Josh in the Sixties (Part 2)

One thing I missed in the last roundup was that in 1963 Josh White had his last significant recording sessions, for which he was “accompanied by a small combo including the Chicago harmonica master Sonny Boy Williamson” (says Mr. Wald). They were apparently quite a departure in approach and sound and resulted in two well-reviewed albums, The Beginning and The Beginning: Volume 2. Oddly, though neither one is especially rare — there are many copies on eBay, some of which may soon be mine — neither is to be found on yer YouTube or Spotify, so you’ll have to use your imagination I guess.

In 1966 he was approached by a man named Charles Kaman, who was the owner of an aerospace company but also a guitar aficionado. Kaman had set his engineers to work creating space-age guitars using new designs and materials, and they were now looking for artists to test their products. First they went to a guitarist named Charlie Byrd, who liked the fiberglass model he was given, but explained that since he played nylon rather than steel strings he was not the ideal subject. Byrd suggested Josh White, whose reaction (as remembered by Kaman’s son Bill) was “This guitar has got the biggest motherfucking balls I ever heard.”

White signed on as Ovation’s first spokesman and Kaman’s people consulted with him to create a model made to his specifications, which became “the first signature guitar made for an African American.” (Wikipedia) When the engineers learned that White’s psoriasis of the fingernails was making it painful for him to play, they set out to solve that problem too, developing a process to make artificial nails. According to Society Blues,

Bill Kaman remembers Josh coming out to the (Ovation) factory every month or so. “We had to make a real slow mix of the material, and it would take about an hour to cure. Normally, you mix up the resin and the fiberglass and it cures in about five minutes, but it gives off an awful lot of heat. Since it was on his fingers, we had to slow it way. way down. In the early days, they’d make the nails and he’d sit around and play for them and drink. Toward the end he’d be eating a tub of yogurt and would say, “That’s all I can do now.” An Ovation guitar history adds that the special mixture they used to attach the nails would later be marketed as Super Glue.

And that’s probably a good segue into the next post, which will be the last one of this thread.

Josh in the Sixties (Part 1)

The rest of Josh White’s 1960s went something like this:

1961: Is invited to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, who has been a fan since college. Also appears on a TV show called “Dinner with the President.” In June, has a heart attack and is hospitalized. (As when he broke his leg in high school, he makes the best of a bad situation. Says his wife Carol, “There were times I walked into the hospital in Chicago and got very angry, because the doctor wanted him to rest and I’d walk up there and he’d have maybe six nurses sitting on his bed.”)

1962:

1963: Plays at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on the Capitol Mall organized by Bayard Rustin, opening for Martin Luther King. “I admire Dr. King and the passive resistance movement,” he says. “But I don’t like to be hurt and if somebody jumps me, that business about turn the cheek isn’t for me.”

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All the Liberals in San Francisco

The Story of John Henry — which came in the form of two 10-inch , 33 1/3 RPM vinyl records — was a big success and led to Josh White making more albums for Elektra. A lot of them featured re-recordings of his old songs, which had previously been released on shellac 78s that were now obsolete. As with the CD boom of the 1990s, a new medium is good for business.

The medieval English ballads were left behind on favor of a steady diet of folky blues and bluesy folk. This made the records easier to market, and reflected White’s general mid-career shift into something of a nostalgia act. The folk and blues revival that would come to full flower in the late 1950s and early 1960s was already underway, and provided a reliable stream of educated customers with spending money.

Some of the material seems intended to position him as a sort of blues/folk Frank Sinatra, not entirely without success:

Even so, it took a while for him to climb back to solvency. Apparently he had a network of women he could fall back on when things got rough; according to one lady friend,

A great many of the women that he was with had money, and that was his purpose. I’m being blunt about this, but he would by the first to tell you. He’d say to me, “I have to spend some time with so-and-so,” and suddenly he would have money again to take care of everything. It sounds brutal, but it’s true. He did what he had to do to survive.

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Molly Malone & John Henry

We open Act 3 with Josh White in Europe, where he has gone to find refuge after the trauma of the blacklist and his unpopular decision to testify. No one in London, Paris, or Rome cares about un-American activities; there, all activities are un-American, and they like it that way.

He was particularly popular in the UK, says Elijah Wald. “The British public loved his blues and spirituals and were equally enthusiastic about his versions of old English numbers like ‘The Riddle Song’ and ‘Molly Malone.‘”

His career in the U.S. was not dead, just fraught with complications. He played at several revived versions of Café Society (none of which lasted very long), and was still a reliable concert draw who — because of the troubles — could be had by promoters at a surprisingly reasonable price. He spent the first half of the Fifties bouncing back and forth between the States and Europe, and took to spending a lot of his downtime in the hospital. He did have real health problems: ulcers, migraines, laryngitis, bursitis of the shoulder, and psoriasis of the fingernails that made it painful for him to play guitar. But according to his wife Carol,

A lot of times, when Josh would come home, the doctor would put him in the hospital just to make him be quiet… and also to eliminate some company. When he was on the road he would neglect himself, and by the time he got home he was just so out, so tired, so run down. He never knew how to say, “No, I can’t go tonight, I have to go back to my hotel and go to sleep.” So the doctor would put him in just to cleanse him. He had to be disciplined.”

Though he’d done some recording in England and Italy, by 1954 it had been seven years since White had released an album in his home country. That was when he met Jac Holzman, who had recently launched an upstart label called Elektra Records. The fledgling enterprise and out-of-fashion veteran performer took a chance on each other, and the result was a collection called The Story of John Henry, the centerpiece of which was an extended piece combining spoken narrative with pieces of various blues songs.

Since this runs to 23 minutes plus, it should get you a good way into the cocktail hour. We’ll pick up the story tomorrow.

American Ulcer

We now fast-forward to the end of act 2 — the crisis. In Josh White’s case, as for so many of his contemporaries, this came in the form of the blacklist.

He had been on top of the world, playing to packed houses in New York (sometimes with guest appearances by his young song Josh Jr.), touring, acting in plays, appearing in movies:

He had been known as the “Presidential minstrel” during the Roosevelt administration, and remained close to Eleanor after Franklin’s death. In fact, says our friend Wikipedia,

White had reached the zenith of his career when touring with Eleanor Roosevelt on a celebrated and triumphant Goodwill tour of Europe. He had been hosted by the continent’s prime ministers and royal families, and had just performed before 50,000 cheering fans at Stockholm’s soccer stadium. Amidst this tour, while in Paris [actually London] in June 1950, White received a call from Mary Chase, his manager in New York, telling him that Red Channels (who had been sending newsletters to the media since 1947 about… artists who they warned were subversive) had just released and distributed a thick magazine with subversive details regarding 151 artists from the entertainment and media industries whom they labeled communist sympathizers. White’s name was prominent on this list.

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More Musical Selections

Over the last few weeks I’ve ended up spending more time than I would have expected sorting through the various versions of Josh White songs. There is a wide variance in quality, and what you see is not always what you get. You might think, for example, that tracks from The Complete Recorded Works — an actual professional release that they ask money for — would not sound like shit. But you’d be wrong.

So rather than have all that effort go to waste, I decided to create a YouTube playlist, starting with tracks from the 40s that have fallen through the cracks one way or another, and demonstrate the depth and breadth of the man’s repertoire. We’ll start with “Waltzing Matilda,” which he learned while appearing at a benefit concert on a bill with the Royal Australian Air Force.

This is my first time embedding a playlist, so let me know if it gives you any trouble. Peace.

Soundtrack Notes

For you aspiring filmmakers, here are a few suggestions for the soundtrack. I’m not sure what we should call this thing; “Café Society” has been used too many times already, including by Woody Allen in 2016. Even if Woody hadn’t been canceled on G.P. (though they’ll take away my Bananas DVD when they pry it from my cold, dead hands), that does not seem like a film one wants to be associated with. The best review I could find was from the New York Times, which only managed the tepid headline “‘Café Society’ Isn’t Woody Allen’s Worst Movie.”

“Café Society Blues” might be better, and as it happens that is already the name of a song by Count Basie, so that might be a good place to start.

And of course Josh White’s “One Meat Ball” would have to be on there:

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Later in the Evening She Asked Me to Dance

Given that very little documentary footage of Café Society seems to exist — unless it’s moldering in a warehouse somewhere, like the 1969 film that was exhumed to create Summer of Soul, hopefully coming soon to a theater near me — someone needs to make a fictional re-creation, maybe the same people who did the recent Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It would be tricky, but I think it could be done.

One key point to get across would be the political tension of the times. Outside the doors of the club, World War II was raging, and some of the artists “would do six shows a night, three benefits and our regular sets, and we would sell war bonds,” according to singer Susan Reed. But this was tricky for Black performers, who had to do their part in the face of continual reminders that they were not equal in their own country. One time, says Elijah Wald, Josh White was asked to appear in

a morale-boosting program at a munitions factory in New Jersey…. Though he and [collaborator Waring] Cuney had written “Defense Factory Blues” some time earlier, he had not planned to sing that song in the revue, preferring to concentrate on patriotic material. Then… Josh found a guard barring him from the factory’s segregated restaurant when he went in to get a glass of milk before the show. First nonplussed, then furious, he ended by taking the stage and singing “Defense Factory,” with its angry request that if blacks were to be enlisted in the defense of democracy, they be given “some democracy to defend.”

“Yes, folks, that’s a song I wish I never knew about…. If there was no discrimination against the colored man, I’d give up singing it in a minute. The songs I really enjoy singing are those that symbolize the kind of world we’d all like to live in — songs of hope — of the good people all over the world — they’re the songs that I like best — because that’s what my brother Bill is out there in Italy fighting for.”

Nor did racism stop at the doors of the club. Black performers would sometimes have to deal with redneck hecklers, though often as not the other patrons would police the situation. Other scuffles arose from Josh White’s unique and fearless style of, em, audience engagement . “He was the first black person to use sex appeal on white audiences,” says his son Josh Jr. “And he was lucky he didn’t get killed for it.”

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The Wrong Place for the Right People

If you look up “Café Society” on yer Wikipedia, you’ll see this:

Leaving aside for the moment the rather opinionated first line, it is the first of these bullets that we are concerned with here. Of the three movies mentioned, none has anything to do with the nightclub, which would seem ripe for the documentary treatment. But filmic evidence is thin on the ground; it may well be that clubgoers of the day didn’t care to have cameras around. (And good for them.)

If you click through you’ll see that Café Society was “the first racially integrated night club in the United States,” founded by one Barney Josephson in imitation of European cabarets. In his 1988 New York Times obituary, Josephson is quoted as saying:

I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front. There wasn’t, so far as I know, a place like it in New York or in the whole country.

Josephson himself was Jewish and had been a shoe salesman before deciding to go into showbiz. According to Elijah Wald’s Society Blues, “He had often been to the Cotton Club — the famous Harlem showcase for black entertainers, where the few black customers were seated at the back — and the Kit Kat Club, which had an all-black staff and entertainment policy but barred blacks from the audience…. He thought New York was ready for a different kind of room.”

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A Fine Artist, a Clown, a Large Girl with a Fuzzy Head of Hair

So now we begin to get to a place where Josh White’s story intersects with those of other people already discussed (though not Van Morrison, who will not be born for a few years yet). For instance, in 1941 he began doing a nightclub act with Lead Belly at the Village Vanguard in New York. It was a bit of an awkward pairing, at least at first; though the two were both Southern bluesmen, they were very different in style and temperament. I love how Max Gordon, the Vanguard’s owner, describes their first rehearsals:

I turned on the work-lamp, wiped a table clean, and put a bottle of rye on the table. I hung around, watching and listening, saying nothing. Not until they finished the bottle did they say anything to me. So I put another bottle on the table. This went on for a week. And one day, twenty bottles later, Nick [Ray, who had suggested putting the duo together] said he thought they were ready.

Later, Gordon was quoted as saying “The greatest conversations ever heard at the Vanguard was the carving out of the guitars between Lead Belly and Josh White.” The combination of Belly’s thunderous 12-string and deep, husky voice with White’s delicate fretwork and silky baritone must have really been something; sadly no audio or video seem to exist.1 They did later make some studio recordings together, which maybe gives a little bit of the flavor:

But they were never entirely simpatico. White is quoted in Elijah Wald’s book as saying, “He was a fine artist. But Leadbelly was a clown. He played up to the Uncle Tom image.”

Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry also turned up in New York around this time. They had been playing in Washington, D.C. where, according to McGhee, people told them to come to New York because “they didn’t have any blues singers up there; that Josh White was the only one, and he’d gone white.”

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