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.