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.
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.”
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.
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.1I’ve not been quite sure what to call him in these posts. “Josh” seems overly familiar, and “White” overly distant. I could go with “Mr. White,” NY Times–style, but I dunno. It will probably remain inconsistent.
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.
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.2In the parlance of the times — we could probably call it something nicer now. Possibly this was preferable to going to jail, but as the example of Roky Erickson shows, if you’re not crazy when sent to such a place, you will be when you come out.He 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.”