Musician. White was born in Greenville on February 11, 1914. A sophisticated guitarist and singer, Broadway actor, and favorite of the New York City folk music and leftist political scenes of the 1940s, Josh White played a major role in introducing the African American blues tradition to white audiences and establishing the blues singer as an American cultural icon. While his repertoire spanned pop tunes, protest songs, and folk ballads, White remained rooted in the blues and spirituals he learned while growing up in Greenville. The son of a Baptist minister, White got his start as a “lead boy” for a succession of itinerant blues musicians and made his recording debut with the guitar evangelist Blind Joe Taggart in 1928. After graduating from high school in Greenville, he moved to New York City and became established in the early 1930s as a popular recording artist among African American audiences in both blues (as “Pinewood Tom”) and gospel. White’s early blues records relied on the double-entendre lyrics typical of the era as well as the elaborate finger-picked guitar style that characterized the East Coast school of blues. In the early 1940s White began branching out musically and reaching new audiences as an integral figure in the burgeoning New York folk scene. He debuted on Broadway with Paul Robeson, performed with the Almanac Singers (a group that included Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie), and sang at the invitation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1941 he recorded Chain Gang, a pioneering album that commented explicitly on civil rights. Although his career declined during the 1950s, White found new fans during the folk revival of the early 1960s. White died of a heart attack in Manhasset, New York, on September 5, 1969. He is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.
Wald, Elijah. Josh White: Society Blues. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.