunday
« Reply #1 on: January 24, 2008, 10:24:20 AM »
Hi Bunker Hill,
I know Josh White guided Joe Taggart, but Blind Willie Johnson?  I'm dubious.  I know this piece was by Rob Adams, and not you, but does that ring true or plausible to you?
All best,

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Josh White Jr in Glasgow Friday & Sunday
« Reply #2 on: January 24, 2008, 10:51:22 AM »
Elijah Wald has noted a couple errors in the piece, including the notion that White led Blind Willie Johnson. Wald (who wrote a biography of White) says White never claimed to have met Johnson, nor to have led Blind Blake, though knew him in Chicago. He did claim to have led Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Joe Taggart, Willie and Joe Walker.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Josh White Jr in Glasgow Friday & Sunday
« Reply #3 on: January 24, 2008, 11:42:11 AM »
Hi Bunker Hill,
I know Josh White guided Joe Taggart, but Blind Willie Johnson?  I'm dubious.  I know this piece was by Rob Adams, and not you, but does that ring true or plausible to you?
No and I'm sure it is just repeating something that crept out on the web several years back which, in itself. was challenged at the time. I'm damned if I can locate where.

Andrew cites the known "truths" in his post.

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