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My baby came to me this morning and said I'm kinda confused. She said "If me and B.B. King was both drownin', which one would you choose?" And I said "Oh Baby, Oh Baby, Oh Baby, I ain't never heard you play no blues" - Steve Goodman, The I Ain't Never Heard You Play No Blues

Author Topic: Josh White Society Blues  (Read 6202 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?
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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.
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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

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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. 
   

Offline Rivers

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #15 on: February 27, 2008, 05:04:26 AM »
Exactly my point, context is everything. There are less than stellar moments in every musician's career. These are often very revealing episodes in the hands of a good writer. Thanks OMuck for not joining me out here on a limb with a little critique of one of the doyens of country blues literature. I was bemused after one reading, after subsequent re-reads I find it irritating on several levels. Chris Smith is capable of much better work. I disagree with Bunker when he says it's well considered.

It certainly helps if a writer is enthusiastic about his or her subject since it tends to carry along the narrative. But it's certainly not required for a biographer to love their subject unreservedly and embrace all their choices in life or art, on the contrary.

[edited to strike-through the 'not' which was not what I was trying to say]
« Last Edit: February 27, 2008, 04:24:58 PM by Rivers »

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #16 on: February 27, 2008, 06:37:42 AM »
Quote
Thanks OMuck for not joining me out here on a limb with a little critique of one of the doyens of country blues literature

Have I just been insulted? I can't imagine why. First off I don't know who the fuck chris smith is and care less if he is doyen of country blues literature or joe schmuck. Secondly I'm involved in some quite contentious blogging these days with the "can't get enough of beating up on Ralph Nader's corpse, crowd." so if I take a pass on the occasional controversial comment rest assured that somewhere out here in cyberspace I am busy trying to get people not to be complete assholes. I'm not succeeding very well, but I try.
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Offline waxwing

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #17 on: February 27, 2008, 08:29:59 AM »
I'd bet Riv started to say "Thanks OMuck for not leaving me out here on a limb" and then meant to change it to "Thanks OMuck for joining me out here on a limb" and forgot to edit the "not". -G-

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #18 on: February 27, 2008, 03:17:11 PM »
Hi all,
I've deleted my earlier posts from this thread, at the risk of creating a bit of discontinuity.  I think it will be possible to ascertain my opinions, which have not changed, by the responses to them.  The comments were made in a time context in an active discussion, and since that time has passed, I don't think any useful purpose that I can see is served by leaving them up indefinitely.
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #19 on: February 27, 2008, 03:31:50 PM »
I'd bet Riv started to say "Thanks OMuck for not leaving me out here on a limb" and then meant to change it to "Thanks OMuck for joining me out here on a limb" and forgot to edit the "not". -G-

Looks something like that to me too. O'Muck's statements reinforced what Rivers had been saying. So whatever limb we're talking about, looks like they were both on it.  :D

Interesting thread. Looks like I have another book to read.

Offline Rivers

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #20 on: February 27, 2008, 04:23:44 PM »
You guys know me better than I know myself. Yep, that's exactly what happened, my bad, I must have changed the polarity while polishing my already highly glistening prose and missed removing the 'not'. Apologies for the bad edit there Mr. OMuck, and thanks for confirming my feelings about... whatever it was we were not talking about. Or were we?

Johnm, I think we had a crossed line back there, you were addressing another point made and I caused it to to jump the tracks onto my own little main line. Naturally enough some confusion arose, and I sincerely apologize for hijacking your train. That's two apologies in the same post, must be a first for me!

Anyway I'm through venting now. I'm much calmer having listened to Burl Ives' greatest hits all day. Positively soporific in fact.
« Last Edit: February 27, 2008, 04:47:47 PM by Rivers »

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #21 on: February 27, 2008, 04:49:31 PM »
And now I must apologize for my paranoiac-faux messianic outburst. .....Its a long story. Politics!
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 #22 on: February 27, 2008, 06:39:52 PM »
Faux!? You mean...

Anyway I'd better read the book before C. Smith reads this and comes gunning for my ass. At our last internet shoot out on PWB I thought I'd done quite well but everyone else who followed the exchange thought otherwise. Something about that fellow's writing really gets my goat.

Offline doctorpep

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #23 on: March 13, 2008, 10:00:17 PM »
To respond to Mr. OMuck, I thought that the book was wonderful. I cried while reading the last two pages. The part about the young white kid who was addicted to drugs being helped out by Josh, despite Mr. White being very sick in the hospital, was great. Not to be overly sentimental, but Josh White was a truly great human being. He was a singer of American music (I'm using that term in order to show his broad appeal and not pigeon-hole him as a (black) Blues singer) and he paved the way for numerous black entertainers who came after him. Wald never mentions HOW Josh was able to speak so well, with such glorious diction, despite his lack of schooling. I would assume that he made a conscious effort to speak what's considered by many to be "proper" English. Having listened to many Mississippi singers speak, and having to decipher what they're saying, I wonder if Mississippi simply had the poorest education system in the country. However, I'm also aware that South Carolina was no wonderful place for blacks, considering how that state had more slaves than any other. Not to be selfish, but the White book proved to me that human beings are capable of rising above their surroundings, which is not to say that Josh's parents didn't do a great job raising him and stress propriety and education. Elijah Wald mentions Will Smith in the book, and without getting too far off-topic, I often wonder why it is that the Carlton character on Smith's show is considered so funny. For those of you who don't know, despite being a black American, he's considered to be "white" or "fake" or a "sell-out" because of his education and clear diction. Despite all of Josh White's hardships due to his race, he remained confident in America and humanity, and in no way gave in to the HUAC or the far-left. I think that his story reads like a brilliant play, film, or Greek myth. Whereas Willie McTell, as written about by Michael Gray, was courageous for living his life as a blind, black street singer, McTell never actively confronted the racism that surrounded him his entire life. Josh White was a different story. Again, I found the book to be extremely inspiring. To those who'd say that White was "a credit to his race", I'd say that he was a credit to the human race. I think that this book and the Skip James book by Calt are polar opposites. If I were to teach an upper-level Blues class at a university, I would most definitely require students to read the White and James books in order that they might come away with a really diverse impression of Bluesmen, and, of course, take the James book with a grain of salt.
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #24 on: March 14, 2008, 12:15:51 PM »
Reading back through this thread, I really have to politely disagree with the criticism of Chris Smith's review. I agree with Bunker Hill, it seems quite intelligent and well-considered. I think it's possible to dislike Josh White's music without failing some intelligence test. Indeed, much of it has a preening quality that bugs me, and the little postwar material I've hear is even more off-putting. I do prefer his recordings as the Singing Christian, where there are some great performances, to most of the blues cuts. But these are questions of personal taste. Smith shouldn't be slagged for admitting his own personal taste (which happens to coincide with a lot of other folks' tastes). Nor do I think it's wrong to comment that while McCarthyism was an evil period in US history, Stalinism was a much greater evil - just do a body count. I don't think Smith has taken a patronizing tone at all towards the author and the last comment in the review is "Elijah Wald's fascinating account of how Josh White walked the line between two worlds is a remarkable and compelling achievement." In fact, this review does what I want in a book review: good background information and context, a summary of the work, addressing the successes and faults of the work, and a clear indication of whether it's worth my time reading it.

I find myself disagreeing with any number of Smith's assertions and opinions in his writing, as I do with others, like David Evans. But even if I disagree with him, I generally learn something from the work because it is well-researched and thoughtful, and in the case of the Penguin Guide, frequently good for a laugh, too. As for being a doyen of blues writing, that's like saying someone's the big cheese in their local laundromat. Who gives a crap. :D I do think things took much too personal a turn in this thread.

Edited to add: I should point out that I don't know Smith and my only contact with him has been in answering a question he asked for one of his discographies.
« Last Edit: March 14, 2008, 12:48:43 PM by andrew »

Offline Rivers

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #25 on: March 14, 2008, 04:17:11 PM »
Well we must agree to differ on this. I find the review high-handed, the phrase 'damning with faint praise' comes to mind. It's between the lines but it's there none the less.

If the book's author had taken the view that 'because I don't like some of this guy's repertoire I won't write the book' we would have known far less about Josh. That's a pretty amateurish emotion, for any author. If such subjectivity were universal among historians we would have no bios of Hitler, Stalin, The Spice Girls . . . lawd help the human race! So yes, intellectually very suspect IMO. I was joking about the Spice Girls.

Wasn't this Elijah's first book? Could there be a touch of 'How dare a new writer comment on the NYC folk scene and find good things to say about Josh White when the blues writers' club has already passed final judgement on his character!?' That's how the review reads. To moi.
« Last Edit: March 14, 2008, 04:18:45 PM by Rivers »

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #26 on: March 14, 2008, 08:20:59 PM »
Quote
Nor do I think it's wrong to comment that while McCarthyism was an evil period in US history, Stalinism was a much greater evil - just do a body count. I

I don't mind doing a body count if we also factor in all the bodies that were saved by the Red Army defeating Hitler. There seems to be a self congratulatory component in these condemnations of the Soviet Union and of Stalin. as if by pointing a finger of condemnation at the great villain we somehow are elevated to a position safe from guilt for the atrocities of our own governments. Any attempt at comparative body counting would, I'm certain, bring on a despondency so profound as to make one suicidal. The numbers are enormous on both sides. I have no love or admiration for Stalin, in fact he was largely responsible for perverting the Soviet experiment and putting into place the oppressive machinery that led finally to its abandonment. That being said I'm sure no intelligent person has concluded that the ideal political system has been arrived at? Certainly not the current phase of American "Free market" (yeah, right!) capitalist pseudo- democracy. So lets stop feeling superior and start coming up with better solutions OK? To many members of a generation mired in the hopeless expanse of the depression, the Soviet Union represented "The Hope of the World". My parents among them.
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #27 on: March 14, 2008, 09:21:39 PM »
Well we must agree to differ on this. I find the review high-handed, the phrase 'damning with faint praise' comes to mind. It's between the lines but it's there none the less.

I agree that we can agree to disagree. :P Especially with regards to Josh White's music. I'd be more than happy, by the way, to have people point me to recordings and particular songs by Josh White that I or others have overlooked (as you've done with the recordings on the Leadbelly disc). I have Vol 1 and 2 on Document and enjoy them in small doses, more than I used to, with some performances being true classics, despite my overall opinion. However, I don't think there is high-handedness going on in Smith's review. Quoting from the original review, after Smith outlines his and the commonly held view that a chunk of White's music was actually disliked by blues audiences:

"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.e. acknowledging Wald is challenging this common view. Smith goes on to elaborate on how his own opinion of White's music is not the point:

"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."


Quote
If the book's author had taken the view that 'because I don't like some of this guy's repertoire I won't write the book' we would have known far less about Josh. That's a pretty amateurish emotion, for any author. If such subjectivity were universal among historians we would have no bios of Hitler, Stalin, The Spice Girls . . . lawd help the human race! So yes, intellectually very suspect IMO. I was joking about the Spice Girls.

I agree that this would be a simplistic view, and I think Smith does too, acknowledging that whatever his own lack of enthusiasm for White's later music may be:

"...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."

And again, to emphasize why I don't think this review is patronizing at all:

"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."

"Elijah Wald's fascinating account of how Josh White walked the line between two worlds is a remarkable and compelling achievement."

I'm really not sure how one can characterize those statements as damning with faint praise. Hardly seem faint to me and would qualify with most publishers as sure-fire blurb material for the back or front cover. The most critical aspects of the review are reserved for Josh White's music, a perspective that is not uncommon, and which Smith points out Elijah Wald takes on with a fresh perspective that is important and well-delivered. Smith's overall positive view of Elijah Wald's efforts to bring new light to the work of Josh White carries through into the several thousand words Smith devotes to the recordings of White in the Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings. A quote:

"The phases of Josh White's career have long aroused controversy; as with Big Bill Broonzy, in the '60s many white blues fans dismissed White's folk blues as inauthentic, and his early blues were assumed to be similarly valueless, an assessment now generally agreed to be inaccurate; more recently, White's biographer, Elijah Wald, has mounted a stout defence of the later music's technical, artistic and ideological ambitions, and has characterized White's 'race' recordings as unremarkable. While striving to be fair-minded, this discussion doesn't accompany that analysis all the way." So he's not completely on board, tending to prefer the early recordings overall to the later ones. But he still seems quite respectful to me.

Smith gives the first 3 Document CDs of Josh White 3 out of 4 stars. He gives several other discs lesser ratings and is quite critical of some (at times quite amusingly so: "this disc is for people who lie awake worrying that there may be a version of 'One Meat Ball' missing from their collection"). But he gives the Smithsonian Folkways CD, Free and Equal Blues, 3 1/2 stars out of 4, saying the CD "is also annotated by Elijah Wald at length and in depth, but has the added advantage of being compiled by him."

In short (I'm sorry, not the case at all, I know), hardly the stuff of putting a new writer in his place.

Offline Rivers

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #28 on: March 14, 2008, 10:20:12 PM »
OK I submit!  ;) Please don't beat me with anymore bold text. You were quite selective and left out a few things but I'm not about to start copying and bolding sentences on a Friday night.

But I think you miss my point. It's not about the music. It's about a life. A lot my my musical heroes played a certain amount of dreck. That does not diminish them much, in fact you could make a case for it making them more interesting as people. They are reflecting... something. To take the music at face value is to miss out on a good part of their life and times.

Where is it written that to write a bio, or read and enjoy a bio for that matter, you have to be in love with the subject and all their crazy choices in life? Or that they have to be universally acclaimed as 'towering figures' or otherwise somehow 'important' musically? It's a lot easier all round if the writer and reader happen to be admirers of the individual.

Good for Elijah Wald for picking a slightly tougher subject and going against the received wisdom. It really is irrelevant whether one likes Josh White's music or not, in the context of a biography. Mr Smith's sarcasm, gentle or otherwise, diminishes no one but himself, since it proves his infatuation with his own perceptions of musical 'value' overrides any interest in the subject themselves. You could argue that is the mark of a true music fan and I wouldn't disagree on that point.
« Last Edit: March 14, 2008, 10:34:42 PM by Rivers »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #29 on: March 14, 2008, 10:41:08 PM »
Quote
Nor do I think it's wrong to comment that while McCarthyism was an evil period in US history, Stalinism was a much greater evil - just do a body count. I

I don't mind doing a body count if we also factor in all the bodies that were saved by the Red Army defeating Hitler. There seems to be a self congratulatory component in these condemnations of the Soviet Union and of Stalin. as if by pointing a finger of condemnation at the great villain we somehow are elevated to a position safe from guilt for the atrocities of our own governments. Any attempt at comparative body counting would, I'm certain, bring on a despondency so profound as to make one suicidal. The numbers are enormous on both sides. I have no love or admiration for Stalin, in fact he was largely responsible for perverting the Soviet experiment and putting into place the oppressive machinery that led finally to its abandonment. That being said I'm sure no intelligent person has concluded that the ideal political system has been arrived at? Certainly not the current phase of American "Free market" (yeah, right!) capitalist pseudo- democracy. So lets stop feeling superior and start coming up with better solutions OK? To many members of a generation mired in the hopeless expanse of the depression, the Soviet Union represented "The Hope of the World". My parents among them.

Well, I was only comparing McCarthyism vs. Stalinism, as was Smith. I agree, a body count by government would quickly get too depressing for anyone. And I'll just note that, if by self-congratulatory you mean the West, fine, but if you mean the US, I'm Canadian (even worse, in Quebec), where we're still thought of as "socialist" by comparison - Albertans excepted, of course, and our prime minister, who it seems would really prefer to be Emperor. Still got socialized medicine, even if I can't find a doctor.

Offline Rivers

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #30 on: March 14, 2008, 10:54:47 PM »
...and I'm a Brit, which could explain why I, rightly or wrongly, detect a certain tone in the review that others may not. And I concede I may be completely wrong in that but I doubt it. And now I have absolutely nothing more to add. (Thank God for that they all cried...)
« Last Edit: March 14, 2008, 10:56:19 PM by Rivers »

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #31 on: March 15, 2008, 07:41:55 AM »
Well...Canadians really ARE superior. If only we'd not had that goddamned revolution in 1776 maybe we'd HAVE the universal healthcare we're trying so desperately to get here in the barbaric south. I'd love to hear more about your experiences with the Canadian health system off post Andrew. McCarthyism can't be isolated from the larger cold war environment, the greatest boon to arms manufacturers the world has ever known.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Josh White Society Blues
« Reply #32 on: March 15, 2008, 08:07:09 AM »
Rivers: LOL. Me too.

O'Muck: Well, there's sure a lot of Canadians who think they're superior these days.  :P I don't count myself among them, generally.

 


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