Coffee Royale with the President

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.’”

The Fighting Blues

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.

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Billy Boy & Southern Exposure

Josh White appeared at the 1940 inaugural as an accompanist for the gospel ensemble the Golden Gate Quartet, whom Eleanor Roosevelt had seen at Cafe Society and taken a shine to. (This was Eleanor’s first time in a nightclub, legend has it. Possibly she’d had her first beer.) No recording of this performance seems to exist, but here’s some footage from that day:

A month later he was back at the White House playing as a solo artist at a “command performance” organized by Alan Lomax “with the aim of encouraging music in the armed forces” (says Elijah Wald). From this point on White became enmeshed in politics, though in a fairly strange way; at the same time he was a favorite of the Roosevelts, he was recording with Pete Seeger’s Almanac Singers, who were militantly pacifist and thus opposed to FDR’s policies at the time. One of their songs went like this:

Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damn near believed what he said
He said “I hate war, and so does Eleanor”
But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead

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Chain Gang

(OK, here’s the deal: I’ve decided to arbitrarily give myself until April 201to wrap up this extended tangent and get back to the Van thread. I need structure! I need deadlines! Or else nothing gets done around here! OK, where were we?)

Although by 1940 he was starting to make a name for himself, Josh White still worked nights as an elevator operator. His bandmates in the Carolinians likewise made a living however they could, and so they ended up rehearsing at odd times. According to Leonard de Paur, whom they had engaged as vocal coach and arranger,

We’d be plunking away and rehearsing, and the thing about singing is that when you sing, particularly small-group fashion, you pat your foot. So there’d be these five guys patting their feet and singing and playing a guitar, and the old lady in the apartment adjoining right through the wall, she was getting a sunrise concert. She thought we were crazy.

From these humble beginnings, the Carolinians quickly came to be quite a big deal. Thanks to legendary producer John Hammond, they were signed to Columbia Records and released an album called Chain Gang.

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Bayard Rustin Sings Lute Songs

Last week I was reading in Josh White: Society Blues about the vocal group, the Carolinians, that White formed around the time of Harlem Blues. I did a double-take when I read the names of the members: Josh’s brother Bill White, Carrington Lewis, Sam Gary, and Bayard Rustin.

Could this be the same Bayard Rustin who organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and followed the “I Have a Dream” speech by reading a list of demands? Yes, it could, and it was; thus opened another rabbit hole within the existing one, resulting in my spending a big chunk of this morning watching a documentary about Rustin called Brother Outsider. What did I learn?

  • After his stint with the Carolinians Rustin began to focus more on activism (though he continued to make music throughout his life). His relationship with Martin Luther King was, at least initially, that of an “older brother” — it was he who taught Dr. King the practical aspects of nonviolent protest.
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Harlem Blues

The six remaining songs from the previously mentioned session ended up being released as an album called Harlem Blues (in those days an “album” was a set of 78s with one song on each side). Exactly how this came to pass is not clear; there seem to have been some music-business shenanigans involved. Josh White said he never thought these songs would be released:

We started at 2:00 AM and kept it up till 2:00 PM the next afternoon. We okayed several recordings and the rest were to be destroyed. Blue Note got new owners and they were sold and came out as my Harlem Blues album. And I’m not proud of it.

Be that as it may, Harlem Blues is well worth a listen. This upload has a lot of surface noise, which I guess lends authenticity; it’s easy to imagine that you’re listening to an 80-year-old 78, because you pretty much are.

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Careless Love and the Milk Cow Blues

Despite a talented cast including the larger-than-life Paul Robeson, the stage version of John Henry was not a success. Reviews were mixed and after test runs in Boston and Philadelphia, it lasted only a week in New York.

But it changed Josh White’s life by introducing him to NYC’s left-wing intellectual circles, where folk music was becoming all the rage. In March 1940 he appeared at a benefit concert for California migrant workers with the likes of Lead Belly, the Golden Gate Quartet, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger (then an unknown 20-year-old).

A few days later he went into the studio for the first time since cutting up his hand. Says Elijah Wald:

He recorded eight sides for two different labels, and they show the potential breadth of audience that lay before him. The first two songs, released as a single by the two-year-old Blue Note label, aimed at the new crop of white jazz fans…. For these, Josh was joined by bass player Wilson Myers and the New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet. Bechet had been among the first jazz musicians to be lionized by a white audience: He was hailed by classical music critics in Europe, and New Orleans jazz fans place him on a par with Louis Armstrong as the style’s other great soloist. In some ways, he was a surprising choice to accompany Josh, but the records worked out fine. Bechet provided sensitive background for the vocals and turned in fine, warm solos that meshed neatly with the guitar leads. The first tune, “Careless Love,” finds him staying rather carefully in the background:

But he comes in stronger on “Milk Cow Blues,” blowing full-throated melodies over Myers’s bowed bass.

And that’s probably enough to absorb for a Monday. More to follow.

Can’t Help Crying Sometimes

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,

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That Old Time Religion

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.

Little Brother and the Greenville Sheik

The first robin of spring.

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.

Anyway…

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.”

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