Josh White’s religious recordings were so popular that he soon acquired the nickname “The Singing Christian,” though there’s no indication that he was especially religious. He did go to church, which is where he met his wife, Carol, in 1934. Her account of the courtship in Elijah Wald’s Josh White: Society Blues is pretty funny:
This was the “be careful of boys” era, and if I had not been in church and if he had not been in church, it would have been all over. I would not have known him at all. He sang, and my mother said, “What a lovely boy — such a clean cut, lovely young man.” And I said, “Uh-ohhh.”
But the Singing Christian had another side. He was still making blues records under the pseudonym “Pinewood Tom,” sometimes working with the established blues titans Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. He also had a side hustle playing all-night rent parties in Harlem — about as far from the church as you can get.
It was most likely this other Josh White who very nearly ended the careers of both. Somehow or other, he cut his hand up so badly that doctors wanted to amputate some of the fingers. The official story was that he slipped while carrying groceries and cut his hand on a broken milk bottle. But according to Society Blues he once told a friend,
Mama White finally got her wish in 1933, when her son Josh recorded a pair of religious numbers, “Motherless Children” and “Jesus Going to Make Up My Dying Bed”:
She must have known something — the record did very well, though Josh’s crisp, youthful voice isn’t especially appropriate to the subject matter (that dying bed is going to be sitting empty for a long time). After that the record company had him cut a bunch more gospel numbers, and many of them would remain in his regular repertoire for the rest of his life.
Ironically, the success of these records seems to have provided him with the means to leave Greenville and settle in one of the most sinful places on Earth: New York City.
Today I decided to declare it spring. I know it’s early, but I think we deserve it. The groundhog can go fuck himself.
If you’re reading this, congratulations! You made it to now. This is no small thing; give yourself a pat on the back. The future looks bright; I’m not saying you have to wear shades, but you can if you want to.
In the last installment of the Josh White story, he had saved up some money and gone home to his mom. This is a touching scene in the biopic in my head. And it does seem like the period that followed was something of an idyllic one, with Josh going to school, playing football, and exploiting the fact that he was a young, good-looking man with musical talent and a shady mystique.
Josh liked the ladies and the ladies liked him. When he broke his leg badly playing football and was hospitalized for months, he managed to have a good time anyway. “The nurses took a liking to me at that time,” he said. “I was big enough.”
If you look up Volume 1 of Josh White’s Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, the first thing you’ll hear is a song from 1929 called “Wang Wang Harmonica Blues.” I have no idea why it’s called that; “Wang Wang” sounds like the name of a panda, or… actually, you know what, let’s not pursue that line of thought any further; there are too many ways it can go wrong. Most likely it has something to with the sound of the song itself, which Josh recorded in Richmond, Indiana with “a white hillbilly band called the Carver Boys,” according to Elijah Wald’s Josh White: Society Blues.
It’s a true fact that, especially in the realm of old-timey music, the line between what we call country and what we call blues is not always a clear one. Which side of the line a particular piece of music gets put on often has more to do with the race of the performer than anything else. Attributed to Josh White, “Wang Wang” is classified as blues; replace his name with the Carver Boys’, and it would be filed under country.
You can draw a direct line from there to Booker T and the MG’s, an interracial quartet whose music is lamely called “R&B” but is really an unclassifiable amalgam of all the streams of great American music. But that’s another topic for another time.
They say that if you want to play the blues, you have to pay your dues. I think it’s safe to say that Josh White paid his.
By the age of 8 he was working as “lead boy” for blind street singer John Henry “Big Man” Arnold, playing tambourine and collecting money. (He apparently was a whiz with the tambourine; according to his cousin, “Josh could beat it all on his knee, on his elbow, or his head, and it was quite a show.” It’s probably just as well that Arnold was blind and couldn’t see how he was being upstaged.) Soon after, Arnold decided to head to Florida to play for the tourists, and Josh went along.1I’ve not been quite sure what to call him in these posts. “Josh” seems overly familiar, and “White” overly distant. I could go with “Mr. White,” NY Times–style, but I dunno. It will probably remain inconsistent.
It was not an easy life. “When it got to be dark, I’d lead Mr. Arnold over and we’d lie down, if it was dry in the fields, and go to sleep. If it was wet, we’d try to find a place under trees or keep walking.” One time they witnessed the aftermath of a lynching: “The kids had pokers and they’d get them red hot and jab them into the bodies’ testicles.” And that was just the tip of the iceberg of the racial hellscape they experienced in the 1920s South. As author Elijah Wald puts it, “A small black boy traveling with a blind man was painfully vulnerable” — not least to that blind man himself.
It’s hot and people see a kid walking with the blind man and they would say, “Let me buy you an ice cream cone. But if I had had an ice cream cone, I’d have to suck it. The blind man would have his hand on your shoulder, and he could have felt it, and hit you ’cause you were stealing.
But Josh White stuck with it, not that he had much choice.