Civil Rights in Song (5): the Politics of the Folk Revival, and the story of Josh White

800px-Josh_White,_Café_Society_(Downtown),_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._June_1946_(William_P._Gottlieb_09091)The day Martin Luther King stood by the Lincoln Memorial and spoke of his dream, also saw some of the great luminaries of the folk music scene of the day. Among those performing was someone most people have probably heard of: Bob Dylan.  I suspect very few have heard of Josh White. But, White’s story, and the story of America’s folk revival, gives us a slice of American social, political and cultural history. It takes us from the dust bowl to New York City, from the White House to the HUAC.

Cover_of_Francis_James_Child's_''English_and_Scottish_Popular_Ballads''Interest in the traditional music of Europe and America was hardly new. In the later part of the 19th century, James Francis Child was a Harvard academic: he wrote one of the most important studies of Chaucer, for example. What he is perhaps best remembered for is his collection of 305 traditional English and Scottish folk songs, colloquially known as Child’s Ballads. They are still sung today (I am sometimes known to turn my hand to number 102, the ineffably beautiful Willie O Winsbury).

asch1_largeIn 1948, Moses Asch founded the Folkways record label, as an alternative to the more mainstream commercial labels that dominated the business. Part of Asch’s project was to record the folk music of ordinary Americans. Child collected his ballads fearing that they might be lost. The same was true in the ‘forties. For example, the great blues musician, Robert Johnson, had died in 1938. He had only done two recording sessions in his life (and pretty lo-fi they were too). Asch looked to record America’s folk tradition: among his principal artists were Lead Belly, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

1024px-Woody_GuthrieGuthrie was an Okie, one of the many thousands who fled the failing agriculture of the mid-west and south for California. There, Guthrie made a name for himself as the Oklahoma Cowboy, singing and writing songs in the old American folk idiom. Many were about the hardships of ordinary American working people. His first album was Dust Bowl Ballads. His greatest songs, and there were many, looked to a different country. His most famous song, This Land is Your Land, was an answer to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America:

This Land was made for you and me

The Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC now holds Guthrie’s Asch recordings, after his family donated his entire archive. The form a key part of one of the great treasures of American culture.

Guthrie eventually settled in New York, where he was part of a musical collective known as the Almanac Singers: they shared Guthrie’s political radicalism. He was also from a genuinely working class background, in contrast to the rest. The centre of bohemian life in Manhattan was Greenwich Village. Most of those Village folkies were anything but Okies, or anything close to that.


Take the best known of those others: Pete Seeger. The Seegers were east coast blue bloods. His father was a composer and musicologist; his mother was concert violinist. Charles Seeger was one of the pioneers of ethno-musicology, the study of folk music. His second wife, Ruth Crawford, was one of the most important American modernist composers: she was also deeply interested in folk music. All four of Charles and Ruth’s children would become folk singers (Peggy Seeger was one of them). The young Pete lived with his father and stepmother when he wasn’t at boarding school. He taught himself the ukulele, and then the banjo. By the time Guthrie came to New York, Seeger was an established folk singer with the Almanac Singers, which later became The Weavers. In the early ‘fifties, The Weavers had a series of big hits. Their version of Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene topped the charts in 1950.


Seeger was also a political radical. Music and radical politics had mixed before. Most famously, the great Paul Robeson had committed two great sins in the eyes of many Americans, being both black and communist (you can read about him here). Woody Guthrie was sympathetic towards communism, though he never joined the party. Seeger did. In 1936, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, he had joined the Young Communist League; in 1942, he joined the party itself. He left the party in 1949, and by the time of the Hungarian Rising he become disillusioned with communism. By then, however, he had been summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Pete Seeger at the House Un-American Activites committee

It was at the height of McCarthyism. Like the Hollywood Ten before him, Seeger refused to answer questions and name names. This led to him being convicted for contempt of Congress and being given a prison sentence (it was overturned on appeal). Seeger was also blacklisted. It wasn’t until the mid-‘sixties that he was back on television, for example.

Folk singers

By then, there was a nationwide and international folk revival movement was underway. All across the USA (and Britain) folk clubs were born, and a whole new generation of folk artists were born. Some achieved large-scale commercial success, often by smoothing over rough edges and eschewing difficult politics: the likes of the Kingston Trio would fit that bill. In November 1959, four of the top ten selling albums in the Billboard chart were theirs.


Peter, Paul and Mary smoothed over rough edges, but did not eschew the politics. In 1963, they were among those folk singers who leant their voice to the famous march on Washington that saw Martin Luther King give his ‘I have a dream’ speech. One of the songs they sang that day was If I Had a Hammer, which was written by Seeger and Lee Hays. On the walk from Selma to Montgomery, Seeger had sung We Shall Overcome, which became the anthem of the civil rights movement.

On the day of the march, the whole crowd sung it, led by one of the brightest stars of the folk movement, Joan Baez (who had also been on the Montgomery to Selma march). By 1961, Baez was an established folk star, with a best-selling album and sold out New York concerts to her name. As well as campaigning for civil rights, she was also a pacifist (her family had become Quakers).


On that famous day in Washington, Baez sung Oh Freedom (you can hear her sing that song here).


She also sang When the Ship Comes In with Bob Dylan.


Peter, Paul and Mary had also sung a version of Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind.


Robert Zimmerman had first come to New York in 1961. Apart from visiting his idol, Woody Guthrie in hospital, he turned himself into Bob Dylan (and spun pack of fibs about his own life and background). Most importantly, by 1962 he was writing a canon of songs that would make him one of the greats. He was also a star. there are two posts on Dylan and the ‘sixties: here, and here. For now, we have to realise the central roles played by Joan Baez and Pete Seeger in giving the young folkie from the mid-west his breakthrough. And in his wake, folk music (as well as pop and rock) would be transformed.


Another performer on that day in Washington was Josh White (seen above with Odetta Holmes). If Woody Guthrie was authentically white trash, White was a black man brought up in poverty, in the South of Jim Crow. He was born in South Carolina in 1914, son of pastor. In 1921, his father had an altercation with a white man. Shortly after, his father was so badly beaten up that he was hospitalised for seven years, until his death.

One of the features of black life in the South was the itinerant street singer. Often, it was a way in which blind men could make a living. One such man was Blind Man Arnold. White now became his guide, and money collector. As such, he earned $2 a week to send home to his mother and three siblings. Soon, White was hired out to other singers, notably Blind Joe Taggart (below) and Blind Blake. White learned to dance, sing and play the tambourine. Then, he learned the guitar, with which he learned to ape the styles of his employers, and then some.

FR-2 (front)

By 1927, White was in Chicago with Taggart, where he served as a session man on a number of records. Eventually breaking free from Taggart, he returned home. However, White now had a reputation and in 1930, ARC records persuaded White’s mother to allow him to sign, on the promise that he record nothing but Christian music. When he got to New York, he did record religious music under the moniker of Joshua White: the Signing Christian, but also recorded the blues his mother saw as the ‘devil’s music’ under the name of Pinewood Tom; he was also a session player on numerous records. All through his career, White would have his serious political and religious side, but he also had his playful and overtly sexual one too; he was also a superb guitarist.

In 1940, White appeared with Paul Robeson in the musical John Henry. It was his breakthrough. Soon after, he had a six-month residency alongside Lead Belly at the Village Vanguard, one of Greenwich Village’s most famous venues. In his review of the show, Woody Guthrie called Lead Belly ‘the King of the 12-string Guitar’ and White the ‘Joe Louis of the Blues Guitar’ (Joe Louis was the former heavyweight champion of the world, and the greatest boxer of his age). White also performed with Libby Holman, a controversial torch singer (who was alleged to have killed her husband).  What really made the paring controversial was the fact that Holman was White. When the pair offered their services to entertain troops in the war, they were turned down by the still-segregated US armed forces.

White was now an established figure, so much so that he played at FDR’s inauguration in 1941. He was also political. A month later, he sang on an Almanac Brothers album, as did his wife, the gospel singer Carol Carr. Later that year, he released his own Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues, an album that was openly anti-segregationist. With help from acclaimed Harlem Renaissance poets Waring Cuney and Richard Wright, it was a lyrical masterpiece and instant hit.

It was very controversial. Uncle Sam Says, directly condemned the government and the president for segregation in the army (something White’s brother had experienced). Roosevelt’s reaction was perhaps unexpected: he invited White to perform the album in its entirety for a command performance at the White House. After, White spent three hours talking and drinking with Roosevelt. Thereafter, he and his family were frequent visitors to FDR’s White House and Hyde Park holiday home. The Roosevelts were Godparents to White’s son, Josh Jr. 


He kept his close connections after the president’s death. His brother, Billy, was Eleanor Roosevelt’s chauffeur and house manager. His wife, Carol Carr, a gospel singer, appeared on the former first lady’s TV talk show. In 1950, White was touring Europe on a goodwill visit with Eleanor Roosevelt: in Stockholm, they drew a crowd of 50,000. By then, he also had a burgeoning career on Broadway and in the movie, such as the 1949 western, The Walking Hills:

Josh White had made it.

Then came the blacklist. He had often performed at Greenwich Village’s Café Society, America’s first integrated nightclub, opened in 1938. Café Society Uptown followed soon. It became a popular haunt of high society: Hollywood stars, New York and European socialites, even members of the Roosevelt family. Its luminaries sung, wrote (in the likes of Sing Out!) and campaigned. Whereas Under Roosevelt they might be the friend of a president, in the heated atmosphere of the McCarthyite era, Café Society and Greenwich Village was seen as a hotbed of communism.

loc25_thumbWhite was also an associate of Paul Robeson. White did not share Robeson’s communist sympathies.  In 1950, he ‘voluntarily’ gave evidence to the HUAC (above, with his wife) and made public his opposition to communism and his disagreements with Robeson. White’s son believes he was put under very serious pressure by the FBI, who hauled him in on several occasions: he apparently told Robeson that the FBI had him ‘in a vice’. His testimony was powerful. He took the chance to tell his father’s story, powerfully and movingly. Not that it did him any good. Refusing to name names, he was blacklisted. His movie career was over, and he would not record in the USA until 1955.

To make matters worse, the fact that he had volunteered to attend the committee and had condemned Robeson saw him shunned by the left as well. The circuit of folk clubs and campus gigs that kept blacklisted folkies in worked closed their doors to him. As is so often the case, sanctimonious middle class lefties polished their precious consciences and in doing so cut off a man who had not only be campaigning for civil rights while their moms changed their diapers, but had known genuine poverty, discrimination and violence. The only poverty many of those who now shunned White had known was probably the poverty wages their parents paid their hired help, or those who served them got.

So, for much of the rest of his career he worked abroad: heaven had his own TV show in the UK, on Granada (ITV’s northwest division). He began to record again (the song above is from a 1958 album), but the ban from US television was only lifted when JFK invited him to appear on a CBS civil rights special, Dinner With the President, in 1963. He sung at LBJ’s inauguration in 1965. He also sung at the Lincoln memorial, on that famous day in 1963.


Today, White’s legacy is in part kept alive by his son, Josh White Jr, here performing his father’s 1941 anti-segregationist classic, Southern Exposure.

By 1969, White was dead. By then, of course, Martin Luther King and Kennedy were also dead. Johnson was no longer president. Woody Guthrie had died in 1967. The Civil Rights Act was law and legal segregation was disappearing into history. The folk movement had fractured; the world and music had changed. Pete Seeger lived on until 2014. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan are still with us now, but that’s a whole other story.

You can hear and see more by Seeger, Dylan and Baez here.

For now, here’s Baez:

And here is Josh White, in Sweden in 1962:

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