Josh White- John Henry
Josh White was in many senses a trailblazer; popular country bluesman in the early 1930’s, responsible for introducing a mass white audience to folk-blues in the 1940’s (first black singer-guitarist to star in Hollywood films and broadway). On one hand he was famous for his civil rights songs which made him a favourite of the Roosevelts (for whom he played “uncle sam says” 3 times in 1940) and on the other for his sexy stage persona (a first for a black male artist).
The 1950s brought trouble for White when he was embroiled in the right wing McCarthytes anti-communist investigations. (they had assumed that he was a communist from his human rights stance in song and speeches at rallies).White was not a Communist, and was not active in any political party. However, when he was told that people’s human rights were being threatened and asked to participate in a benefit or a rally, he was always willing to lend his voice to the cause. He was informed that he was on a list of 151 artists suspected of being communist sympathisers whilst on tour in Europe (they even threatened to deport him back to Europe on his arrival back in the US despite being a US citizen). White told the FBI that he would go to Washington to appear before the HUAC Committee and set the record straight. Eleanor Roosevelt warned him that the HUAC would try to turn his testimony against him, White also visited his close friend Paul Robeson who also advised White against visiting the HUAC, but White felt that he wanted to clear his name and could ill afford the sanctions that the HUAC could impose on his right to make a living from music.
At his subsequent hearing White denounced communism (although gave no names of any communists) and spoke out about comments allegedly made by Paul Robeson, this lead to a backlash from his fans who assumed that he had named Robeson and others as communists. This lead to him being blacklisted by the right (who didn’t believe his testimony) and the left (who thought he had betrayed them).White relocated to London for much of 1950 to 1955, where he hosted his own BBC radio show “my guitar is as old as father time” and resumed his recording career. Back in the US White remained blacklisted until 1963 when John F Kennedy invited him onto the national CBS Television’s civil rights’s “special dinner with the President”. White was to make several TV appearances until his death from heart disease in 1969. (he had suffered from heart disease for most of the 1960’s).
Here is a rare colour clip from Josh Whites’ roots, performing John Henry in 1941.