(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.
Though the concept of the “concept album” did not yet exist at the time, I think this qualifies as one. It was inspired by the recent success of Lead Belly’s hardscrabble tales of prison hardship, and though none of the Carolinians had been on a chain gang, Josh White described his bona fides this way:
I’ve been beaten twice by the Ku Klux Klan — with my mother, once, and my brother. I saw two lynchings in my life at the age of going on eight years old.
He also had second-hand experience of chain gangs, both through direct observation and through the experiences of his Uncle Sonny, who was the inspiration for the song “Trouble”:
He was driving a four-mule team and, you know, mules will balk at times, they’ll sit down and won’t do a darn thing. My Uncle Sonny, I guess he was in his grog or feeling kind of evil this morning, and when the mule would balk he would get down and hit the mule with his fist in the temple….
[He was] in front of the station, and this man was driving two matched beautiful horses and he saw my uncle hit this mule and he jumped down on my Uncle Sonny’s back and there was a big fight and my Uncle Sonny sort of did him in. You know, he didn’t know whether was white, black, gray, or what; he was just angry that somebody jumped him from the back. So my uncle was sent to the chain gang, with no trial, and was given 99 years. And I wrote that song about Uncle Sonny.
We have previously discussed “Trouble,” and listened to a perfectly good master version, but just for kicks, here’s a more “authentic” (scratchy and fucked-up sounding) rip from the 78:
Credentials aside, though, the music on Chain Gang was filtered through a distinctly refined sensibility. The result is melancholy and poignant, but not entirely unsuitable for the cocktail hour:
It was the right sound at the right time. Soon the Carolinians were playing at the popular Cafe Society in Greenwich Village; not long after Josh White got what he called his “really big break” when he was chosen by Alan Lomax2to appear on a CBS radio show called Back Where I Come From.
At this time the power of the mass media was just beginning to make itself known. The radio could reach a lot more people than expensive and fragile shellac discs ever could; as a result, less than a year after disturbing old ladies at Leonard de Paur’s apartment during off hours from his elevator job, Josh White would be playing at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third inaugural.