Can’t Help Crying Sometimes

Josh White’s religious recordings were so popular that he soon acquired the nickname “The Singing Christian,” though there’s no indication that he was especially religious. He did go to church, which is where he met his wife, Carol, in 1934. Her account of the courtship in Elijah Wald’s Josh White: Society Blues is pretty funny:

This was the “be careful of boys” era, and if I had not been in church and if he had not been in church, it would have been all over. I would not have known him at all. He sang, and my mother said, “What a lovely boy — such a clean cut, lovely young man.” And I said, “Uh-ohhh.”

But the Singing Christian had another side. He was still making blues records under the pseudonym “Pinewood Tom,” sometimes working with the established blues titans Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. He also had a side hustle playing all-night rent parties in Harlem — about as far from the church as you can get.

It was most likely this other Josh White who very nearly ended the careers of both. Somehow or other, he cut his hand up so badly that doctors wanted to amputate some of the fingers. The official story was that he slipped while carrying groceries and cut his hand on a broken milk bottle. But according to Society Blues he once told a friend,

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That Old Time Religion

Mama White finally got her wish in 1933, when her son Josh recorded a pair of religious numbers, “Motherless Children” and “Jesus Going to Make Up My Dying Bed”:

She must have known something — the record did very well, though Josh’s crisp, youthful voice isn’t especially appropriate to the subject matter (that dying bed is going to be sitting empty for a long time). After that the record company had him cut a bunch more gospel numbers, and many of them would remain in his regular repertoire for the rest of his life.

Ironically, the success of these records seems to have provided him with the means to leave Greenville and settle in one of the most sinful places on Earth: New York City.

Little Brother and the Greenville Sheik

The first robin of spring.

Today I decided to declare it spring. I know it’s early, but I think we deserve it. The groundhog can go fuck himself.

If you’re reading this, congratulations! You made it to now. This is no small thing; give yourself a pat on the back. The future looks bright; I’m not saying you have to wear shades, but you can if you want to.

Anyway…

In the last installment of the Josh White story, he had saved up some money and gone home to his mom. This is a touching scene in the biopic in my head. And it does seem like the period that followed was something of an idyllic one, with Josh going to school, playing football, and exploiting the fact that he was a young, good-looking man with musical talent and a shady mystique.

Josh liked the ladies and the ladies liked him. When he broke his leg badly playing football and was hospitalized for months, he managed to have a good time anyway. “The nurses took a liking to me at that time,” he said. “I was big enough.”

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Wang Wang Blues

If you look up Volume 1 of Josh White’s Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, the first thing you’ll hear is a song from 1929 called “Wang Wang Harmonica Blues.” I have no idea why it’s called that; “Wang Wang” sounds like the name of a panda, or… actually, you know what, let’s not pursue that line of thought any further; there are too many ways it can go wrong. Most likely it has something to with the sound of the song itself, which Josh recorded in Richmond, Indiana with “a white hillbilly band called the Carver Boys,” according to Elijah Wald’s Josh White: Society Blues.

It’s a true fact that, especially in the realm of old-timey music, the line between what we call country and what we call blues is not always a clear one. Which side of the line a particular piece of music gets put on often has more to do with the race of the performer than anything else. Attributed to Josh White, “Wang Wang” is classified as blues; replace his name with the Carver Boys’, and it would be filed under country.

You can draw a direct line from there to Booker T and the MG’s, an interracial quartet whose music is lamely called “R&B” but is really an unclassifiable amalgam of all the streams of great American music. But that’s another topic for another time.

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Scandalous and a Shame

They say that if you want to play the blues, you have to pay your dues. I think it’s safe to say that Josh White paid his.

By the age of 8 he was working as “lead boy” for blind street singer John Henry “Big Man” Arnold, playing tambourine and collecting money. (He apparently was a whiz with the tambourine; according to his cousin, “Josh could beat it all on his knee, on his elbow, or his head, and it was quite a show.” It’s probably just as well that Arnold was blind and couldn’t see how he was being upstaged.) Soon after, Arnold decided to head to Florida to play for the tourists, and Josh went along.1

It was not an easy life. “When it got to be dark, I’d lead Mr. Arnold over and we’d lie down, if it was dry in the fields, and go to sleep. If it was wet, we’d try to find a place under trees or keep walking.” One time they witnessed the aftermath of a lynching: “The kids had pokers and they’d get them red hot and jab them into the bodies’ testicles.” And that was just the tip of the iceberg of the racial hellscape they experienced in the 1920s South. As author Elijah Wald puts it, “A small black boy traveling with a blind man was painfully vulnerable” — not least to that blind man himself.

It’s hot and people see a kid walking with the blind man and they would say, “Let me buy you an ice cream cone. But if I had had an ice cream cone, I’d have to suck it. The blind man would have his hand on your shoulder, and he could have felt it, and hit you ’cause you were stealing.

But Josh White stuck with it, not that he had much choice.

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He Had a Guitar on His Back

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.2He 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.”

Tangent Alert

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.

Anyway:

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:

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One Meat Ball

Circa 2001 I was DJing at KALX in Berkeley, and we were required to play a certain number of songs per hour from the bin of new arrivals. So I spent a lot of time scouring the racks, and one day came across a compilation called Washington Square Memoirs: The Great Urban Folk Boom 1950-1970. This is not normally in my wheelhouse but, ever striving to be open-minded, I perused it. And there was Josh White’s name next to a song called “One Meat Ball.”

And therein lies tale, a rather long one; stick with me here.

According to the site Folk Den, in 1955,

Harvard professor George Martin Lane (1823-1897), arriving in Boston after a journey, found himself hungry and had only 25 cents in his pocket. He needed to reserve half that money to pay his carfare to Cambridge. With the remaining 12 cents he entered a restaurant and ordered the least expensive item on the menu. It happened to be macaroni.

Lane was aghast to discover that the waiter not only treated him with disdain, but refused to give him any bread with his meal. He turned this experience into a poem — changing the dish in question to “one fish ball, a favorite breakfast food of Harvard undergraduates,” says Folk Den — and then a song. (Wikipedia says that he lifted the melody from the traditional camp song “Sipping Cider Through a Straw,” though I don’t really hear it.)

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Trouble

When I saw that Van Morrison had mentioned Josh White among his early influences in that Guardian article, I decided it was time for a little research, after knowing of him in a very shallow way for three decades. This was two weeks ago now. It may go on for a while; his was an eventful life.

I first heard Josh White back in the early 90s, when I bought a compilation called The Gospel Tradition: The Roots and the Branches for my dad. I must confess that at times I have made it a habit to buy things I was curious about as presents for other people, then listen to them before passing them on to the intended recipient. This was such a case, and I ended up buying the CD for myself. (I think my dad got the cassette? He didn’t go digital until later, if memory serves.)

The Josh White song, “Trouble,” really stood out — partly because it is not in any sense a gospel song. In style it is a stripped down folk blues, with lyrics that have no religious content whatsoever. But mostly it was the sheer haunting beauty, with White’s sweet acoustic guitar accompanying his even sweeter voice:

“Trouble” is brutal and unflinching in its portrayal of a viciously racist justice system, but also mordantly funny:

I went up to the walker and the head boss too
Said, “You big white folks, please see what you can do.”
Sheriff winked at the policeman, said, “I won’t forget you nohow,
You better come back and see me again, boy, about 40 years from now.”

Clearly, this is a work of sublime genius — but after that I didn’t really pursue the thread. I think it was one of those cases where a song is so fantastic you don’t want to risk being let down by the artist’s other work. It was a decade later before I heard another Josh White song; we’ll pick up the story there next time.

The Singing Brakeman

“I went home and listened to Jimmie Rodgers/In my lunch break.”
—Van Morrison, “Cleaning Windows”

“James Charles Rodgers (September 8, 1897 – May 26, 1933) was an American singer-songwriter and musician who rose to popularity in the late 1920s. Widely regarded as ‘the Father of Country Music,’ he is best known for his distinctive rhythmic yodeling. Unusual for a music star of his era, Rodgers rose to prominence based upon his recordings, among country music’s earliest, rather than concert performances — which followed to similar public acclaim.
“He has been cited as an inspiration by many artists and inductees into various halls of fame across both country music and the blues, in which he was also a pioneer. Among his other popular nicknames are ‘The Singing Brakeman’ and ‘The Blue Yodeler.’”
—Wikipedia

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