While other Bluesmen were fighting for women and whiskey, Josh White was fighting for equality. A large portion of his recording time was devoted to direct pleas to the government to end segregation.
The House of Un-American Activities was not pleased with his outspoken artistry—in the early ‘50s they blacklisted his work and labeled him a communist.
White had a history of motivating civil rights action. Ten years before, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had invited White to play at his second inauguration. It was the beginning of a long friendship—and one in the name of change. It’s said that Roosevelt was moved to desegregate the armed forces after he heard White’s songs, “Uncle Sam Says” and “Defense Factory Blues.”
Josh White’s canon of civil rights blues inspired black and white men alike to push for equality. Here’s FDR’s favorite—”Uncle Sam Says.”
Joshua Daniel White was born on February 11, 1914 in Greenville, South Carolina. He began singing in a church choir at the age of five. Two years later, at seven years old, White left home with a musician named Blind Man Arnold, whom he agreed to lead around the southern states as a guide and to collect money after performances. Soon he was rented out to other famous blind musicians, such as Blind Blake and Blind Joe Taggart. The talented youngster, who could sing, dance and play the tambourine quite well, soon mastered the guitar styles of each of his employees. In 1927, White and Taggart arrived in Chicago, where Paramount records recognized the young boy’s talent and began using him as a session guitarist. He wasn’t paid for his services however, so he returned to Greenville to care for his mother and siblings. In 1930, ARC records sought White out, and came upon his mother who would only release Josh if he swore he’d never play the devil’s music—the blues. His career as “Joshua White, the singing Christian” was short lived however, and he became the country’s most famous bluesman.
Josh White soon became a major matinee idol. He attracted a large white and black audience, becoming a famous guitarist, singer, and sex symbol. In 1940 he starred on Broadway playing Blind Lemon Jefferson opposite Paul Robeson. Soon after he began working the folk scene with Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Alan Lomax, and became the first black man to make a platinum record. He was a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and performed at FDR’s inauguration. Between 1939 and 1950 he expanded his theatrical career, performing in over a dozen radio plays, six Broadway productions, and numerous films. He was also an outspoken activist, a prominent member of the 1940’s civil rights movement. This landed him squarely on the blacklist of the House of UnAmerican Activities, ending his film career. His film and television blacklist ended in 1963, when JFK asked him to appear on the “Dinner with Presidents” broadcast.
From the mid 50’s until his death in 1969, Josh White continued performing for adoring audiences. His book “The Josh White Guitar Method” is considered the first blues guitar instruction manual.
Josh White died in 1969 during an operation for open-heart surgery. His death inspired numerous songs and poems. His legacy is carried on by his son Josh White Jr., a talented musician himself.