Direct from his part in the Lead Belly Fest at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 4 (and before that, at the fest’s London launch at Royal Albert Hall and a performance at D.C.’s Kennedy Center in 2015), the legendary Josh White, Jr., will perform April 3 at First Congregational Church, 4 p.m. in a return Joyful Noise performance.
Josh last performed at First Church in 2013 and once again arrives at the invitation of friend, Guilford resident and First Church Communications Director Chuck Ramsey, who was Josh’s manager in the late 1960s.
A famous folk/blues, pop, jazz vocalist, guitarist, songwriter, and actor as well was recording artist, teacher and social activist, Josh grew up performing. He got his start on stage at about the age of four with his dad, Joshua Daniel White, who performed with Lead Belly.
“I might be one of only a very few who can say I was in Lead Belly’s presence in my lifetime,” says Josh, who was interviewed by phone from his home in Michigan for this story. “A lot of people may not know the name, but if they hear the song ‘Irene Goodnight’ or ‘Midnight Special,’ Lead Belly wrote that.”
Josh says it’s been a thrill to be among the artists paying tribute to Lead Belly as part of the Lead Belly Fest, which has included among its stars Buddy Guy as well as Eric Burdon of the Animals (singing Lead Belly’s “House of the Rising Sun”) and Tom Paley, who played with Lead Belly in 1949.
“My father and Lead Belly worked together at the Village Vanguard [in New York City] in the ‘40s,” says Josh, who’s first time on stage was performing with his dad at New York’s Café Society, the country’s first integrated night club.
Josh grew up in the entertainment business at a time when segregation was common.
“I remember more than once, with my father and without, we’d call to make hotel reservation, go to the gig first, and then once we’d get done we’d go to the hotel, and when the white people would see the black faces, all of the sudden you don’t have a room,” Josh recalls, adding, “June of 1961 was my first gig without my father, and it took me three weeks to find a place that would take me. I had to wind up renting a room from a black family in Detroit because no hotel would take me. Everything got better when Holiday Inns came along—they did not discriminate.”
His father wrote a song in the 1940s about integration in the Armed Forces, “Uncle Sam Says,” which earned him an invitation to the White House.
“He got to meet FDR,” says Josh. “My father started out leading blind black street musicians around Greenville [South Carolina] and started recording on his own in his late teens. He started out as Joshua White, singing Christian songs, because that’s all his mother would allow. He got around that because on the other side of a 78 [record] there could be another song, so he recorded blues on that side as Pine Wood Tom. I don’t know if he ever fooled his mother with that!”
Josh describes his father as a well-polished musician, very different from the salt-of-the-earth appearance portrayed by Lead Belly, who grew up in poverty and experienced some jail stretches in the 1920s, all of which created a wealth of material for his music.
Josh performed on the East Coast music circuit with his dad and, at about age 9, he was cast in the off-Broadway show “How Long ‘Til Summer?” He continued his acting career (a total of five Broadway plays between 1949 and 1960) and also continued performing with his dad around the world, as well as recording with him, for the next 17 years. In 1956, Josh also recorded his first solo “See Saw,” co-written with Marvin Hamlisch. By 1961, Josh had also starred in more than 50 American television dramas and had appeared on his father’s British television show, “The Josh White Show.”
But by the age of 21, Josh says he was finding stage and television roles for young black actors to be “limited.” Instead, he began concentrating on his musical folk/blue roots, at exactly the time when the country was embracing the folk music movement. Along the way, Josh became active in the social movement of the time.
“The ‘60s was the Golden Age,” Josh says. “It’s hard to believe that I’m 75!”
When folk music was at its peak in the mid ‘60s through the late ‘70s, Josh was a college concert staple (between 1963 through the 1980s, he topped the bill at more than 2,000 college concerts). Then, in the ‘90s, he decided to give children’s music at try. The result? He loved it.
“I would rather sing to K to 6 than the college crowd,” says Josh. “The bigger thing with me was, all of my life, I was more told what to do. I didn’t ask my father to sing at three or be in my first Broadway play at eight or do TV. I chose to do music to the single digits, so I was mentally willing to do it.”
One of his favorite children’s songs he wrote is called “Cloud People,” because “you should never get too old to see what’s in a cloud.”
Josh also enjoyed a period later in his life where he enacted living history with students in Michigan. He was trained to help the youngsters reenact the lives of slaves living in the pre-Civil War south and to show them the ropes of the Underground Railroad through the eyes of escaping slaves and the Abolitionists who helped them.
“For two hours we’d go back in live in 1850 and play different roles,” Josh says. “If you walk a mile in somebody’s shoes, you will not forget—you will not.”
Josh says his goal when performing is to unite, entertain and inform.
“Singing for people is a chance for them to enjoy the music and a chance for me to spend some time with them. I’ve always incorporated issues that we need to address—you can do a funny song, a sad song, a song about war, things that we need to think about. The music can come from Cole Porter to Bob Dylan,” says Josh. “My father, when I worked with him, we would be invited somewhere after a concert and dad would get out the guitar again; and sometimes my father would not find the words he would want to say properly, but he would always find the songs. So through songs, I can express a feeling of understanding. I can use the gift of music to help people appreciate the different colors and cultures.”
Josh White, Jr., performs at Guilford First Congregational Church, 110 Broad Street, on Sunday, April 3 at 4 p.m.; a free will offering event. For more information, call 203-453-5249. Learn more about Josh White, Jr., and find his recordings, upcoming performances and concert schedule at www.joshwhitejr.com.