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.
Why didn’t I run away ever? I didn’t dare, then. I was little, and a long way from home. Besides, [my employer] did keep his word and each week sent my mother the money he promised her…. I understood how badly money was needed with a sick father and other children to be cared for.
Although he was a gifted tambourine player, Josh had ambitions of learning to play guitar. But it seems that his employers — Arnold was just the first of many — were not keen to teach him, or even let him hold their guitars, for fear he would strike out on his own. So he taught himself to play by waiting until the blind men fell asleep.
There were a lot of these blind men going around with guitars; music was about the only way they could make a living, and you didn’t have to be particularly good to get by. In White’s estimation, Big Man Arnold was fair-to-middling as a singer and guitarist, but made a nice living, enough to own a couple race horses back home. And so a “lead boy” had a lot of job opportunities; Arnold often either loaned or rented him to other musicians, and eventually he struck out on his own, working with dozens of blind bluesmen over the years. One was Blind Joe Taggart, who took Josh along on a recording date in Chicago in 1928.
It is from this session that he have the first recorded evidence of Josh White’s career. On most of the songs he accompanied Taggart on guitar, but one is almost entirely him, with Taggart supplying only backing vocals. He was 14 years old at the time.
“Scandalous and a Shame” is religious in theme, but cynical in outlook, and Josh’s delivery has a louche worldliness that you wouldn’t hear from most 14-year-olds. It’s worth noting that most if not all of his blind employers played gospel; it brought in money and was safe to play on the streets in a way that lowdown blues probably would not have been. But if hired to play a private party, they had another repertoire as well. Anyone who’s listened to the blues even a little bit knows that the line between sacred and profane is thin indeed, and highly permeable.
Which leads me to wonder… there’s been no mention at all of women in the tales of Josh White’s adventures with the blind men. And they must have been around. Back to the book!