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Josh White

Born Joshua White, February 11, 1914, Greenville, South Carolina (to devout and religious parents), he began his illustrious singing career as a Piedmont blues artist, although by the post-war 50s and 60s he was drawn into the folk-revivalist movement, having earlier befriended the likes of WOODY GUTHRIE, BURL IVES and folk-blues stars SONNY TERRY & BROWNIE McGHEE.
Displaying a penchant for urban blues, jazz and gospel, and having seen his clergyman father nearly beaten to death by white law enforcers in 1921 (he died in a mental institution nearly a decade on), JOSH WHITE vowed to steer clear of like-minded Ku Klux Klan acolytes, while he aided many visually-impaired black street singers, from Blind Man Arnold to BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON, to safer destinations in and around the South. He broke free from one exploitative artist, Blind Joe Taggert, who paid him little, with the help of Mayo Williams, an African-American producer at Chicago’s Paramount Records; as a session guitarist in the early 30s, Josh would now have enough money to send home to his mother and younger brothers.
It was also around this time that the boy would become much in demand, and unlikely as it seems at the age of 16 he was signed to ARC (the fledgling Columbia Records), billed as “Joshua White – The Singing Christian”; his mother didn’t want him singing “Devil’s Music” (aka the blues). To disguise his love of singing the blues, Josh would be re-titled Pinewood Tom (or indeed, Tippy Barton). Although still engulfed by the Depression and having relocated to New York, WHITE’s output between 1932 and 1936 was prolific, a plethora of classic blues staples such as `Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed’ (later adapted by LED ZEPPELIN as `In My Time Of Dyin’’), `No More Ball And Chain’ (covered by JANIS JOPLIN), `Blood Red River’, `Lay Some Flowers On My Grave’, `Lord I Want To Die Easy’ and `When The Sun Goes Down’.
Only just turned 22, Josh was involved in a barroom brawl in which he put his fist through a glass door; the result was a gangrene-infected hand, and only stubbornness on the star’s part averted its amputation; it curtailed his guitar-plucking for some time, although through cards and squeezing a rubber ball, he regained full use through time. Records under various guises surfaced over the next decade or so, and he could claim he’d played for a President (Franklin Roosevelt) at the White House. During a brief spell in the early 40s, WHITE was part of communal folk ensemble The ALMANAC SINGERS (alongside PETE SEEGER, etc), sticking around for at least one LP, `Talking Union & other Union Songs’.
Broadening his horizons somewhat, Josh was inspired by the resurgent folk movement of the late 50s (HARRY BELAFONTE was big at the time), and increasingly his repertoire was adapted into this revamped genre. Like so many similar artists of the McCarthy-ite era, WHITE was branded as a Communist sympathiser, but his chameleon approach let no white man steal his thyme. From ABC-Paramount recordings to a plethora of work for Elektra Records, his popularity soared without breaking him into the pop charts; his legacy was such that he inspired guitarists like BOB GIBSON, SHEL SILVERSTEIN, STEFAN GROSSMAN, JOHN RENBOURN, BERT JANSCH and many, many more. Sadly, having suffered three heart attacks from 1961 onwards and his health deteriorating badly, a procedure to replace heart valves failed and he died on September 5, 1969, in a hospital in Manhasset, New York; he was survived by his wife of 36 years, former gospel singer, Carol Carr; see also son JOSH WHITE, Jr.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS May2013

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