Music changed in the twentieth century. And as it changed, it changed us. In some eras that transformation may be easier for us to see than it is in others—the rock n’ roll of the ’50’s, the bohemian inspiration of the ’60’s, and even the hip-hop revolution of the ’90’s. But reaching back still further, what is often forgotten about the 1940’s in particular is that, aside from the well-crooned doo-be-doo-be-doos, the music of the day began a trend of conversations between the races about the unsustainable rift between them. One especially significant conversation, spurred by avant-garde lyrics and softened by brandy, took place between a black musician and the President of the United States.
Growing up as a “lead boy” assisting blind and black musicians across the East, Josh White had learned a thing or two about music—and about being black in the Jim Crow South. When he first began his solo career, White adhered to his mother’s admonishments and sang good ol’ gospel, veering clear of the devil’s music, the blues. But as he aged and weathered witless racism, his music matured. He explored different styles, from blues to jazz to folk, and began to infuse his lyrics with subtle commentary on the modern black experience. As the forties unfolded, that subtle commentary became blatant, even as his music reached a wider (and whiter) audience.
The Roosevelts, America’s war-era royalty, were passionate fans of folk music. At FDR’s third inauguration at the dawn of 1941, White performed alongside the Golden Gate Quartet in celebration of the President’s reelection and the 75th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment. (In an ironic flourish, just one month later White performed on the Almanac Singers’ anti-draft album criticizing the racial injustices of modern America.) Despite his performance, it was not until some months later that White piqued the ears and interests of the Roosevelts.
In September of that year, White released Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues, his own anti-segregationist album. In Southern Exposure, White details the plight of the enlisted black man in a segregated army, inspired by his brother’s personal experiences. With help from acclaimed Harlem Renaissance poets Waring Cuney and Richard Wright, White’s album was a lyrical masterpiece and instant hit. It also ignited a maelstrom of reaction and resentment from members of its new white audience.
That reaction was so strong that it quickly reached the President himself. Whereas detractors expected some type of similar reception or even retribution from the god-like hand of FDR, what they got was the opposite: the President invited White to perform the entire album at the White House.
After the special concert, performed in front of dignitaries and bigwigs, White went where no black performer had gone before (and few performers have gone since) when he was invited into the private Presidential chambers. With the adroit lubricants of coffee and brandy, the Roosevelts and White discussed the implications of his album.
One of the first questions FDR asked was in regards to White’s song “Uncle Sam Says.” According to the intonations of the song, the President pointed out, White was condemning his militaristic actions and calling him to change. With signature brashness, White not only conceded that the song’s condemnatory lyrics were, in fact, in reference to the President before him, he also noted that it was not the first song in which he had chastised Roosevelt. Any other President may have taken offense, but White’s refreshing honesty endeared him to Roosevelt and his wife. Out of that post-performance powwow a genuine friendship was born (and maybe the brandy helped).
White became one of the President’s closest and most treasured confidantes. The two families came together for holidays at Hyde Park, the Roosevelts boosting the Whites’ ascension of the American entertainment totem. White became a regular performer at the White House, such an iconic member of the President’s cadre that the press began to refer to White as the Presidential Minstrel.
But White’s influence on the Roosevelts reached far beyond a symbolic one as an entertainer or token of diversity; his lyrics and message genuinely affected the Presidential perspective on race in America. Although Roosevelt was unable to sway the War Department’s adherence to segregation (the military, they claimed, was not the best arena for “social experimentation”), his propositions nonetheless broke previously virgin ground and began to shift the national perspective on the matter. Roosevelt also sent White overseas as a performer and goodwill ambassador to invigorate troops; prior to these assignments, black artists had been barred from USO concert performances.
Even after Franklin’s death, White continued to work alongside the Roosevelt family, gradually sloughing away layers of racial tensions both stateside and abroad. When Eleanor became the United Nations’ ambassador in charge of war relief, she enlisted White on her European tour. Eleanor and White traveled from capital to capital, raising the spirits and minds of those citizens long starved by war. By the time they reached Stockholm, the pair had become so popular that their appearance was moved from the opera house to the stadium, where over 50,000 gathered to listen to their message in a torrential downpour.
The relationship between the Roosevelts and the Whites broke every boundary of a pro-segregationist America. They were the godparents of White’s children. White’s brother was employed as Eleanor’s personal assistant. Theirs wasn’t a relationship powdered and posed for paparazzi but one of genuine discourse and friendship—and of tangible change.
SEE MORE “PRESIDENTIAL MINSTREL” PHOTOS HERE