The last chapter of Josh White: Society Blues is titled “Going Down Slow,” and though it doesn’t appear he ever recorded that particular blues chestnut (he may have performed it live), it is an apt description of his life in the latter part of the Sixties. He wasn’t really all that old, having turned 50 in 1964, but had done a lot of living in his time and seemed to just plain wear out.

Man, you know I done enjoyed things that kings and queens
Will never have
In fact, things kings and queens can’t never get
And they don’t even know about
And good times?
I have had my fun
If I never get well no more
I have had my fun
If I never get well no more
Whoa, my health is fadin’
Oh yes, I’m goin’ down slow

As the decade wore on he spent less time on the road and more time at home, which may have helped his health but was not good for the family finances. He had never been one to put money in the bank.

Now look here, I did not say, I was a millionaire
But I said, I have spent more money than a millionaire
’Cause if I had kept all of the money I had already spent
I would’ve been a millionaire a long time ago
And women, well, googly moogly

Eventually his wife Carol was forced to take a job.

I worked for a duplicating place, when they first started making [cassette] tapes. Josh was not happy about it. He almost died when I told him I was going to work. But once I started, I would get up every morning and have a bath, and he would make my coffee and pour me some juice and bring it to me.

Even so, he did not stop touring altogether. In spring 1969 he was in Los Gatos, California when heart trouble put him in the hospital. With Josh Jr.’s help he was able to get on a plane and fly home, but he was clearly not well and his doctor recommended valve replacement surgery.

This kind of surgery is pretty routine now, but was new and perilous at the time. It did not go well, and Josh White went to join his ancestors on September 5, 1969.

One last quote from Society Blues, and we’re done here:

Josh had requested cremation, but Carol could not stand the idea, so the next morning the coffin was transported to Cypress Hills cemetery in Brooklyn. The policeman in charge startled Carol by asking her permission to give Josh’s body a full escort to the Triborough Bridge. “I thought, ‘Josh is not the president. Come on.’ But they escorted us to the Triborough Bridge, up to where you pay the toll. Then they got out, and as we went through they saluted.”

At the cemetery, [daughter] Fern sang “It Is Well with My Soul” as the casket was lowered. Carol had one final consolation: “I buried him exactly like you’d see him onstage,” she says proudly. “He was in a green velvet shirt opened to the chest, and the pants were another shade of green, and green alligator shoes. He was as handsome in death as we was on the stage, and I’m happy for that because I would not want his feelings to be hurt that he looked bad. I wanted everyone to remember him just the way he looked up there.”

OK then… thank you for your patience as I have worked through this mini-obsession. And thanks to Elijah Wald, whose book was the best music biography I’ve read in a long time, well-written and thoroughly researched without getting bogged down in minutiae. I don’t feel like my time has been wasted, I hope you don’t either. We shall see each other again soon.