Today’s post is going to be more like typing than writing, because I wanted to share this story from Elijah Wald’s Society Blues of a meeting between Josh White and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After that we’re going to start moving through the years with a little more alacrity; after all, the clock she is ticking.
Someone had sent FDR a copy of Southern Exposure, and the president had been particularly taken with “Uncle Sam Says.” To Josh’s immense gratification, Roosevelt requested a private performance at the White House. “He said he wanted to see what I looked singing the song to him,” Josh said….
The reception room was full of “bigwigs,” and the president was sitting in a chair, with Mrs. Roosevelt at his side. “I’d never thought of him being a polio victim, [said White] — it just didn’t dawn on me, a lot of people didn’t think about it. So I go over to shake his hand, before I go into my little bit, and I got my hand in his hand, but not the way it should have been, and he crunched down on it like a bear. I snatched it back, and ‘God damn it,” I screamed out. He went ‘kwa, kwa, kwa, kwa [laughing], well, let’s do it again,’ and this time I got it in his hand so he couldn’t hurt me — I hate a fishy handshake anyhow, but I didn’t get the chance to get into his hand when he came down on me. I said, ‘I make my living with these things.’ Probably I shouldn’t have said that, but if it had been Jesus Christ God Almighty I would have said the same thing — it hurt, let’s face it. He was a strong man, wow. And a good guy, too.”
Josh gave a concert for the assembled guests, including all the songs from Southern Exposure, as well as a few spirituals. After it was all over, Roosevelt invited him back to his private chambers. “We were talking over coffee, with brandy — coffee royale. I brought up about this ‘walking tax’ bit in Greenville… and asked him why was this sort of thing so. And he says, “Oh, there’s no such thing. I’ll look into it, but there’s no such thing as a walking tax.’ He explained to me, he said, ‘Who are you talking about when you’re singing “Uncle Sam Says?”’ Well I told him, ‘You’re the president, you’re Uncle Sam, I was singing about you.’”