The lack of anything but teen angst love songs on the radio was driving us crazy, me and the fat boy. How could we sit in his house of anything goes and get seriously fucked up listening to "The Boy From New York City" or The Name Game or The Younger Girl (keeps running around my mind). Yeah, the younger girls were running around my mind like crazed weasels on crack, but I wanted to screw 'em, not ponder 'em. The fat boy and I wanted to ponder the big issues and think the big thoughts during our sessions of hard drinking. I'm still not sure if this was an attempt to stand out from the small-town crowd, or if we really had some sort of mission statement about all this. I know we didn't write it down. We might have considered writing something along these lines on the wall of that den, but we'd already plastered it wall-to-wall with the cardboard end-pieces of Old Milwaukee six packs; the ones with the stubby little 12-oz. bottles. We had gotten sick of our thumbs being cut to pieces from drunkenly opening pop tops on cans. (This was back when opening a pop top was a manly act. It was not a "ring" or even a sideways tab; it was one huge hunk of steel on an American steel can that you had to get medieval with if you wanted what was in that damn can. I guess aluminum had been invented, but no one had thought to put beer in it yet. So, after a few cans and some loss of motor skills, you could do some serious damage to your thumbs with the edges as those sturdy tops peeled off.)
It was down by Old Joe's Bar-room
On the corner by the square
They were serving drinks as usual
And the usual crowd was there
We had found Frank Zappa in a record bin in Nawlins during a road trip, so we knew there was other stuff out there. It was just a matter of finding it. That wasn't so easy back then, I tell you. There was no such thing as the internet, so you couldn't just type "funky ass smart person music drinking" into a search engine. And it was a small town, so you really had no recourse at the local record store. You already knew all they knew and more.
That was around the time when some dude's older brother turned us on to Vanguard. Ah, the magic and holy label of folk and blues. That was the eye-opener. That was what led to Dylan. It also led to other great stuff, like hearing "One Meat Ball" by some black dude named Josh White. We immediately ordered the album. We damn near wore it out after it came in. My favorite was his version of St. James Infirmary. Could that guy sing and play the guitar or what? He was like Nat King Cole with some soul and six strings instead of 88 keys. The only other guy I heard playing the guitar like that back then was Jackie Washington, and you ain't ever heard of him, either (have you?). Lord Brawl is the only user on here, aside from me, who knows who Jackie Washington is, I'll bet you. Some of you might have heard of Josh White. But there's a lot I didn't know about him until I got to reading tonight.
Josh White was born February 11, 1914, in Greensboro, NC. By the 1920s he was already working as a musician, leading blind blues singers around the South and making headway in the race records market. In the 1930s he became a blues icon and was even more popular than Robert Johnson. In the 1940s he moved to New York City and spent stage time with folks like Billie Holiday. He had veered into the world of folk music during the 1950s and had high dollar protestors like Pete Seeger calling him "Mr. Folk Music."
Hanging around with folks like Seeger came with a heavy price in the political climate of the day, however. He had gone on European tours in the 1950s and was living large over there. Back home, HUAC was investigating the entertainment industry and several folks found themselves blacklisted as a result. Theodore Kirkpatrick, a former FBI agent, and Vincent Harnett, a TV producer, published Red Channels, a pamphlet which outed 151 writers, directors and performers who they claimed had been members of subversive organizations before WWII but who had never been officially blacklisted by the HUAC.
Josh White was one of those 151 names. The pamphlet caused such a stink that all 151 of these folks were blacklisted until they came before the HUAC and either fessed up or denied the charges. Either way, the folks who held the power wanted some assurances that these wayward sinners had realized they'd screwed up big time. They wanted them to say, "I won't do it again."
On September 1, 1950, Josh White appeared before the HUAC. He told them that it was true that he'd performed some charity concerts with Paul Robeson, but he swore on a Bible that he didn't know the political groups behind these concerts. He claimed that the only Communist he had ever known in his life was Benjamin Davis, Robeson's friend.
This attitude was not good news for White in either camp. The God-fearing Americans now looked at him askance, and his buddies of the civil rights movement and the radical left couldn't get past statements such as, "I was a sucker for the Communists." It must have been a tough time for the guy. Hell, all he probably wanted to do was make music and party hardy. His act, by this time, had become a sort of Stud Show. He would unbutton his shirt down to his waist (think Harry Belafonte) and he was doing mostly folk revival standards. He had charisma, baby, and he didn't mind showing and selling it. His stage act got more and more sophisticated as he grew older. He had both white and black women falling all over him.
By 1963, he'd gotten over all these political troubles and was ranked as America's third most popular folksinger, after Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. Bob Dylan was on that list somewhere, but the fat boy and I found Josh White before we found Dylan.
When I die please bury me
In my high top Stetson hat
Put a gold piece on my watch chain
You'll know I died standing pat
Josh White died September 5, 1969, in Manhasset, NY. He has a son, Josh White Jr., who currently records and often pays homage to his dad. Back in 1945, Duke Ellington had father and son on his radio show. The Ellington Orchestra backed up Josh and a 4-year-old Josh Jr. They say it was a memorable moment.
If you can get your hands on a copy of Josh Sr. doing St. James Infirmary, listen to the patterns of the rhythm guitar as he sings. It's just one acoustic guitar and a bass. He alternates between lead and rhythm. Pay close attention to the rhythm work on the couple of times he plays the chorus just before the final verse. There's a lot of stuff going on there which has influenced a lot of the folks you listen to, I'd suppose.
When I hear it, I think back to the fat boy's den and those Old Milwaukee bottles. I actually can't believe my liver has put up with this shit for this long.
Now, folk, that you've heard my story
Now that you've heard my song
If anybody should happen to to ask you
Tell them White's been here and gone