Josh White - Biography

Josh White had an amazing career during his relatively brief life. He was a gospel, country blues, and black folk music star with many best selling “race” records for various labels in the 1930s, not to mention his career as a film star as well. He was the youngest blues singer to ever cut a 78 RPM record and the first African American to headline major American concert venues. He sang at President Roosevelt’s inaugurations in 1941 and 1945, was blacklisted during the 1950’s Red Scare, and then rediscovered by the folk music community thanks to his great Elektra recordings of the late ‘50s. By 1963, he was one of the top four folk artists in America, behind Belafonte and Pete Seeger (but ahead of Bob Dylan). He was the first African American to have a single, “One Meatball,” sell over a million copies and was known in the ‘60s for his tireless work for Civil Rights. Along with Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, he was one of the star entertainers at Dr. King’s March on Washington. Artists that claimed him as an influence include Elvis Presley, Bill Wyman, The Chambers Brothers, Jimmy Page, and John Fogerty. When White died in 1969, he was one of the most popular folksingers and blues artists in the country. The USPS even issued a stamp in his honor in 1998.


Josh White was born in 1914 in Greenville, South Carolina. His father was a preacher and Civil Rights advocate, which was a dangerous thing to be in South Carolina at the time. Josh was home schooled and worked with his father doing errands for white people. In 1921, after his father threw a white bill collector out of their home, the local sheriff and his deputies nearly beat him to death and had him committed to a mental institution where he died nine years later. As the oldest of five children, the duty to support the White family fell upon Josh. His mother let him leave home with a blues singer name Blind Man Arnold and Arnold agreed to send the family $2 a week from the money he made singing on the streets. White’s singing, dancing, and tambourine playing made Arnold some good money and he “rented” White to other musicians including Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Blind Joe Taggart. White and his blind men walked from Miami to Chicago, with White dressed in a ragged costume to elicit better tips from passers by. He also learned guitar, picking up pointers from all his employers.


By 1927, White was in Chicago playing as a session guitarist for Paramount Records. His first hit was 1928‘s “Scandalous and a Shame,” credited to Blind Joe Taggart and Joshua White. The recording made White a star, But Taggart made most of the money. When Mayo Williams, the A&R man for Paramount, started his own label he hired White and put him up at his own house in a room with Blind Blake. White finally saved enough money to go back to South Carolina and take care of his mother and younger siblings. In 1930, ARC Records sent people to South Carolina to find White. They paid his mother $100 to have White record “every song young Josh knows.”  As his mother was religious, White recorded only inspirational and gospel tunes under the name Josh White, but he then signed another contract as Pinewood Tom in order to make blues records. By 1933 he was both a blues and gospel star, and also a session guitarist playing with Scrapper Blackwell, Lucille Bogan, Leroy Carr, and other popular singers. White's best known recordings of the era were “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed” (later covered by Dylan and Led Zeppelin), “Blood Red River,” “Paul & Silas Bound in Jail,” and “Silicosis is Killing Me.” His early recordings can be found on compilations like 1994’s Josh White Blues Singer 1932 — 1936 (Columbia) and 1993’s Josh White Vol. 1 1929 — 1940 (Document), Josh White Vol. 2 1933 — 1935 (Document), and Josh White Vol. 3 1935 — 1940 (Document). By 1936, White was one of the most recorded blues singer/guitarists in the country, but during a barroom fight he put his fist through a glass door and lost the use of his right hand.


For the next two years, White worked odd jobs, refusing to sing on record unless he could play his own guitar. In 1938, after doing constant hand exercises of his own invention, his hand came back to life. He started a band called Josh White and His Carolinians with his brother Billy, Sam Gary, and Bayard Rustin who went on to work with Martin Luther King, Jr. They moved to New York where White was cast to play Blind Lemon Jefferson opposite Paul Robeson’s John Henry in the Broadway musical John Henry. The musical didn’t last, but it introduced White to a white, liberal audience. He became a regular on John Lomax’s Back Where I Come From, a CBS radio show that also starred Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Burl Ives. White formed a duo with Lead Belly and they secured a gig at the Village Vanguard that was so popular it lasted for six months. Next he teamed with Libby Holman — a singer who had shot her husband, tobacco heir Zachary Reynolds (of the R. J. Reynolds family), and never stood trial. They were the first integrated act to ever appear on an American stage


Josh White and His Carolinians also had hit records for the new Columbia Records label including 1939’s Chain Gang (Columbia), the first race record ever played on white radio. President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor loved the album, and White and his band played at Roosevelt’s 1941 and 1945 Inaugural Balls. White refashioned the blues with his polished, professional style and became an international star. He was the first African American to have a million-selling single, “One Meatball,” which was released by Columbia in the ‘40s. White was also a member of The Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Sam Gary, and recorded The Talking Union & Other Union Songs (Keynote) with them in 1941. In 1945, he toured the US and became the first black man to headline major concert halls. In the late ‘40s, his good looks and sexual charisma got him many movie roles, including parts in The Crimson Canary (1945), Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947) with Libby Holman, and The Walking Hills (1949).


During the 1940s, White was one of the major attractions at New York’s Café Society, the first integrated nightclub in the US. There he developed a repertoire of blues, protest songs, Broadway show tunes, pop, and American, British, and Australian folk music. In 1941, he released a controversial album of anti-racist protest songs called Southern Exposure (Keynote). In 1949, The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) sent the brother of Barney Josephson, owner of Café Society, to jail for being a Communist sympathizer. Everyone who ever played the club was under suspicion and the FBI actually tried to deport White after he returned from a European concert tour, despite the fact that he was an American citizen and was born in South Carolina. He appeared before HUAC in 1950 and defended his politics, but this angered both his left wing fans and right wing politicians. Consequently, he was blacklisted by both the Left and Right, and his career evaporated.


White then moved to London where he had his own radio show, My Guitar Is as Old as Father Time, and continued to have hit singles including “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town.” In 1955, Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, offered White a deal with total artistic control. His first record, 1955’s The Story of John Henry (Elektra), was a two 10” LP set that includes the epic title track — a 24-minute long blues suite. The following year’s Josh at Midnight (Elektra) was Elektra’s first 12” LP and its best selling album for over ten years. White’s Elektra albums, considered by many to be his best records, revived his career and brought him back to America. The rest of the catalog includes Josh Sings Ballads and Blues (Elektra), a 1957 collection of cabaret standards, Cole Porter tunes, and blues; Josh White 25th Anniversary (Elektra), a 1957 condensation of the 1955 two LP The Story of John Henry set; Chain Gang Songs (1958 Elektra); 1960’s Spirituals & Blues (Elektra) and The House I Live In (Elektra); and 1962’s Empty Bed Blues (Elektra), with cover art of a naked white woman on an empty bed.


In the ‘60s he began playing folk festivals, concert halls, and nightclubs. In 1963, President Kennedy asked him to perform on Dinner With the President, a CBS radio show, and White sang at the March on Washington that same year. In 1964, Ovation Guitars called their prototype The Josh White Model. The following year, he sang at Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration and appeared on the TV shows Playboy’s Penthouse and Hootenanny on ABC. He also cut more albums for various labels, including 1963’s The Beginning (Mercury) and The Beginning Vol. 2 (Mercury). Later compilations include Josh White: The Elektra Years (2004 Rhino Handmade), Josh White Wanderings (2005 Living Era UK), From New York to London: Classic Recordings (2002  Jasmine), and Best of Josh White (1999 Tradition).


In 1961, White had a heart attack and, as his health failed, he developed emphysema, ulcers, and psoriasis that made playing guitar painful. He died during surgery to replace a leaky heart valve in 1969 when he was only 55-years-old. 

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