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Empty Bed Blues

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Album Review

Empty Bed Blues was Josh White's farewell recording for Elektra, the record label that helped (re)introduce him to the mainstream during the height of the '60s folk revival. To look at the sexy — and risqué for 1962 — cover, one would think that half of the tunes, stately renditions of gospel songs, wouldn't be at home on the album. But considering that the ribald, innuendo-laden first side is belied by White's silky voice and mellifluous guitar, he almost makes the juke-joint rave-ups sound like show tunes. Given his role as elder statesmen of acoustic blues, you'd be forgiven for thinking that White didn't need to be rediscovered as such, but sadly he did. Although considering this album, "reinvented" might be a better word. From the man who popularized "Strange Fruit" — perhaps the saddest, most poignant protest song ever — one wouldn't necessarily expect such explicit sex songs. Whether it's a tune like the title track or "Backwater Blues," White reaches back to the lowdown, alpha-male origins of the blues, but comes off a little too much like a cabaret entertainer. His playing retains the delicate precision that found him oft-imitated, and the backing, mostly by just Bill Lee on upright bass, is always tasteful. Still, it's a mellow set, and one partly done with a wink — considering it was among the last albums that White made before he died. It seems too minstrely of an end for someone who's scope and influence on modern blues can't be overstated.


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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Empty Bed Blues, Josh White
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