Bare feet shuffle nimbly across a dirt road. Thinly muscled legs jart and spin, narrow calves extending from threadbare shorts, scuffed and cuffed and torn above the knee. Slim and bruised arms wave and shimmy. A smile, a tune, a wink for a passerby. And the quick scuffle for a coin, unwashed fingers that scramble through dirt, scavenge for silver, dust it off, and toss it nimbly in the hat extended blindly from the old man seated in the alleyway.
This bedraggled boy will become a progenitor of firsts: the first black singer to star in Hollywood films and on Broadway; the first black artist to perform at the White House command performance and in recently segregated hotels; the first black singer to stage a solo tour of America and to release a million-selling record. He’ll introduce white audiences to folk blues and to the idea of a sexy black male artist. He’ll befriend presidents and starlets. But for now, he humbly dances and sings in barren city streets and passes coins to his elderly, blind accomplice, the keeper of his debts and freedom.
Josh White became the most prominent and prolific black artist of his time, but his musical entrada began under modest circumstances.
White was born in the dusty outskirts of Greenville, South Carolina. His father, a reverend, was a prominent—if penniless—member of the black community. But it was White’s mother who first introduced him to music at just five years old, and he began singing in his father’s church choir soon thereafter. The situation was almost idyllic: a respectable, revered, and religious family in the post-Reconstruction South, growing steadily, whose eldest son possessed the gift of music and a pulpit from which to minister his melodies.
But those bucolic beginnings were short-lived. When a white bill collector aggressively approached the Reverend in his home, he ejected him—to dire consequences. A group of bitter arbitrators returned and savagely beat Josh’s father, bringing his worn form to the brink of death. Just as the Reverend had banished the bill collector from his home, so went his own fate: his injuries were so extensive that he was sent to an insane asylum to live out the rest of his life.
Two months later Josh too was dislodged from the comforts of his former home and quietude. The seven-year-old took to touring the streets with an elderly musician by the name of Blind Man Arnold. The black street singer made his money by performing in the streets of Southern towns, but there was one problem inherent to his position: he couldn’t see to pick up the coins listeners would toss his way. Young White was hired on as a lackey to collect his coinage and guide the old man to his next stop. In return, Blind Man Arnold sent White’s mother a scant $2 a week.
Two dollars may have been a reasonable stipend if White’s only responsibility had been scavenging dusty coins, but Blind Man Arnold quickly realized the profitable asset he had in the young boy. White rapidly mastered Arnold’s own routines, dancing, singing, and playing the tambourine with artistic skill and grace befitting a man several times his age. Arnold encouraged White to develop his own repertoire and routines, slowly receding to the cool shadows while the boy performed. And still, White dutifully passed the coins he collected to the outstretched hand of his master.
As White’s talents grew, so did his compulsory obligations. Ever the savvy swindler, Blind Man Arnold began renting out his youthful apprentice to other blind street musicians like Blind Blake and Blind Joe Taggart. White easily mastered the various guitar styles he was exposed to, his fingers taking to strings as easily as his feet had taken to the streets. As his enslavers reveled in the plush lifestyle afforded by White’s talents, sleeping in hotels and dining lavishly, White himself was relegated to barn stalls and cold floors, underfed and malnourished. To garner sympathy from doting admirers, he was left shoeless, his clothes tattered.
It was in such a state that Mayo Williams discovered Josh White. Williams, a producer for Paramount Records, heard White performing on the streets of Chicago and immediately recognized the sixteen-year-old’s talent. Williams invited White into the studio as a session guitarist, a role in which he flourished. But, incredibly, the underage White continued to pass his premiums on to the blind men who managed and profited from his genius.
After exhibiting his flair for music in the studio, White recorded the song “Scandalous and a Shame” as lead vocalist and lead guitarist, officially embarking on a career as the youngest performer in the “race records” era. But this time, when White benevolently surrendered his wages to Blind Joe Taggart, Williams intervened. Tired of witnessing the injustices daily belabored upon his young protégé, Williams threatened Taggart, cautioning the man that if he took one more penny from young White, he would turn him into the police for indentured servitude.
For the first time in White’s life, he had shoes to stroll the streets in. Full and fresh pants to dance in. And pockets in which to press his own, well-earned coins.
HEAR JOSH WHITE SING “THERE’S A MAN GOIN’ AROUND TAKING NAMES”