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Album Review

Josh White had a remarkable talent for self-reinvention, and his career — which began in the 1920s and stretched essentially uninterrupted all the way into the 1960s — is an amazing story of adaptability and survival. Slick, sly, and fiercely intelligent, White became a sort of pre-Harry Belafonte black sex idol, complete with a leftist social and political agenda, during his so-called cabaret blues period in the late '40s, and when the McCarthy era led to his blacklisting, he rebounded into the folk revival period with several carefully assembled albums for Jac Holzman's Elektra label that recast him as a folk balladeer. Although some folk purists were aghast, doubting White's authenticity as a folk-blues performer, the fact remains that White was an excellent acoustic guitar player and a subtle and versatile singer who carefully selected his material, well aware of how it made him appear. This 25-song set of mono recordings comes from White's cabaret period and features recordings he made for the London, Decca, Asch, and Melodisc labels between 1945 and 1951. The range of styles here is telling, as White rolls all manner of songs, from light gospel to small-combo jazz and blues, into a kind of folky high art. Highlights include a folk-jazz rendition of W.C. Handy's "Careless Love," complete with clarinet lines from Sidney Bechet, a stark reading of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," and one of the first commercial recordings of what would later become a folk revival staple, "The Riddle Song." Also worth noting are "One Meatball," an odd song based on a ballad from the 1800s called "The Lone Fish Ball," which White turned into an underground hit, and his small-combo jazz take on Bill Weldon's classic "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town." Fiercely independent, and always in control of his own image in an era when black performers were seldom afforded that luxury, White helped pave the way for Belafonte, who followed the same sort of template to international stardom a mere half dozen years after these recordings were made.


Born: 11 February 1914 in Greensboro, NC

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s

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...
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Wanderings, Josh White
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