This week I took the unusual step of printing out the Wikipedia entry on Josh White, which runs to 16 pages not including notes and links, and I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out what to do with it. (What’s that you say? Well I never.)
And can I take a minute to sing the praises of Wikipedia, which just turned 20 years old? At more than 6 million entries in English alone, it is quite possibly the largest collection of human knowledge ever to exist. Yes, it is not always reliable; but then again, anything you read from any source — especially when it comes to history — is subject to bias, error, and omission. With Wikipedia at least you can try to fix things, if you’re so inclined.
I’ve not been sure how deep I want to go down this rabbit hole, which is after all a tangent. Peering over the edge, it looks pretty deep. But then again, I’m starting to think of this writing project as a Winchester Mystery House–type deal, where if I never finish I’ll probably never die. So what’s the hurry?
Here are the first two paragraphs of the bio proper:
White was born on February 11, 1914, in the black section of Greenville, South Carolina, one of the four children of Reverend Dennis and Daisy Elizabeth White. His father told him that he was named after the Biblical character Joshua1of the Old Testament. His mother introduced him to music when he was five years old, at which age he began singing in his church’s choir. White’s father threw a white bill collector out of his home in 1921, for which he was beaten so badly that he nearly died, and then was locked up in a mental institution, where he died nine years later.
Two months after his father had been taken away from the family, White left home with Blind Man Arnold, a black street singer, whom he agreed to lead across the South and for whom he would collect coins after performances. Arnold would then send White’s mother two dollars a week. Arnold soon realized that he could profit from this gifted boy, who quickly learned to dance, sing, and play the tambourine. Over the next eight years, he rented the boy’s services to other blind street singers, including Blind Blake and Blind Joe Taggart, and in time White mastered the varied guitar stylings of all of them. In order to appear sympathetic to the onlookers tossing coins, the old men kept White shoeless and in ragged short pants until he was sixteen years old. At night he slept in cotton fields or in horse stables, often on an empty stomach, while his employer slept in a black hotel.
We haven’t even really gotten started yet, but there’s a ton of information there, and I have some questions. What was the story with his father and the bill collector? Who is this Blind Man Arnold? What does it mean exactly to be “rented” like that?
Sadly Wikipedia is of no further help, nor is the internet in general; so in desperation I broke my self-imposed embargo on acquiring new books and purchased a volume called Josh White: Society Blues by Elijah Wald. It should arrive by the middle of next week. I’ll be in touch then.