Josh White began as a Southern bluesman but eventually evolved into an eclectic, urbane artist.
Joshua Daniel White, b. February 11, 1914 in Greensboro, NC, d. September 5, 1969 in Manhasset, NY, singer, guitarist, songwriter, actor and civil rights activist. He also recorded under the names Pinewood Tom and Tippy Barton in the 1930s. A grounding in church music stood Josh White in good stead, as it was something to which he returned at various points in a long career as a blues singer and, later, folk entertainer. He learned guitar while acting as a guide for blind street singers, and began his recording career at a young age. Between 1932 and 1936, he recorded prolifically. The results often demonstrated a notable versatility, covering blues in local or more nationally popular idioms (sometimes under the pseudonym Pinewood Tom) or sacred material as the Singing Christian. In the mid-30s he moved to New York, where he found a new audience interested in radical politics and folk music. In retrospect, it seemed as if he was diluting as well as tailoring his music for the consumption of white listeners, who were at this time unused to hearing authentic black music. As the years went on, he learned a lot of new material, and turned his repertoire into an odd mixture, encompassing everything from traditional ballads such as 'Lord Randall' to popular songs like 'Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)', as well as protest songs and blues. He toured overseas in the post-war years and recorded extensively. In 1961, White's health began a sharp decline after he had the first of the three heart attacks and the progressive heart disease that would plague him over his final eight years. As a lifelong smoker he also had progressive emphysema, in addition to ulcers, and severe psoriasis in his hands and calcium deficiency, which caused the skin to peel from his fingers and left his fingernails broken and bleeding after every concert. During the last two years of his life, as his heart weakened dramatically, his wife put him in the hospital for four weeks after he completed each two-week concert tour. Finally, his doctors felt his only survival option was to attempt a new procedure to replace heart valves. The surgery failed. White died on the operating table on September 5, 1969, at the North Shore Hospital in Manhasset, NY.
Josh White Biography by Barry Lee Pearson
To many blues enthusiasts, Josh White was a folk revival artist. It's true that the second half of his music career found him based in New York playing to the coffeehouse and cabaret set and hanging out with Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, and fellow transplanted blues artists Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. In Chicago during the 1960s, his shirt was unbuttoned to the waist à la Harry Belafonte and his repertoire consisted of folk revival standards such as "Scarlet Ribbons." He was a show business personality -- a star renowned for his sexual magnetism and his dramatic vocal presentations. Many listeners were unaware of White's status as a major figure in the Piedmont blues tradition. The first part of his career saw him as apprentice to some of the greatest blues and religious artists ever, including Willie Walker, Blind Blake, Blind Joe Taggart (with whom he recorded), and allegedly even Blind Lemon Jefferson. On his own, he recorded both blues and religious songs, including a classic version of "Blood Red River." A fine guitar technician with an appealing voice, he became progressively more sophisticated in his presentation. Like many other Carolinians and Virginians who moved north to urban areas, he took up city ways, remaining a fine musician if no longer a down-home artist. Like several other canny blues players, he used his roots music to broaden and enhance his life experience, and his talent was such that he could choose the musical idiom that was most lucrative at the time.