Elijah Wald – Josh White and the Protest Blues
|(originally published in Living Blues magazine)
"The blues, contrary to popular conception, are not always concerned with love, razors, dice, and death," Richard Wright wrote in 1941, in the liner notes to a new album of 78 rpm records. "Southern Exposure contains the blues, the wailing blues, the moaning blues, the laughing-crying blues, the sad-happy blues. But it contains also the fighting blues . . ."
Southern Exposure was the third album by Josh White, a young singer who was then staking out a unique position in American music: he was the only musician ever to make a name for himself singing political blues. Oddly, he made no claim to uniqueness; like Wright, he argued that the blues was by its nature a protest music, and decades of writers on the subject would concur. They always pointed, though, to veiled verses like "You dont know my mind/ When you see me laughing, Im laughing just to keep from crying." What Josh was singing was something quite different: a repertoire of blues about current events, written from a strong left-wing perspective. Some of the other blues artists who became caught up in the folk revival recorded similar pieces (Big Bill Broonzys "Black, Brown and White" and Leadbellys "Bourgeois Blues" are the most successful examples), but only Josh made it the centerpiece of his work.
In 1941, Josh White was 27 and had already lived out two previous musical careers. He had spent his childhood traveling around the South as "lead boy" for blind blues and gospel singers, making his first recordings at age 14 with the streetcorner evangelist Blind Joe Taggart. Then, in the early 1930s, he had settled in Harlem and became a solo artist, his records influencing a generation of players in the southeastern states (both Blind Boy Fuller and John Jackson covered his songs and guitar arrangements). These early recordings were pretty standard blues and gospel fare, though his guitar work was already outstanding and he was the only artist to have simultaneous success in the sacred and secular markets, recording gospel under his own name and blues as "Pinewood Tom." Only one of his 1930s records hinted at his future direction: in 1936 he put out "No More Ball and Chain" backed with "Silicosis Is Killin Me," two songs by a populist country songwriter, Bob Miller. Miller was a link between what was then called "hillbilly" music and the progressive New York scene, working with the Appalachian ballad singer and union organizer Aunt Molly Jackson and later the Almanac Singers, but his collaboration with Josh was brief. They might have done more work together, but, shortly after making the record, Josh cut his right hand so severely that he was unable to play for the next four years.
When Josh reemerged, it was in a different musical world. While his earlier songs had been issued as "race records," for sale to a black, rural population, he made his return in a Broadway show, John Henry, starring the activist actor and singer Paul Robeson. The producers had found him by pure chance, but it is hard to imagine another blues artist who would have been so perfectly equipped to capitalize on this opportunity. His new audience was urban, sophisticated, and, to an overwhelming extent, white and "progressive," a term that would come to be associated with people sympathetic to the Communist left. His first recordings were, once again, traditional-sounding blues (though with the interesting addition of clarinetist Sidney Bechet on two numbers), but he soon followed up with Chain Gang, an album unlike any previously made. Featuring a backup group that included the future Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin, it was a collection of prison songs adapted and rewritten first by a leftist folklorist, Lawrence Gellert, and then by Josh and his musical director, Leonard DePaur. Most were fairly standard work songs, pieces like "Nine Foot Shovel," arranged in the rather formal manner of the Negro college spiritual groups, but there was also "Trouble," a song more explicit in its treatment of racial issues than anything on record:
Well, I always been in trouble, cause Im a black-skinned man.
Trouble, trouble, sure wont make me stay,
Wearin cold iron shackles from my head down to my knee
Trouble, trouble, makes me weep and moan
Chain Gang was produced for Columbia records in 1940, under the sponsorship of John Hammond, and within the next year Josh would become ubiquitous in the leftist folk music world. He was singing on Alan Lomaxs CBS radio programs, and acting as accompanist and sometimes vocalist for the Almanac Singers, the loose-knit group of agit-prop folkies centered around Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Fred Hellerman, and often Woody Guthrie. It was with the Almanacs that he first recorded for Keynote Records, an outgrowth of New Masses magazine, and in 1941 the label released his most influential album of the period, Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues. This time, the songs were all original compositions, collaborations between Josh and the Harlem Renaissance poet Waring Cuney. It was the first full-fledged Civil Rights record album, and there would never be another with so much popularity or impact. The title song gives an idea; written to the tune of "Careless Love," it was the lament of a Southern sharecropper:
Well, I work all the week in the blazin sun, (3x)
I aint treated no better than a mountian goat, (3x)
The rest of the material, most of it in a straightforward 12-bar blues framework, included "Jim Crow Train," Bad Housing Blues," and "Defense Factory Blues." The latter was typical, a hard-hitting attack on wartime factory segregation with lines like, "Ill tell you one thing, that bossman aint my friend/ If he was, hed give me some democracy to defend." Harlems main newspaper, the Amsterdam News, devoted two articles to the albums release, rating it as a work that "no record library should be without" and emphasizing the painful familiarity of the subject matter: "All of you know the guy who ëwent to the defense factory trying to find some work to do . . .; and over there on 133d St. and Park Ave., and down in Mississippi and out in Minnesota, we all have a brother or a sister or a cousin who can wail: ëwoke up this mornin rain water in my bed. . . . There aint no reason I should live this way. . . Ive lost my job, cant even get on the WPA."
Despite this favorable press, Joshs work did not have much impact on African American listeners. The only one of his records to be advertised in the Amsterdam News was the sexy "Jelly Jelly," and, by the 1940s, even sexy songs by solo acoustic guitarist/singers were selling only marginally. Blues had become a band form, the Chicago sound of Walter Davis, Big Maceo, and Sonny Boy Williamson, the Kansas City shouts of Jimmy Rushing and Joe Turner, or the smooth combo style of Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker. By the middle of the decade, most of Joshs peers from the "race records" days had been forced to give up music and turn to day jobs, or were eking out an ever more precarious living on street corners. It was Joshs good fortune to turn the trick that B.B. King would turn some thirty years later, replacing his black popular audience with a new fan base by becoming an "ambassador of the blues" to white listeners.
Southern Exposure was also reviewed in the mainstream media, even getting a full story in the New York Times, which had paid virtually no attention to blues until that time. This coverage all concentrated on the political content of his music, the Times writer noting that "the burden of these songs is the bitter lot of the Negro seeking his meed of equality." For Josh, the albums most significant song would be "Uncle Sam Says," a blues he and Cuney wrote about segregation in the armed forces. Josh had gone to visit his brother in basic training, only to be shocked by the unequal treatment of black and white recruits. He talked the experience over with Cuney, and they produced a cutting 12-bar critique:
Airplanes flying 'cross the land and sea,
This song and "Defense Factory Blues" were particularly controversial. With Americas entry into World War II, even a lot of people who opposed segregation felt that the issue should take a back seat to a united war effort. Among these was the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but he was trying to make some careful steps in the right direction, if only to appease his African American supporters. When someone sent him a copy of Southern Exposure, he became interested in meeting this voice of black protest and invited Josh to the White House. "He said he wanted to see what I looked like singing the song to him," Josh later recalled. "Because he knew I was talking about him when I was singing about Uncle Sam. . . . People said I should say I had laryngitis, because I shouldnt sing this to the president, but I figured if he wanted me to come down and sing the song, I was gonna go down and do it."
Josh gave a concert for the Roosevelts, then had a quiet chat with the President. He brought up problems like the "walking tax" that blacks in his home town of Greenville, South Carolina, had to pay simply to use streets, and Roosevelt expressed sympathy and interest. In the following years, Josh would perform for FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt many times, and became known in some circles as "The Presidential Minstrel." Despite his strong stance on military segregation, he also played at hundreds of benefit shows to raise money for the war effort, singing songs like "Little Man on a Fence," "Minute Man," and "Blues in Berlin." Many of these were not blues; "Minute Man" was a pop number backed by the Mary Lou Williams Trio, and "Blues in Berlin" was a rewrite of Harold Arlens "Blues in the Night."
The war years were a curious period in American politics, because for a moment the Soviet Union was an ally and Communists were enthusiastic boosters of the war effort. Some of Joshs songs explicitly reflected this united front spirit: "Little Man" is a sarcastic picture of the non-interventionist Americans who urged that the country remain neutral while "the Soviet Union went rolling along." It would be wrong, though, to suggest that Josh at this time was simply parroting a Moscow "Party line." The Communist Party had joined the liberals in arguing that racial agitation should be put off until the war was won, but Josh always mixed his win-the-war numbers with songs critical of racial disparities both at home and on the battlefields. There was, for example, the blues he wrote about Dorie Miller, a black naval messman who took over an anti-aircraft gun during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and was subsequently decorated for bravery. Josh never recorded the song, but it was quoted in a long article in Opportunity magazine. It started out saying that "Japan came messin around, where she didnt have no right," then told of Millers heroism: "They found Dorie Miller, behind that great big Navy gun/ He made them wish theyd stayed in the land of the risin sun." However, even after awarding Miller with a medal, the navy still would not let him serve in a combat post:
[Sent him] back to the messroom with the Navy Cross hed won,
Josh also acted in a BBC radio play about black soldiers, The Man Who Went to War, written by Langston Hughes, and one of his most popular songs of this period was a war-and-integration number from Hughes pen, "Freedom Road." This was not a strict blues, but both Hughes and Josh worked to make it fit his style:
Hand me my gun, let the bugle blow loud
Thats why Im marching, yes, Im marching
It ought to be plain as the nose on your face
By the mid 1940s, Joshs repertoire had expanded to include everything from medieval English ballads to contemporary pop tunes. He had a national hit in 1944 with "One Meat Ball," and that lead to featured spots in movies and on Broadway. While reviews and interviews still called him a blues singer, and highlighted his childhood roaming the South, he was also getting known for songs like "Strange Fruit" and "The House I Live In," the latter a patriotic wish for a racially unified country that went on to be a hit for Frank Sinatra. Both of these songs had lyrics by Lewis Allen (the pen name of Abel Meeropol, who would go on to adopt the sons of the executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg), and Josh also was getting material from popular songwriters such as Gene Raskin, who would go on to write "Those Were the Days." Raskin provided him with a tenants organizing song, "Landlord," that had a tongue-twisting lyric about the depredations of urban slumlords.
Josh was by now considered an adept performer in pretty much any popular or folk genre, so little effort was made to write specifically blues numbers for him. Still, blues was his main strength, and a favorite song of this period was "Free and Equal Blues," with music by Earl Robinson and lyrics by Yip Harburg (lyricist of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Its Only a Paper Moon," and "April in Paris," among hundreds of other songs). Originally recorded by Robinson with Dooley Wilson, the piano playing "Sam" in Casablanca, the song became one of Joshs big crowd-pleasers. It was perfectly suited to his style, being a take-off of another song he had been instrumental in popularizing with the folk and cabaret crowd, "St. James Infirmary."
I went down to that St. James Infirmary, and I saw some plasma there,
And that was news, yes that was news,
"You mean you heard that doc declare
And that was news, yes that was news,
Considering his popularity, and the uniqueness of his material, it seems surprising that Josh is not featured more prominently in histories of blues, folk, and popular music, but the political impact of his work would turn out to be a double-edged sword. In 1947, the Cold War and the Red Scare began in earnest, and Josh found himself in a quandary. Though he had clearly been in the "progressive" camp, his politics were not particularly sophisticated: he was opposed to segregation and racism, and supported anyone who joined him in that fight, but he was not an economic analyst or a student of geopolitics. Like many people, he was caught completely off guard by the virulance of the anti-Communist witch hunt, especially since one of the first targets was his home base: Cafe Society, the nightclub where he had headlined for years and had his greatest success, was hounded out of business in the first days of the scare because of its owners left-wing connections. Josh, with five children to support and no savings to fall back on, tried to duck and cover. While continuing to sing his topical songs, and to appear at New Deal events with Eleanor Roosevelt, he asked for his name to be removed from the Peoples Songs listing, and requested help from right-wing columnists to make sure that his future benefit appearances would not be labeled as "subversive."
Then, in 1950, while on his first tour of Europe, Josh found that he had been named in Red Channels, "The Bible of the Blacklist." In 1949, he had broken into acting, appearing as one of a group of gold miners in a Randolph Scott western, The Walking Hills, as well as starring in a Broadway Play, How Long Till Summer. Now, just as things were taking off for him, his whole career threatened to evaporate in the political ferment. His reaction was understandable, but profoundly unfortunate. Attempting to walk a middle line, he refused to "name names" of fellow leftists, but appeared voluntarily before HUAC, the congressional committee investigating "subversives," to say that he had been misled by the Communists and to repudiate a purported statement by Paul Robeson that African Americans would not fight in a war between the US and the USSR. Since this was still the early days of the blacklist, his appearance clearly played into the hands of the red-hunters, and earned him the undying resentment of his old friends and younger folksingers on the left. Meanwhile, he maintained his strong stance on Civil Rights issues, ensuring that he would have few boosters in the conservative camp.
The early 1950s were bleak years for Josh. Work in the United States essentially disappeared, and he supported himself and his family with frequent tours of England and the European continent. Towards the end of the decade, though, his fortunes improved once again with the arrival of the second folk boom. Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio, the two most popular acts on the scene, had both been strongly and directly influenced by him, and by 1963 he was appearing on the Hootenanny TV show and a Billboard magazine poll of college students rated him Americas third most popular male folksinger, after Belafonte and Seeger, but ahead of Bob Dylan. That year, he also performed at Martin Luther Kings "March on Washington" (which had been organized by his erstwhile sideman Bayard Rustin), and he continued to regularly sing for movement fund raisers. In general, though, he was now avoiding politics. Once burned, twice careful, he was not willing to risk his resurgent popularity, which was mostly among the more mainstream and apolitical folk fans. He still sang "Strange Fruit" and "Freedom Road," and was considered a voice of black pride, but few people thought of him as an active protest singer. Indeed, now more than ever, he was often presented as a bluesman. His two final albums, both recorded for Mercury records in 1963, teamed him with a blues rhythm section and the Mississippi/Chicago harmonica master Aleck "Sonny Boy Williamson" Miller, with a song selection that harked back to his "race records" days.
Josh died in 1969, and his popularity outlasted him for only a few more years. The folk revival was ending, and the new generations of blues fans had no interest in his smooth, cabaret stylings. Like Charles Brown and the other sophisticated blues balladeers, he was dismissed as "too slick" by an audience whose model was Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. His impeccable guitar work, with its unmatched vibrato and clear, singing tone, had influenced generations of revival players, from Pete Seeger to Dave Van Ronk to Don McLean, but it lacked the Delta drive that had become synonymous with blues for many listeners. Meanwhile, the folk mainstream had less and less place for African American artists.
Today, most of Joshs early recordings have been reissued, and he is beginning to have a small resurgence of interest, but his legacy remains very much in doubt. Were there any justice, he should be seen as the clear predecessor and musical ancestor of contemporary singers like Keb Mo and Guy Davis, who pay lip service to Robert Johnson, but are much closer to his model as adept and entertaining popularizers of blues and blues-based music for a folk audience. Like them, he tried to keep the roots and power of his work intact, while broadening its appeal. Though his roots reached back to the richest period of acoustic blues, and older black fans remember him alongside Blind Boy Fuller and Buddy Moss, he took blues around the world, introduced it to Broadway, Hollywood, and hundreds of concert and nightclub stages, and made it the voice of a Civil Rights movement that often rejected his contemporaries work as "backward" and demeaning. He did more than any artist until B.B. King to make the blues singer a recognized cultural icon, and his rediscovery as a seminal musical giant and a unique American voice is long overdue.