Chain Gang

(OK, here’s the deal: I’ve decided to arbitrarily give myself until April 201to wrap up this extended tangent and get back to the Van thread. I need structure! I need deadlines! Or else nothing gets done around here! OK, where were we?)

Although by 1940 he was starting to make a name for himself, Josh White still worked nights as an elevator operator. His bandmates in the Carolinians likewise made a living however they could, and so they ended up rehearsing at odd times. According to Leonard de Paur, whom they had engaged as vocal coach and arranger,

We’d be plunking away and rehearsing, and the thing about singing is that when you sing, particularly small-group fashion, you pat your foot. So there’d be these five guys patting their feet and singing and playing a guitar, and the old lady in the apartment adjoining right through the wall, she was getting a sunrise concert. She thought we were crazy.

From these humble beginnings, the Carolinians quickly came to be quite a big deal. Thanks to legendary producer John Hammond, they were signed to Columbia Records and released an album called Chain Gang.


Bayard Rustin Sings Lute Songs

Last week I was reading in Josh White: Society Blues about the vocal group, the Carolinians, that White formed around the time of Harlem Blues. I did a double-take when I read the names of the members: Josh’s brother Bill White, Carrington Lewis, Sam Gary, and Bayard Rustin.

Could this be the same Bayard Rustin who organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and followed the “I Have a Dream” speech by reading a list of demands? Yes, it could, and it was; thus opened another rabbit hole within the existing one, resulting in my spending a big chunk of this morning watching a documentary about Rustin called Brother Outsider. What did I learn?

  • After his stint with the Carolinians Rustin began to focus more on activism (though he continued to make music throughout his life). His relationship with Martin Luther King was, at least initially, that of an “older brother” — it was he who taught Dr. King the practical aspects of nonviolent protest.

Harlem Blues

The six remaining songs from the previously mentioned session ended up being released as an album called Harlem Blues (in those days an “album” was a set of 78s with one song on each side). Exactly how this came to pass is not clear; there seem to have been some music-business shenanigans involved. Josh White said he never thought these songs would be released:

We started at 2:00 AM and kept it up till 2:00 PM the next afternoon. We okayed several recordings and the rest were to be destroyed. Blue Note got new owners and they were sold and came out as my Harlem Blues album. And I’m not proud of it.

Be that as it may, Harlem Blues is well worth a listen. This upload has a lot of surface noise, which I guess lends authenticity; it’s easy to imagine that you’re listening to an 80-year-old 78, because you pretty much are.


Careless Love and the Milk Cow Blues

Despite a talented cast including the larger-than-life Paul Robeson, the stage version of John Henry was not a success. Reviews were mixed and after test runs in Boston and Philadelphia, it lasted only a week in New York.

But it changed Josh White’s life by introducing him to NYC’s left-wing intellectual circles, where folk music was becoming all the rage. In March 1940 he appeared at a benefit concert for California migrant workers with the likes of Lead Belly, the Golden Gate Quartet, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger (then an unknown 20-year-old).

A few days later he went into the studio for the first time since cutting up his hand. Says Elijah Wald:

He recorded eight sides for two different labels, and they show the potential breadth of audience that lay before him. The first two songs, released as a single by the two-year-old Blue Note label, aimed at the new crop of white jazz fans…. For these, Josh was joined by bass player Wilson Myers and the New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet. Bechet had been among the first jazz musicians to be lionized by a white audience: He was hailed by classical music critics in Europe, and New Orleans jazz fans place him on a par with Louis Armstrong as the style’s other great soloist. In some ways, he was a surprising choice to accompany Josh, but the records worked out fine. Bechet provided sensitive background for the vocals and turned in fine, warm solos that meshed neatly with the guitar leads. The first tune, “Careless Love,” finds him staying rather carefully in the background:

But he comes in stronger on “Milk Cow Blues,” blowing full-throated melodies over Myers’s bowed bass.

And that’s probably enough to absorb for a Monday. More to follow.

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,