Given that very little documentary footage of Café Society seems to exist — unless it’s moldering in a warehouse somewhere, like the 1969 film that was exhumed to create Summer of Soul, hopefully coming soon to a theater near me — someone needs to make a fictional re-creation, maybe the same people who did the recent Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It would be tricky, but I think it could be done.
One key point to get across would be the political tension of the times. Outside the doors of the club, World War II was raging, and some of the artists “would do six shows a night, three benefits and our regular sets, and we would sell war bonds,” according to singer Susan Reed. But this was tricky for Black performers, who had to do their part in the face of continual reminders that they were not equal in their own country. One time, says Elijah Wald, Josh White was asked to appear in
a morale-boosting program at a munitions factory in New Jersey…. Though he and [collaborator Waring] Cuney had written “Defense Factory Blues” some time earlier, he had not planned to sing that song in the revue, preferring to concentrate on patriotic material. Then… Josh found a guard barring him from the factory’s segregated restaurant when he went in to get a glass of milk before the show. First nonplussed, then furious, he ended by taking the stage and singing “Defense Factory,” with its angry request that if blacks were to be enlisted in the defense of democracy, they be given “some democracy to defend.”
“Yes, folks, that’s a song I wish I never knew about…. If there was no discrimination against the colored man, I’d give up singing it in a minute. The songs I really enjoy singing are those that symbolize the kind of world we’d all like to live in — songs of hope — of the good people all over the world — they’re the songs that I like best — because that’s what my brother Bill is out there in Italy fighting for.”
Nor did racism stop at the doors of the club. Black performers would sometimes have to deal with redneck hecklers, though often as not the other patrons would police the situation. Other scuffles arose from Josh White’s unique and fearless style of, em, audience engagement . “He was the first black person to use sex appeal on white audiences,” says his son Josh Jr. “And he was lucky he didn’t get killed for it.”
I said before that Josh loved women and they loved him, and having read more, this appears to have been something of an understatement. Here’s Eartha Kitt:
The sound of his guitar stirred me sensually. It was irresistible and enchanting and seductive. It tantalized my senses and wined my bitter blood. I watched his hands as they caressed the guitar, telling of love and hatred, of faithless women. His mouth moved as though he was making love to the words he spoke; his eyes had a come hither look that said, “There’s no woman I cannot have and any woman can have me.”
Ahem. And here’s actress and singer Josephine Premice:
He would have his shirt buttoned, and then he’d unbutton and tease the ladies. He totally enjoyed watching the ladies look at him, and one felt sorry for the men they were there with…. One clever thing he did was he would come on stage and take about five minutes tuning his guitar, but the tuning was all flexing his muscles. Every muscle rippled, and that’s why he did it, because you know he had tuned his guitar before he left the dressing room. But he’d do this whole thing, and then everybody would applaud the tuning! He had all those white ladies chasing him and putting gold watches on him.
There are a bunch more stories like that, but we don’t have all day. I do want to share this one last anecdote from Josh White himself, as quoted in Society Blues, which kind of ties up all the threads:
If I reach one person a month with what I have to say I think that’s doing something. Take the time a Southern Army major walked out on me while I was doing “Strange Fruit”… He came back a week later and said to me, “I’ve returned because I wanted to know why I walked out before.” He sat all through it this time and earnestly tried to convince me that not all Southerners are jimcrowers…. About four months later he arrived at Café Society with his wife — a Southern woman filled with anti-Negro prejudices. The major had begged her to come to hear me sing without telling her I was a Negro. But she stayed, and later invited me to sit at her table… Later in the evening she asked me to dance.
So obviously casting is going to be crucial here. I’ll leave that to the experts; they’ll probably have fun doing it.