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Josh White: Society Blues
     

Josh White: Society Blues

by Elijah Wald
 

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A gifted and charismatic entertainer, Josh White (1914-1969) was one of the best-known folk-blues artists of his day. In 1963, a Billboard magazine poll ranked him America's third most popular male folksinger, surpassed only by Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, and ahead of Bob Dylan. He appeared on national television, performed at numerous college concerts and club

Overview

A gifted and charismatic entertainer, Josh White (1914-1969) was one of the best-known folk-blues artists of his day. In 1963, a Billboard magazine poll ranked him America's third most popular male folksinger, surpassed only by Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, and ahead of Bob Dylan. He appeared on national television, performed at numerous college concerts and club dates, and released several dozen albums—all featuring his distinctive guitar style, supple voice, and unique showmanship.

In this compelling biography, Elijah Wald traces White's journey from the "colored" side of Greenville, South Carolina, to the heights of Manhattan café society. He explores the complexities of White's music, his struggles with discrimination and stereotypes, his political involvements, and his sometimes raucous personal life.

White was always drawn to music and by the age of ten was leading blind blues and gospel singers around the South. By the 1930s he had become a blues recording star himself, and in the 1940s he was discovered by a white audience and regularly appeared in New York cabarets alongside such artists as Billie Holiday. He also became an outspoken proponent of civil rights and frequently appeared at rallies and benefits, singing songs against segregation. He was one of the few black figures to star on Broadway and appear in Hollywood films, the only black solo peformer to have his own national tour, and a daring sex symbol with adoring fans on both sides of the color line.

In the 1950s, White won acclaim in Europe, then saw his achievements collapse in the polarized political ferment of the McCarthy era. Attempting to strike a balance that would keep his career afloat, he instead succeeded in alienating both political camps. Although still a star in England, he became the forgotten man at home until his resurrection in the folk revival.

About the Author:
Elijah Wald writes on music for The Boston Globe and is coauthor of Mississippi: River of Song. He also performs regularly as a blues and folk singer and guitarist.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Author/musician Wald presents a sympathetic yet balanced biography of pop-blues-folk star Josh White (1914-69). The rise to fame of the Piedmont blues stylist is clearly charted, starting with his childhood in the segregated South, where as a preteen he landed a job leading blind bluesmen from town to town, through his work with folk archivist Alan Lomax and legendary producer John Hammond, who marketed White's smooth, socially conscious blues to a crossover audience that included Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, to his career tailspin during the Red Scare. By interviewing dozens of White's family members and friends and combing through secondary accounts, Wald uncovers a complex subject--a poor Southern bluesman who relied upon a smooth style and sex appeal for success, an ardent Civil Rights advocate who at the hint of trouble abandoned the Left to save his career, and a devoted family man who had multiple affairs. Dorothy S. Siegel's The Glory Road: The Story of Josh White (1982) is out of print, making Wald's the only available portrait of an intriguing American artist. Fortunately, it is complete, well written, and in-depth. Highly recommended.--Dave Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781558492691
Publisher:
University of Massachusetts Press
Publication date:
12/28/2000
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
6.48(w) x 10.74(h) x 1.17(d)

What People are Saying About This

Millie Rahn
Josh White's career made a major—and often overlooked or trivialized—contribution to the folk music revivals of the twentieth century. Elijah Wald's work addresses the serious lack of a full-length biography of this important figure.
—(Millie Rahn, folklorist)
Dave Van Ronk
"Wald's well-written and deeply researched bio of Josh White is the best book on American music I've read in years (and I read a lot of them). Anyone interested in the development of our popular music can't afford to miss it."
Ronald D. Cohen
This is an outstanding contribution to scholarship, presenting a fascinating, broad-based, complex understanding of a seminal musical figure. The scope and detailed information will appeal to a scholarly audience, while the style and subject matter—popular music and twentieth-century politics, society, and racial issues—will appeal to a larger public.
—(Ronald D. Cohen, Indiana University, Northwest)

Meet the Author

Elijah Wald wrote on music for the Boston Globe for 15 years. He is the author of Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas. Harper Collins/RAYO, 2001, and coauthor of Mississippi: River of Song, which accompanied a PBS series for which he served as a consultant. He maintains a website on his writing and performing, www.elijahwald.com.

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