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.