For you aspiring filmmakers, here are a few suggestions for the soundtrack. I’m not sure what we should call this thing; “Café Society” has been used too many times already, including by Woody Allen in 2016. Even if Woody hadn’t been canceled on G.P. (though they’ll take away my Bananas DVD when they pry it from my cold, dead hands), that does not seem like a film one wants to be associated with. The best review I could find was from the New York Times, which only managed the tepid headline “‘Café Society’ Isn’t Woody Allen’s Worst Movie.”
“Café Society Blues” might be better, and as it happens that is already the name of a song by Count Basie, so that might be a good place to start.
And of course Josh White’s “One Meat Ball” would have to be on there:
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.”
If you look up “Café Society” on yer Wikipedia, you’ll see this:
Leaving aside for the moment the rather opinionated first line, it is the first of these bullets that we are concerned with here. Of the three movies mentioned, none has anything to do with the nightclub, which would seem ripe for the documentary treatment. But filmic evidence is thin on the ground; it may well be that clubgoers of the day didn’t care to have cameras around. (And good for them.)
If you click through you’ll see that Café Society was “the first racially integrated night club in the United States,” founded by one Barney Josephson in imitation of European cabarets. In his 1988 New York Times obituary, Josephson is quoted as saying:
I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front. There wasn’t, so far as I know, a place like it in New York or in the whole country.
Josephson himself was Jewish and had been a shoe salesman before deciding to go into showbiz. According to Elijah Wald’s Society Blues, “He had often been to the Cotton Club — the famous Harlem showcase for black entertainers, where the few black customers were seated at the back — and the Kit Kat Club, which had an all-black staff and entertainment policy but barred blacks from the audience…. He thought New York was ready for a different kind of room.”
So now we begin to get to a place where Josh White’s story intersects with those of other people already discussed (though not Van Morrison, who will not be born for a few years yet). For instance, in 1941 he began doing a nightclub act with Lead Belly at the Village Vanguard in New York. It was a bit of an awkward pairing, at least at first; though the two were both Southern bluesmen, they were very different in style and temperament. I love how Max Gordon, the Vanguard’s owner, describes their first rehearsals:
I turned on the work-lamp, wiped a table clean, and put a bottle of rye on the table. I hung around, watching and listening, saying nothing. Not until they finished the bottle did they say anything to me. So I put another bottle on the table. This went on for a week. And one day, twenty bottles later, Nick [Ray, who had suggested putting the duo together] said he thought they were ready.
Later, Gordon was quoted as saying “The greatest conversations ever heard at the Vanguard was the carving out of the guitars between Lead Belly and Josh White.” The combination of Belly’s thunderous 12-string and deep, husky voice with White’s delicate fretwork and silky baritone must have really been something; sadly no audio or video seem to exist.1Which is a little hard to fathom in this day and age; but those were different times. They did later make some studio recordings together, which maybe gives a little bit of the flavor:
But they were never entirely simpatico. White is quoted in Elijah Wald’s book as saying, “He was a fine artist. But Leadbelly was a clown. He played up to the Uncle Tom image.”
Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry also turned up in New York around this time. They had been playing in Washington, D.C. where, according to McGhee, people told them to come to New York because “they didn’t have any blues singers up there; that Josh White was the only one, and he’d gone white.”
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.’”
I must admit that when I posted the songs from Southern Exposure yesterday, I hadn’t really sat down and listened to them all the way through. Today I am doing that, and man, it’s fantastic stuff; beautiful but brutal, musically adventurous and lyrically scathing.
It is quite an accomplishment to make political music that is not boring. With all respect to the Joan Baezes and Pete Seegers of the world, whose sincerity I’m sure is genuine, that very sincerity makes them bland. It takes somebody with a little more grit to make the music come alive.
I also learned today that the liner notes for the album were written by none other than Richard Wright. Though Elijah Wald’s book has some excerpts, surprisingly the whole thing does not appear to be online anywhere; all I could find was a blurry photo of one inside panel of the record. In the interest of the public edification, I spent some time this afternoon transcribing as much as I could. With that I will leave you to your weekend as I proceed to mine.