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I'm a stranger here, just come in on this train. I'm a stranger here, come in on this train. I want some responsible young man, tell me that woman's name - J. T. Adams with Shirley Griffith, "Blind Lemon's Blues"

Author Topic: Josh White Society Blues  (Read 6203 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Josh White Society Blues
« on: February 13, 2008, 09:42:39 AM »
It's a lengthy but intelligently considered review so stick with it.

JOSH WHITE: SOCIETY BLUES
Elijah Wald
Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. ISBN 1-55849-269-0,
$29.95. Hb, xvii + 336 pp, biblio, index, illus.

This biography is the product of five years of assiduous research, to the point that even I got an email from the author, but could only reply that I had no uncommon research material, and, like him, was too young to have seen Josh White perform. I could have added, (but it would have added nothing to Elijah Wald's research) that I'm none too keen on White's material for white audiences, although I like his blues singing in that milieu better than his pop and folk (or rather, folk-like) material. That's pretty much the accepted reading of Josh White's career and art these days, along with regret that his race recordings were long neglected and under-valued as a result of the general dislike of his latter day incarnation. Elijah Wald dissents vigorously from this view, writing in the preface that he finds it 'ridiculous Josh reached his peak in the 1940s, exactly the time when he was at the height of his career as a cabaret star. This music has a variety, a depth and a uniqueness that were missing in his earlier work. It shows an artist with a mature style, whereas the Josh of the race records had been a callow, though engaging youngster.' Wald makes a vigorous case for his revisionism, pointing out that White was 'a nightclub singer, not a folk artist.' I dutifully went back to the relevant recordings, to see if they supported Wald's view, but unfortunately, I still think that the cocky, confident Josh of the Pinewood Tom/Singing Christian days was singing songs that were both original and culturally grounded, and backing them with polished, sometimes brilliant guitar work. I also still think that a good deal of the later work, although still polished and impressively accompanied, is mannered, shallow and rootless. Even Wald admits that he was 'nothing if not stylized,' and 'chose to polish rather than explore his material.'

But, of course, Josh White had a wife and children to support, and had to make a living in a racist society. He found a way to market himself that succeeded brilliantly, and no dissent of mine about the musical value of that self-presentation alters either his achievement, or the fact that this is an interesting, important, and well written biography, which does a consistently excellent job, both of digging out the facts of Josh White's life, and of placing them in their social and historical context. It's apparent, from the repeated testimony of eye witnesses, that in live performance, White projected an absolutely blazing charisma, and nothing else can explain his ability to succeed with the likes of 'Waltzing Matilda' and 'Apples, Peaches And Cherries.' As I've said, such material doesn't wear well on record, but some idea of his ability to put over unpromising songs can be gleaned from 'The Man Who Couldn't Walk Around.' This tribute to FDR can generously be described as mawkish, but Josh's rendition of it is so beautiful and authoritative that you almost don't notice. That he was able to dress such a dreadful song in a little brief authority gives an inkling of why audiences were so overwhelmed by his performances, irrespective of the quality of his material.

 Before his days as a cabaret star in New York, though, there was Joshua White, lead boy for blind singers, and later race record artist. Elijah Wald does probably as good a job of delineating White's early life as can be done at this remove. Here, in particular, but elsewhere too, he is also surefooted when negotiating the exaggerations and confusions of Josh's own accounts of himself, like the question of whether he ever met Blind Lemon Jefferson. By page 45, though, we are done with both Josh White's youth, and his career as a race recording artist. This does seem rather too brief a consideration, and seems to be so, in part, because of Wald's lack of enthusiasm for the early records. There's also a failure to consider what Josh's religious recordings meant to him; was he doing them for the money (and one could understand a boy who was badly mistreated by Blind Joe Taggart being put off religion), or were they sincerely meant? And how important was religion to Josh in later life, when he continued to record and perform the occasional gospel song? (Wald rightly points out, by the way, that the story that the blues records came out credited to Pinewood Tom so that his mother wouldn't know he was singing sinful music is nonsense; there had been seven blues releases credited to Joshua White before the first religious one. The motive was to ensure that religious purchasers wouldn't ask for 'the new Joshua White record,' and go home with the likes of 'Sissy Man.')
    After Josh arrives in New York and makes his breakthrough onto the nightclub scene, there's a lot more material available to the biographer, both because he was being noticed in print, and because there are more witnesses to give their testimony, crucially including his family. Mrs Carol White, who sadly died not long before the book was finished, was remarkably frank and honest about a marriage that was sometimes made difficult by Josh's absences, and by his flamboyant womanising; of the children, Josh, Jr. and Beverly, who followed their father into show business, shared a great many memories, as did Bunny and, to a lesser extent, Fern and Judith. I don't have room here to go into the day-to-day details of Josh's performing and recording careers, fascinating though such things as his movie appearances, and his collaboration with the white torch singer Libby Holman, are. The wider importance of his work, as Wald and those he has interviewed establish, was that Josh White blazed a trail for black performers like Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Sam Cooke, on down to Will Smith. (As Wald notes, though, white society only seems to have a market niche for one such performer at any given time.) Josh was perhaps not such a trailblazer in Europe, where there were precedents for African American musicians to find success, Even so, while he was following in the footsteps of Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Sidney Bechet and other African American artists, Josh White was still a pioneer in terms of bringing the blues (along with the other stuff, of course) to European audiences. He was tremendously popular on this side of the Atlantic, and indeed Europe was the mainstay of his career for much of the fifties. Along the way, Josh also managed to have a vast number of women on both continents, and he seems (within the circumstances) to have behaved well towards most of them, most of the time, an assertion which is supported by the recollections of Devon McGovern, by whom he fathered a son, and particularly by his English girlfriend, Rene Dannen, to whom he wrote long, tender and rather well-crafted love letters. White does seem to have pursued women for the reason a dog licks its balls, though, and there appear to have been darker psychological currents, as well; it's disturbing to learn that he was setting Josh, Jr. up with women from the age of eleven. I've mentioned that White had largely to rely on his popularity in Europe during the fifties. This was because he'd had the misfortune to be listed as a subversive by 'Red Channels', a newsletter which reported that people had been reported to be associating with Communist front groups. (This elaborate formulation was necessary for legal reasons.) Josh, while not deeply interested in politics, was equally committed to the improvement of race relations and to love of his country, as can be seen in his singing of 'Strange Fruit', and in his refusal, for a long time, to sing it when overseas. As a result of his position on race, he inevitably associated with Communists and their stooges from time to time, since the Communists were about the only people then making a fuss about racial issues, albeit in many cases from not exactly disinterested motives. Contrariwise, Josh wasn't particularly interested in left wing ideas on other issues, nor in the whirling gyrations that 'progressives' undertook in order to follow the party line on the Second World War. (White sang on the Union Boys' infamous isolationist 'Songs for John Doe' session, but seemingly more as a favour to Pete Seeger than out of conviction; Langston Hughes' 'Freedom Road', both patriotic and anti-racist, and which he featured in concerts long after the war, was much closer to his instinctive notions.) When accused of Communist sympathies, he was outraged, felt he had been suckered by the Party, and testified accordingly, both in 'Negro Digest' and to HUAC. (He wasn't asked to 'name names,' incidentally; African Americans were usually required only to distance themselves from Paul Robeson.) The consequence, alas, was that, already tagged as unsafe by conservatives in the entertainment industry (most crucially, network TV), Josh White also became persona non grata to the left. He was literally an unperson at 'Sing Out!', where his name was mentioned only in paid advertising until after his death. Quite apart from the ending of some friendships, bookings became considerably harder to come by, and although his fortunes revived in the sixties, he was never again a star outside the narrow confines of the folk world.

 Elijah Wald deals with all this in a generally fair manner, and is sensitive to the complexities of the issues involved, and to the context of events; while broadly sympathetic to the left and their sufferings at this time, he is aware of which side the American Communist Party and its associates took in the Cold War, and in the hot one then going on in Korea. He notes, too, that although the attack on White by the 'Daily Worker' after his testimony was unpleasantly condescending, the paper was right to point out that the Left had fostered much of the early enthusiasm for him. Just occasionally, I feel that Wald is being disingenuous; he seems to imply that 'the Roosevelt centre' lay halfway between HUAC and the KGB, and that accordingly there is a moral equivalence between the unjustifiable excesses of McCarthyism and the murderous tyranny of Stalinism. This was a bad time in America, and innocent people like Josh White got trapped in the gears of history. The impact on him and other individuals was not trivial, but there's no doubt in my mind which way the scales of judgement tip.

 I seem to have written more about politics than I intended. It's time to sum up. Josh White's achievement of modest stardom, by bringing black music to white audiences, while at the same time managing to speak out on social and racial issues, was virtually unique in its day, and he was, as Wald observes, probably the only 'nightclub blues singer' ever. In that sense, his story is as much about the discovery of black music by white audiences as it is about black music per se. This can perhaps be seen in Wald's comparative lack of interest in his race recordings, and in my comparative lack of interest in what came after. However, the history of white interest in, and interaction with, black music is an important subject; if white enthusiasts don't consider that history, and its paradoxes and ironies, there's a danger of awarding ourselves honorary insider status, claiming some sort of privileged understanding, and forgetting about the distance that in reality separates us from both the stresses and the joys of African American life. Elijah Wald's fascinating account of how Josh White walked the line between two worlds is a remarkable and compelling achievement. Chris Smith
« Last Edit: February 26, 2008, 04:09:54 PM by Johnm »

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #1 on: February 13, 2008, 06:39:13 PM »
Thanks for this. Where was it published?
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline Rivers

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #2 on: February 13, 2008, 08:58:17 PM »
Any blues singer who learns a few jazz altered/extended chords can be demoted to the pop genre. So I'm with Elijah on this. Chris is not a musician and it shows. As a direct consequence I think he misreads and misunderstands Josh White's music, in this case. He is just articulating his taste in music, that has nothing to do with Josh White.

This could be a lengthy discussion!  :P

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #3 on: February 14, 2008, 12:18:01 PM »
Thanks for this. Where was it published?
Oops very, very out of character for me, sorry. Blues & Rhythm 159 (May 2001 p.48-9)

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #4 on: February 14, 2008, 02:17:30 PM »
Any blues singer who learns a few jazz altered/extended chords can be demoted to the pop genre. So I'm with Elijah on this. Chris is not a musician and it shows. As a direct consequence I think he misreads and misunderstands Josh White's music, in this case. He is just articulating his taste in music, that has nothing to do with Josh White.

This could be a lengthy discussion!  :P

Its an interesting set of intersecting circumstances & pressures that produced the later incarnation of Josh White. He came to the Jazz capital of the world in its heyday. It would have been odd had he not absorbed some of the 'tude and sophistication of that scene. You also have to remember that there was as yet NO audience for rural blues or folk musics of any kind in New York, and unlike Chicago where Mississipians tended to group together in certain neighborhoods and support the purveyors of the electrified old style, New York has always pressured its new arrivals to assimilate. And Josh was eager to assimilate into a culture that appreciated his gifts and allowed him the opportunity to expand his musical persona, and take his place among the highly gifted artists of 1930's Harlem.
So yes his music mutated into a new hybrid blues-jazz-pop but the image of the pure blues singer may have been a record company construct to begin with. Every single blues player of the older generation that I spoke with talked about playing the popular tunes of the day before being locked into the blues singer identity.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline GhostRider

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #5 on: February 14, 2008, 03:42:01 PM »

Its an interesting set of intersecting circumstances & pressures that produced the later incarnation of Josh White. He came to the Jazz capital of the world in its heyday. It would have been odd had he not absorbed some of the 'tude and sophistication of that scene. You also have to remember that there was as yet NO audience for rural blues or folk musics of any kind in New York, and unlike Chicago where Mississipians tended to group together in certain neighborhoods and support the purveyors of the electrified old style, New York has always pressured its new arrivals to assimilate. And Josh was eager to assimilate into a culture that appreciated his gifts and allowed him the opportunity to expand his musical persona, and take his place among the highly gifted artists of 1930's Harlem.
And to make some serious money!

Alex

Offline Slack

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #6 on: February 14, 2008, 05:19:16 PM »
LOL!

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #7 on: February 14, 2008, 07:04:43 PM »
Quote
And to make some serious money!
GWOS! (goes without saying!)
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

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Offline doctorpep

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #8 on: February 25, 2008, 08:38:33 PM »
I ordered the White book a few days ago, and it should be arriving soon. I can't wait to read it! I think I'm more interested in his quest for racial equality than his music, though I think he had a beautiful voice and was a great guitar player. It really says something about a human being's character to grow up in South Carolina, the state which had the most slaves, play Blues music (associated with the black underclass), and then break all stereotypes by using clear diction and what less intelligent people would call "white" mannerisms (this attitude must end) in order to prove that blacks deserve respect and civil treatment. His music is unique; it doesn't sound like any other acoustic Bluesman's stuff. There is an excellent video on Youtube of him playing and singing "John Henry" along with Burl Ives, which is really great stuff.
« Last Edit: February 25, 2008, 08:40:19 PM by doctorpep »
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Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #9 on: February 26, 2008, 06:21:52 AM »
I just finished reading the chapter on Josh Whites dealings with HUAC and his blacklisting by the right  and subsequent ostracism by the left. Talk about falling into a Kafka-esque labyrinthian hell! He was basically fucked any way he turned (although, he earned his estrangement from the left by his overeagerness to suck up to the right) and there was really no recourse. It is a beautiful and moving account of a person caught up in forces beyond his control, and gives full psychological scope to the horrors of McCarthyism and the abuse of power by government. Guantanemo is probably full of such cases. Elijah Wald has written a truly masterful account in this chapter. One of the best pieces on the McCarthy period that I've ever read.

White emerges as a man consistently rising to meet an incredible array of shifting and conflicting social forces, with an almost superhuman positiveness, true good will, enormous generosity and a ferocious determination to overcome & succeed. He was heroic in the real sense of the word including possessing the flaws which were the means of his undoing. What a terrific book. What a great story.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

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Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #10 on: February 26, 2008, 05:49:02 PM »
Sadly I must concur. Despite my admiration for his being able to survive and thrive against almost impossible odds, the music of his later years seems like a grotesque distortion of somebody's idea of what sincerity is supposed to sound like.  It has this in common with most commercially successful "Folk" stuff of the period. The Weavers Decca recordings for example, as sighted by Elijah. But there are his early recordings and they are very cool. BTW they loved his rendition of the riddle song in England. Go figure! Perhaps in another twenty years, presuming we're all still here, it will suddenly strike us as being the hippest thing goin'.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

http://www.youtube.com/user/MuckOVision

Offline Rivers

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #11 on: February 26, 2008, 06:24:31 PM »
Ah yes but Josh could sure play the blues at that stage as well, see killer sessions with Leadbelly, among other recordings.

But the kitsch titles are always brought out as the defining 'elephant in the room'. Why is that? The early folk / pop crossover thing was happening, blame Burl Ives for that. JW was technically good enough to try on any genre, historically disposable or otherwise. Many would not have had a clue. He also had great charisma, and knew it. The project failed historically, but he figured it was worth a go. Perhaps we would have preferred it if he just faded away and died unknown and derelict like so many others, and taken his street cred with him!

As an aside Burl Ives was pivotal in other ways it seems. Merle Travis was pushed into writing and recording the classic Folk Songs Of The Hills album to compete with Ives's sales. Thank God for that. How sad we can't bring ourselves to say the same about Josh. Pathos surrounds the man, and I for one feel great compassion for his trials and troubles.

[edited to add: Doesn't anyone else find the tone of Mr. Smith's review incredibly patronizing to the author? But I'm biased; I must confess to finding much of Smith's writing to be more concerned with self-promotion. He's great when he sticks to the facts. I presume this to be over-compensating for having little or no musical knowledge beyond reading and listening, all well and good but there are many angles here that are clearly beyond the ken of a non-musician 'lay person'. I very much look forward to reading Mr. Wald's book.]

[I'm really steamed about this, and just want to add one more thing. Chris Smith, sitting in a smoke filled (figuratively or otherwise) room on a desolate rock in the British North Sea known as the Orkney Islands is not exactly well placed to comment, with any great degree of insight, into US politics. Trust me on this, as a recent emigre to the States, in a full-on, dare I say, pivotal, election year  :D You might think you know what it's all about but until you've lived here a couple of years you really do not.]
« Last Edit: February 26, 2008, 07:26:58 PM by Rivers »

Offline Rivers

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #12 on: February 26, 2008, 07:33:12 PM »
Yes but John we are talking biography here, not musical sincerity. A good musical biographer captures the big picture, warts and all, to mix metaphors. It really doesn't matter that Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton et al played just the same level of pap as Josh White on many occasions since their efforts were low profile and not caught on camera. It also helps their enduring, and dare I say, overblown, legends that they died a very long time ago.

Good biographies should not be value judgments based on musical taste, or if they are, preferably only in the last paragraph. Frankly I don't give a monkey's how Smith feels about Josh White's music, I'm interested in the man and the times. Sounds like Elijah got really into the story, and that's what I want from a bio, not a rehashing of somewhat hackneyed value judgements made by others less well placed to make them than the researching author. Just my opinion.

Errr... has anyone actually read it?  :P
« Last Edit: February 26, 2008, 07:41:21 PM by Rivers »

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #13 on: February 26, 2008, 08:57:20 PM »
I decided to employ some rare self restraint regarding Chris Smith's political comments in his review of Society Blues but since others have gotten the ball rolling: What a load of sanctimonious, self aggrandizing superior twitage ! I love these fuckers who strike such a superior, knowing tone about the whole Soviet experiment. Believe it or not there are many Russians today who long for the good old days of Breshnev. According to them, they never had it so good.

And as for John's musical assessment; I truly doubt whether we white boys ever really got to see the whole picture of those first generation blues guys. I'm almost certain we didn't. What subtle but significant cues did we routinely miss, which ones were edited out through self consciousness? What was rendered intergenerationaly incomprehensible even to younger black musicians? Authenticity, sincerity, we think we know it when we hear it, but our perceptions change and tastes change. I used to feel strongly that it had to be one man with one guitar in order to be sincere. Amplified instruments or classical music were irretrievably corrupt. I plead temporary insanity your honors. I put later Josh White in the same aesthetic category as Ella Fitzgerald. I prefer Big Bill and Billie Holiday, but Josh was trying something new, some kind of musical hybrid for a new place and a different time and right, you don't have to like it, and I don't, but I do respect his venture.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

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Offline dj

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #14 on: February 27, 2008, 03:37:45 AM »
I'm not a big fan of Josh White's music once he started performing for a white audience.  It hasn't aged well, in that musical currents have moved in such a way that the music White was performing in the mid to late 1940s and afterwards has been left in a dead-end backwater, one that doesn't hold much relationship to anything of interest to modern ears.  But if you go back and try to picture the New York nightclub and record buying scene of that time, when everyone's ears were full of jazz, swing, and pop, of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby, I can see that Josh White's renditions of "Waltzing Matilda" and "The Riddle Song" must have stood out as being remarkably new, different, and refreshing. 
   

 


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