Josh White appeared at the 1940 inaugural as an accompanist for the gospel ensemble the Golden Gate Quartet, whom Eleanor Roosevelt had seen at Cafe Society and taken a shine to. (This was Eleanor’s first time in a nightclub, legend has it. Possibly she’d had her first beer.) No recording of this performance seems to exist, but here’s some footage from that day:
A month later he was back at the White House playing as a solo artist at a “command performance” organized by Alan Lomax “with the aim of encouraging music in the armed forces” (says Elijah Wald). From this point on White became enmeshed in politics, though in a fairly strange way; at the same time he was a favorite of the Roosevelts, he was recording with Pete Seeger’s Almanac Singers, who were militantly pacifist and thus opposed to FDR’s policies at the time. One of their songs went like this:
Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damn near believed what he said
He said “I hate war, and so does Eleanor”
But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead
Wald says that Josh White “probably gave the lyrics little thought,” which is a little hard to believe given that he sang a lead part on this one:
But all the same, it must have been dizzying for a still-young man with little history in politics to be the subject of a tug-of-war between the intellectual left and the President of the United States. At the time the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had signed a non-aggression pact, which made the communist-allied left opposed to American entry into WWII. Then in June 1941, Germany invaded the USSR, and things changed in a hurry. “Instantly,” as Wald puts it, “the Communist Party became an ardent supporter of American intervention.” The Almanac Singers album containing the anti-Roosevelt song, which had been sold mostly in communist bookstores, was pulled from circulation.
Josh White’s own next album, Southern Exposure, steered clear of international politics to focus on domestic injustice; it was subtitled “An Album of Jim Crow Blues.” And rather than pontificate about it, I’m going to just post some music here. It’s actually a bit of a pain to sort through the various versions on YouTube, given what appears to be a competition among 78 lovers to post the shittiest-sounding rips from their shellac discs; so here are the best versions of each song I could find (in some cases that means still not so great… but it is what it is).