Josh White

Josh White

Joshua Daniel White was born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1914. As a child he worked as a guide for a local street-singer, Blind John Henry Arnold. In 1932 White moved to New York City where he obtained a recording contract with ARC and had a great success with songs such as St. James Infirmary Blues and the anti-lynching song, Strange Fruit.

In 1939 White appeared with Paul Robeson in the show John Henry. During the Second World War he performed for the US Office of War Information. These radio programs were broadcast by the BBC and he became very popular in Britain.

After the war the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began an investigation into the entertainment industry. In its first three years the HUAC managed to get a large number of people blacklisted for their political views. On 22nd June, 1950, Theodore Kirkpatrick, a former FBI agent and Vincent Harnett, a right-wing television producer, published Red Channels, a pamphlet listing the names of 151 writers, directors and performers who they claimed had been members of subversive organizations before the Second World War but had not so far been blacklisted.

White was one of those named in Red Channels. This became a serious problem when a free copy was sent to those involved in employing people in the entertainment industry. All those people named in the pamphlet were blacklisted until they appeared in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and convinced its members they had completely renounced their radical past.

On 1st September, 1950, White appeared before the HUAC. He admitted he had performed at charity concerts with Paul Robeson but argued that he was unaware of the political groups behind them. White claimed that the only communist he knew was Robeson's friend, Benjamin Davis.

However, despite this testimony, White was not removed from the blacklist in the United States. White continued his career as a folk-singer in Europe where his work was published by Vogue (France) and EMI (Britain). White also recorded for Electra (1954-62) and Mercury (1962-4). Josh White died on 5th September, 1969.

Primary Sources

(1) In his testimony before the House of Un-American Activities Committee John White explained why he got involved in the Civil Rights Movement (1st September, 1950)

I was seven years old when I left my home in Greenville, South Carolina to lead a blind man while playing the tambourine. Before I was eight years old I knew what it meant to be kicked and abused. Before I was nine years old I had seen two lynchings. I got to hate Jim Crow for what it did to me personally and because Jim Crow is an insult to God's creatures and a violation of the Christian beliefs taught by my father.

(2) Josh White spoke about Paul Robeson when he testified before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (1st September, 1950)

I have a great admiration for Mr. Robeson as an actor and great singer, and if what I read in the papers is true, I feel sad over the help he's been giving to people who despise America. He has a right to his own opinions, but when he, or anybody, pretends to talk for the whole race, he's kidding himself.

(3) Josh White testimony before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (1st September, 1950)

I intend to do some explaining for my own sake, and for the sake of many other entertainers who, like myself, have been used and exploited by people who give allegiance to a foreign power.

(4) Pete Seeger was shocked when he discovered that John White had testified against singers who had taken part in protest meetings against racism.

I found out he had called Robeson the night before and said, "Paul, I just have to let you know that tomorrow I have to go and make a heel of myself."

"Well, why do you have to? Robeson said.

"I can't tell you why, but I just have to, I don't have any choice."

(5) Elijah Wald, Josh White Society Blues, University of Massachusetts Press (2000)

Josh's Red Channels entry was typical. It described him as a "Singer of Folk Songs," and reported that he had been listed on the Advisory Committee of People's Songs and as an entertainer or performer for ten suspect organizations, ranging from the Communist Party to the New Theatre League, American Relief for Greek Democracy, and the Veterans Against Discrimination of Civil Rights Congress. All of the listings were at least three years old, and most were simply copied out of Daily Worker advertisements and concert reviews.

(6) After his name appeared in Red Channels, Josh White had a meeting with the former a former FBI agent, Theodore Kirkpatrick. In his book Josh White Society Blues, Elijah Wald, reports what White said at the meeting.

'I got here as fast as I could.' I say, 'First of all, I don't know where you got this lie, which is a lie, that I was in Europe fronting for the Communist Party. . . . Like, I care less about the Communist Party. I am an American, I was born here. But, first of all, let me tell you about myself.' And I started from when I was a child, . . . about the the fear that the average Negro has for the uniform, the brass buttons, the brutality. The South - I can't even tell you. It's hard to imagine what it's been like. I told him about the lynchings, about the walking tax, I told him about my daddy, I told him the whole bloody thing.

"And then he says to me, 'You worked at Cafe Society quite a few years. You know that was run by the Communist Party.' And I says, 'No, I don't. I know I went there, I think my first paycheck was seventy-five dollars a week, $125 a week, and I was taking care of my family. I didn't go to Barney Josephson and ask him what his relations, or what his feelings were. You don't go ask your boss. No, you don't. This was my job."