Good news: I’m only one chapter into Elijah Wald’s Josh White: Society Blues, and already making good headway on getting my questions answered.
White’s father, Dennis, made his living as a tailor but was a Methodist preacher on the side. His was a strict household:
We couldn’t do anything at home for fear of the Lord. We weren’t allowed to drink soda water, like orange soda, cherry, root beer…. At meal time — that was breakfast, dinner, and supper — there was a long prayer, everyone got onto their knees, and my daddy would pray ten, fifteen minutes. Then you’d get up and read a bible verse.
Into this respectable home one day came a white bill collector. (This was in South Carolina, by the way,just for background.)
The man had his hat on, and Papa said to him: “Would you please respect my house — remove your hat.” Well, the man had heard but he acted like he didn’t hear. He had a wad of snuff in his mouth. We had no rug on the floor, but it was clean. Papa said: “Would you please respect my wife and children and remove your hat, please?” The man still didn’t acknowledge it, and he spit. We had a fireplace in the living room to keep the place warm and he spit and he was standing on one side of the room — it was a small room — and he didn’t quite make the fireplace and this wad of spit plopped on the floor. My daddy got the man — he was about six-foot-two, I would think — by the scruff of the neck and put him out the door.
For this Dennis White was arrested, beaten, and then sent to an insane asylum.1He would be in and out of institutions until he finally died. As a result his family’s existence — which had previously been stable, if not comfortable — became tenuous. Josh’s mother made some money doing laundry but struggled to feed him and his siblings. Then one day,
I was coming home from school, and there was a blind man trying to cross the street. So I led him across. He had a guitar on his back.
This was the street musician Big Man Arnold (Wikipedia calls him “Blind Man Arnold”), who subsequently offered Josh $4 a week (Wikipedia says $2) to be his guide. After thinking about it for a bit, Josh’s mother decided that it would be OK. “Four dollars a week in those days was good money,” said Josh. “That’s how I started out playing — I wasn’t playing guitar, I was beating a tambourine.”