We now fast-forward to the end of act 2 — the crisis. In Josh White’s case, as for so many of his contemporaries, this came in the form of the blacklist.
He had been on top of the world, playing to packed houses in New York (sometimes with guest appearances by his young song Josh Jr.), touring, acting in plays, appearing in movies:
He had been known as the “Presidential minstrel” during the Roosevelt administration, and remained close to Eleanor after Franklin’s death. In fact, says our friend Wikipedia,
White had reached the zenith of his career when touring with Eleanor Roosevelt on a celebrated and triumphant Goodwill tour of Europe. He had been hosted by the continent’s prime ministers and royal families, and had just performed before 50,000 cheering fans at Stockholm’s soccer stadium. Amidst this tour, while in Paris [actually London] in June 1950, White received a call from Mary Chase, his manager in New York, telling him that Red Channels (who had been sending newsletters to the media since 1947 about… artists who they warned were subversive) had just released and distributed a thick magazine with subversive details regarding 151 artists from the entertainment and media industries whom they labeled communist sympathizers. White’s name was prominent on this list.
This did not exactly come out of nowhere. As the cold war began and communism became America’s new boogieman, many on the left — even those who had long ago cut ties with the Party — began to feel the pressure. Barney Josephson had been forced to sell Café Society a couple of years previously following a scandal involving his brother and accusations of passport forgery, after which the big names — including Josh White — would no longer play there.
After the phone call White immediately returned to the U.S., where he took the unusual step of volunteering to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). And although he didn’t name names, and gave an eloquent speech stating his intention to continue defending the downtrodden, many on the left felt he had betrayed them simply by testifying. He did denounce Paul Robeson (in very tepid terms, and possibly with Robeson’s blessing), which was the cost of doing business with HUAC at the time. He also wrote (or had his name attached to) articles in popular magazines in the press with titles like “I Was a Sucker for the Communists.”
There is a suggestion in Elijah Wald’s book that White was being blackmailed by the FBI, who had compromising evidence — perhaps of a sexual nature — that could have sent him to prison. This would seem to fit the facts, but who knows? It’s also possible he was just walking a tricky line between self-preservation on the one hand, and maintaining his dignity and honor on the other. It was a no-win situation. Being relatively cooperative didn’t keep White’s career from being damaged, nor did he avoid a lifelong sense of regret. According to Oscar Brand, a friend and fellow troubadour,
A man as proud as he was, as powerful as he was personally, who gives any part of himself to the other side, to the people he despises, is not going to be happy for the rest of his life. Burl Ives was the worst. He’s never been happy since that happened. Very few people are. There’s a piece of you that you never forget, a piece you handed out to them. I don’t think Josh deserved to excoriate himself the way he did… But the kind of person he was made it impossible for him to ignore the fact that he acted against his personal feelings. It was something in his stomach — it wasn’t the ulcer at this time, but it was an ulcer America had handed him.
Nobody on either side of the communist witchhunts emerged unsullied — not the accusers, and certainly not the accused. It isn’t very fun to write about either. Let’s draw down the curtain on Act 2 and proceed see what happens next.