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,
The truth is it was because of a woman. I was quite a lady’s man in those days and another man and I were seeing the same woman. He said some things about me, and one night I ran across him on the street and took out after him. He ran into a building and held the door shut, and I just went right through the glass with my fist. The milk bottle story is just for public relations.
He refused the amputations and did keep the hand, but was unable to play guitar for a long time. It’s not clear to me why he couldn’t make a living as a singer; he had a wonderful voice, and there were plenty of guitar players around. But apparently bluesmen who didn’t play as well as sing were simply not in demand. He worked as a longshoreman, stevedore, bellhop, and elevator operator, then got a job as a building superintendent, which included lodging as well as pay. But when his union mandated pay raises and he refused to pay kickbacks to his employer, he was fired.
In the meantime his hand had been gradually improving — sometimes he would wrap it in mud his mother sent from South Carolina — and he returned to playing house parties in a limited capacity. (This would be a good place in the biopic for a montage.) Then he caught a lucky break: He was cast to play Blind Lemon Jefferson in a stage play called John Henry, joining a cast headlined by Paul Robeson.
Exactly how this came to pass is the stuff of legend. One version of the story has the play’s producers listening to a bunch of old records, with some arguing that “The Singing Christian” sounded perfect for the role, while others insisted that “Pinewood Tom” was a better choice. The version told in Society Blues has Josh being discovered by Leonard de Paur, choral director of the show, at a neighborhood party:
There was a good size party going on, a big group of people doing various things: drinking, dancing, joking. But the thing that caught my eye was a whist game, a four-handed card game similar to bridge. Nothing unusual about a whist game, but the thing that was unusual was one of the players, who for some reason smoked a cigarette and parked it behind his ear. Instead of an ashtray, you know….
I didn’t know who the hell it was, and it struck me as an odd way to use a cigarette. On top of that, between every hand, he’d pick up a guitar from by his seat and strum a few chords and sing. He would improvise — and this was the fascinating part — he would improvise about the hand they had just played: it would be a commentary about the game. “Well, you trumped my ace, and I don’t like your face,” that sort of thing.
According to this version of the story, the show’s producers had indeed been searching for “The Singing Christian,” but had no idea how to find him. Once de Paur learned that the “Mr. White” he’d met at the party was from South Carolina and had been a recording artist, he made the connection, but the producers took some convincing. In White’s telling,
Mrs. Bradford [the author’s wife] asked me if I was the Singing Christian, and I said yes, the only one I knew of on the records…. She said “I know how we can prove it. Will you sing a song? The one song that made me want this particular man in the show…. is ‘I Can’t Help from Crying Sometimes’ [sic].”
Well, when I made the record I played a lot better guitar, so I said, “I couldn’t do it the way you heard it on the record,” and I showed her my scars on my hand, “but I think I can convince you who I am.” So I did a bit of it, and they stopped me and said, “Enough said.”