So now we begin to get to a place where Josh White’s story intersects with those of other people already discussed (though not Van Morrison, who will not be born for a few years yet). For instance, in 1941 he began doing a nightclub act with Lead Belly at the Village Vanguard in New York. It was a bit of an awkward pairing, at least at first; though the two were both Southern bluesmen, they were very different in style and temperament. I love how Max Gordon, the Vanguard’s owner, describes their first rehearsals:
I turned on the work-lamp, wiped a table clean, and put a bottle of rye on the table. I hung around, watching and listening, saying nothing. Not until they finished the bottle did they say anything to me. So I put another bottle on the table. This went on for a week. And one day, twenty bottles later, Nick [Ray, who had suggested putting the duo together] said he thought they were ready.
Later, Gordon was quoted as saying “The greatest conversations ever heard at the Vanguard was the carving out of the guitars between Lead Belly and Josh White.” The combination of Belly’s thunderous 12-string and deep, husky voice with White’s delicate fretwork and silky baritone must have really been something; sadly no audio or video seem to exist.1 They did later make some studio recordings together, which maybe gives a little bit of the flavor:
But they were never entirely simpatico. White is quoted in Elijah Wald’s book as saying, “He was a fine artist. But Leadbelly was a clown. He played up to the Uncle Tom image.”
Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry also turned up in New York around this time. They had been playing in Washington, D.C. where, according to McGhee, people told them to come to New York because “they didn’t have any blues singers up there; that Josh White was the only one, and he’d gone white.”
Oh, the irony, amiright? The criticism came because after Lead Belly, White’s next musical partner was a white woman named Libby Holman — who was a whole wild story unto herself. I have been sitting here reading about her and there are so many flabbergasting details I scarcely know where to start. A spin through her Wikipedia page is a good use of probably more time than you think you’ll spend on it. But I’ll try to summarize as best I can.
Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman was born May 23, 1904, in Cincinnati, Ohio. At the age of 20 she came to New York City, where she had a successful career as an actress and singer. And… geez, biographical details are so boring. I can’t resist pasting in this anecdote from Broadway producer Leonard Sillman:
She was a large girl with a fuzzy head of hair. She had slits for eyes and a bee-stung mouth and a somewhat unreliable singing voice. When she felt good, she was a fabulous singer. When she was not fabulous, she was flat. She went around in a ratty old beret and an overcoat made from the pelts of one fox and several rabbits with rabies. From all this, I realize, it may be difficult to conjure up an image of a rather fey, irresistible enchantress. But that’s exactly what she was; she could exert a strange fascination. There was a boy in the show we all called “horseface.” He was such a lech for Libby that he followed her around like a puppy, which meant following me around because by that time I was never far behind the witch myself. After the show each night the three of us would sit around till dawn drinking milk, eating coleslaw, hating life. It was at one of these bull and beef sessions one night that Libby got up, walked to the writing desk and proceeded to write a letter. She put it in an envelope and left the room. I picked up the envelope and saw that it had been addressed to — of all people — Miss Libby Holman. Naturally, I read the letter. It said: “My divine Libby, how can you tolerate two such stupid people as Leonard and Horseface? They are without doubt the most dreadful, most common and vulgar people I have ever seen. I love you, divine Libby, wonderful Libby, beautiful Libby. Love, love, Libby.”
A bisexual whose lovers (if the Wiki is right) included Tallulah Bankhead, Montgomery Clift, and Josephine Baker, Holman ended up marrying Zachary Smith Reynolds, scion of the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company. They had been married less than a year when Reynolds died of a gunshot wound that may or may not have been self-inflicted. Holman inherited a few million dollars and returned to her acting career, which her husband had prevailed upon her to put on hold. But what she really wanted was to sing the blues, and she had the means to get what she wanted; after seeing Josh White perform, she hired him to teach her. They ended up recording and touring together.
Was this selling out? Maybe a little bit. (Brownie McGhee said: “When I saw how much money he was making, I said, ‘Hey, show me how to go white, too.’”) But it was also a breakthrough; you didn’t see too many interracial couples on tour in those days.
The records they made together are a little weird to listen to. Most of them start off sounding just like Josh White records, and you wait for his vocals to come in, and then this… other thing happens. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it, it’s just different.
One of their more successful recordings was a version of “House of the Rising Sun.” Again many of the extant rips of the 78 are of dubious quality, but here’s a live version with pretty good sound. And with that I’ll leave off for now; we’ve covered a lot of ground for one day, and I think we could all use a snort of that rye.