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I don't see how in the world I could complain about anything - John Jackson

Author Topic: Josh White Society Blues  (Read 6204 times)

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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 »
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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.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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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-

All for now.
John C.
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Offline Johnm

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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.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

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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.