Josh White Jr.

A Rare Interview with the Son of a Folk Music Legend

By Terry Roland

josh_white_jrThe American dream is not always obvious in the way it comes true. Sometimes it comes true through nightmares. And from the nightmares dreams come true that serve to change the world. Josh White Jr.'s father was seven years old when, in 1921, he saw his father murdered. But, instead of embracing hatred, Josh White Sr. embraced music by learning the depths of the street country-Piedmont blues from blind folk singers. He turned the poison of racism into music that eventually gained him the attention of Chicago ethnic record producers. He crossed over and became the toast of Greenwich Village's first integrated night club, Cafe-Society in the 1940s. He wrote his own songs and eventually was even heard by President Roosevelt when his song, Uncle Sam Says, about racism in the American military, caught the president's attention. Josh admitted to Roosevelt that he wrote it to him. The two became fast friends.

He was the first African-American musician to perform at presidential inaugurations. He gave five White House Command Performances. But in the 1950s, because he was always an outspoken advocate against racism and inequality in America, he came under the scrutiny of the FBI eventually leading to an appearance before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He was blacklisted. He left America and toured Europe during those years he couldn't find work in his own country. He found vindication during the 1960s folk revival, but died at the young age of 55 due to heart failure in 1969.

Josh White Sr - Uncle Sam Says

But that's not the end of the story. In 1940, Josh White Jr. was born. He followed in his father's footsteps without hesitation. After a brief career as a child actor which yielded a Tony Award for Best Child Actor, he made multiple appearances on television. But, by 1960, the folk revival called him and he simply picked up where his father left off. Since that time Josh Jr. has logged in decades of touring college campuses, schools and concert halls around the world reminding people of his father's legacy as he established his own. He has recorded folk, blues, country and children's music. His playing and vocal abilities match his father's while he has defined his own original voice along the way. At 70, he does not appear to be slowing down. This month he will make appearance in San Diego Folk Heritage on November 12 and at The Mint in Los Angeles on November 14th. During the following interview Josh speaks about his father's career, his own feelings about racism in America, playing for children, Obama and his latest record of blues standards, Turning Toward The Blues.

TR: As I've been reading over the biographies for both you and your dad, it seems you have two legacies that are very much joined. A lot of children of celebrities have problems with this, but it never bothered you. Why is that, do you think?

JW: I started with him at such a young age. I was 3 and a half. Then, I sang with him for the next 17 years. Then, when I wanted to do my own stuff, I brought all of that experience with me from that many years working together. He was a strong solo performer. He and Big Bill Broonzy were among the first black artists to cross race lines while they actually spoke about racism. Not a lot did because they needed to live a long time. But, when I went out on my own in 1961, it was a natural thing to do, to just pick up where he left off.

TR: It seems both you and your dad not only haven't spoken out against racism, but you've also had strong support from white folk music audiences.

JW: Yes. I admire Nat King Cole because he could find appeal with black and white audiences. My dad did the same thing. And the more I sang, the more my mind went toward what things bring us together. It was in the music. Anywhere he went, my old man could always find a song. He started at the age of seven by leading blind black blues singers through the streets to perform. He saw his father murdered just before that. All of that could have made him a very angry black person. But, he didn't do it. He didn't have an education. He couldn't express things in speaking but he could find a song. We can always find music to express our feelings. Or to sing the feelings of those who don't have a voice. That's what feels good about what I do. I touch minds and hearts.

TR: I know you go to some very unique places.

Josh White Jr. - Miss Otis Regrets

JW: I had experience where I was asked to go into a boys locked down facility. It held young men from 10 to 21. They wanted me to bring music to them. It turned out to be a great experience. I got them right into the lyrics. They had journals and they'd give me their writing and I'd put music to them. It turned out great. You know, when you make mistakes people tends to keep young people down. They're incarcerated. To put music to their thoughts and words, it helped them understand they can do something good and there may be a second chance for them. It gave them hope.

TR: Tell me about your experience in education.

JW: In fact, there's a teaching method I happened to fall into 15 years ago. I met a woman who asked me to write a song for a historical museum. She had seen me in Oregon and we wrote a song together. She told me about teaching she had been doing, a drama process, she wanted me to help with this. She said whenever she taught this way, she had perfect attendance. So, I started teaching with her. It was living history. We would take the kids for two hours and take a history lesson and become the people we were talking about. We'd play the roles. If were taking about slavery we'd become the slaves or the slave owners. We did the Underground Railroads and we'd change roles around. They began to sense what it may really feel like to not have freedom. If I wasn't doing music for a living, I never would have been that situation. I would never have had those experiences.

TR: What do you think about the Occupy Wall Street Movement?

JW: We have to make a change. It's time. And we need to band together to be strong. This is part of the American dream. The sad thing about the country is that so many of us find it hard to come together unless there's a disaster. That's where the music comes in. It has the power to bring us together. We Shall Overcome, will always work. We will overcome.

TR: You spent a lot of years playing colleges. Will you continue doing that?

JW: Not so much anymore. I've started doing music for the single-digit people, for the kids. I've enjoyed doing that. Kids truly and naturally interact with music, as opposed to adults. It took a long time for me to decide to do it. I thought I might lose control. But, I found I didn't have to change anything. Now, I look forward to playing at elementary schools. We do certain kinds of music for each grade level. From first grade it's very basic songs. Then, from about 4th grade up I teach them music from the Underground Railroad and I tell them the story of Amazing Grace. Then from sixth grade up I do an assembly about my father. I also tell them the story of how he has his own U.S. stamp now.

TR: How do you feel you influence them?

JW: I think I've encouraged kids to play music. I don't often get a chance to talk with them. But, at least I share the experience of the music with them. A lot of young black kids get to see a black person playing an acoustic guitar. They can see that sports isn't their only option. There's other things they can do.

TR: Your father accomplished a lot. What do you think is his greatest contribution to our culture today?

JW: My father was one of the few black men who would sing against racism very early on. He sang against racism in the armed forces back then. He wrote a song called, Uncle Same Says, about how mistreated his brother, my uncle, was while he was stationed at Fort Dixon. It got to the ear of President Roosevelt's staff and he was asked to sing for President Roosevelt. From this my old man became friends with the president and gave five command performances at the White House. He also played at two of his inaugurations. Later, my uncle was hired to be a driver for the Roosevelts.

TR: It was after this he encountered the House of Un-American Activities?

JW: During World War II, when Russia was our ally, they sponsored some places on the tour. He went to the committee voluntarily, but he was blacklisted because he constantly spoke out and so he was targeted. It wasn't that a lot of the venues didn't want him to play, but if they hired Josh White, they were afraid they'd come to their club and shut them down. That's when he started doing more concerts in Europe. You know, even though, while he was in the states, he spoke out against racism or any kind of prejudice he wouldn't say anything against the U.S. while he was in Europe. And audiences wanted him to do songs like Strange Fruit. But, he felt that was our dirty laundry.

TR: So, what do you feel was his legacy?

JW: He was labeled a folk singer, but he considered himself an entertainer. But, really, my dad, if he could learn something, he was going to share it with you. At the turn of the last century his rendition of Strange Fruit, was cited as one of the most important songs of the 20th Century by Time magazine. But, beyond that, you know, he say his father murdered when he was just a child. He saw a lot of racism that could have made him a very angry black man. But, instead, he took his music and helped to heal and really, he did the opposite of what racists do.

TR: So, he transformed poison into medicine.

JW: EXACTLY! He showed even when he was put on the stand, he didn't let the world get him down. He showed it's never too late.

TR: So, it looks like we've made progress against racism. We now have our first black president. But, do you still sense racism even in the way Obama has been treated and has limited in what he can get done?

JW: I think so. There are those who really believe this. But, with Obama, it does seem some people don't want him to succeed because he's black. I know he's disappointed a lot of us, not that I won't vote for him next time. He didn't hit the mark we wanted him to, but he inherited a lot of shit, but I don't count the man out. Nobody on the other side has shows any promise. Not even close. I'm willing to give the man another chance.

TR: It does seem like no matter what he does, there will be obstructionist to the extent that, even if he did something by the numbers conservative, they'd still oppose him.

JW: I have friend who doesn't like Obama and all I can say is, well, 'so far he hasn't had to resign while in office. There haven't been any huge scandals. But, the Republicans are acting like children. The sad thing is that it hard to tell. Is it racism? Well, all I can say is you gotta be taught.

TR: Do you think that racism is just a deep part of human nature?

JW: I think it's human nature to be taught and to learn and if you're taught to hate, you will. It seems natural because that's all you've ever known. In 1948 when my father was playing at the first integrated night club, Cafe Society , he had to go outside between sets to get something for a cold. He was followed by seven service men who attacked. Why? A lot of white woman found him sexy and they didn't like it.

TR: Do you think you father influenced some of the music of the 60s?

JW: Yeah. Someone showed me an article once and around the time The Animals heard The House of the Rising Sun, my dad's records had already been all over England in the 50s when he was there after the blacklist, including one with that song on it. I'm pretty sure it was my dad who put the minor chord on it, which is how The Animals recorded it and actually everybody around that time. But, think that came from him, even before Dave Van Ronk.

TR: So you'll be at The Mint in L.A. next month. Your newest album is called Turning to the Blues. Why did you choose to do a blues album now?

JW: I was on tour in Australia and I realized I had really never done a blues album. We put it together quickly. In the past when I did blues, it was my father's blues songs. I never believed my singing sounded like a blues singer should sound. But, now there's some water under the bridge, I think I can sing them now with my own convictions within myself. I'm more comfortable singing blues now.

TR: Any final thoughts?

JW: Well, thank you. I'm grateful to be here and to do what I do for a living, making music. And I've raised six kids along the way.

TR: That's a great legacy in itself!

Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say ‘dude’ at an early age.