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:
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.
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.)
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.
“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