We open Act 3 with Josh White in Europe, where he has gone to find refuge after the trauma of the blacklist and his unpopular decision to testify. No one in London, Paris, or Rome cares about un-American activities; there, all activities are un-American, and they like it that way.
He was particularly popular in the UK, says Elijah Wald. “The British public loved his blues and spirituals and were equally enthusiastic about his versions of old English numbers like ‘The Riddle Song’ and ‘Molly Malone.‘”
His career in the U.S. was not dead, just fraught with complications. He played at several revived versions of Café Society (none of which lasted very long), and was still a reliable concert draw who — because of the troubles — could be had by promoters at a surprisingly reasonable price. He spent the first half of the Fifties bouncing back and forth between the States and Europe, and took to spending a lot of his downtime in the hospital. He did have real health problems: ulcers, migraines, laryngitis, bursitis of the shoulder, and psoriasis of the fingernails that made it painful for him to play guitar. But according to his wife Carol,
A lot of times, when Josh would come home, the doctor would put him in the hospital just to make him be quiet… and also to eliminate some company. When he was on the road he would neglect himself, and by the time he got home he was just so out, so tired, so run down. He never knew how to say, “No, I can’t go tonight, I have to go back to my hotel and go to sleep.” So the doctor would put him in just to cleanse him. He had to be disciplined.”
Though he’d done some recording in England and Italy, by 1954 it had been seven years since White had released an album in his home country. That was when he met Jac Holzman, who had recently launched an upstart label called Elektra Records. The fledgling enterprise and out-of-fashion veteran performer took a chance on each other, and the result was a collection called The Story of John Henry, the centerpiece of which was an extended piece combining spoken narrative with pieces of various blues songs.
Since this runs to 23 minutes plus, it should get you a good way into the cocktail hour. We’ll pick up the story tomorrow.