The Story of John Henry...A Musical Narrative
Josh White was something of an enigma. He reinvented himself several times in his career in response to changing styles. But he shouldn’t be read as someone who just flowed with the times; someone with no real artistic perspective. His reinventions were more a matter a marketing, than a real change in approach.
His first big break came in 1940 when he starred on Broadway with Paul Robeson in a production of “John Henry.” He also performed on Alan Lomax’s CBS radio show alongside Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives. And he emerged in the mid-1950s as a kind of elder statesman of the blues.
Today, he doesn’t garner the same name recognition as some of his contemporaries, but by my reckoning Josh White was the folksinger’s folksinger. In the same way that Dave Van Ronk became the measure of the white urban folk singer, other artists of his time looked at White with deep admiration.
This album, recorded after White had been blacklisted for several years, was a part of that mid-50s re-emergence. But throughout his career, he seemed to always be on the edge of a comeback – and on the edge of burning out.
As for the album:
For some reason, I always think of Josh White as a guitarist more than a singer – but this album should set me straight. His voice is clear as a bell, and his diction, while clear, isn’t forced or theatrical. I get the sense that he’s singing the song “as it is,” giving the audience a clean representation. This isn’t to say that he lacks emotional punch, because he sure has that in his tool belt, but he uses it sparingly in a way that maximizes the impact.
The first half of the album is a meditation on John Henry, a long journey that floats in and out of melodies. It’s a real triumph for just a guy and a guitar. I find it impressive how much White can keep your attention throughout with so few gimmicks.
Like his music playing, the sounding mixing is fairly no frills, yet simultaneously lush. It places the listener in the room with White. And that is more than enough. It’s just a lovely experience that gives the impression of a one-take concert album.
The back half is a more traditional folk album. His guitar work is always moving, always phrasing things in interesting ways. He doesn’t waste a moment, or a chance, yet every flourish is right in place. Of course, White has more blues, and jazz type (jazz adjacent?) guitar licks that any one song can contain. It’s not overstuffed, it’s an embarrassment of riches.
Side A – all of it. Really.
“Black Girl” – This is sometimes credited to Leadbelly, and sometimes called “In the Pines.” This version is a high lonesome tale.
“Free and Equal Rights” – A satire about race science, this track gives White a chance to let loose and stick to the segregationists. The narrator of the song finds out that plasma molecules are the same, so there’s no such things as a black or white blood. Well, ain’t that good news? Often times versions of this song really play up the chorus in a way that minimized the message of the verse. But here White does the opposite. If anything, the chorus is a almost played like a throw-away though. Because it’s not really good news. The “facts” discovered in the verse aren’t really that good at all, given the material reality of race. White’s arrangement highlights the irony of the news being reported.
“You don’t know my mind” – If you don’t like this, you don’t like John White as a singer or guitar player. And I don’t know what to do with you.
When I think about the folk music collection I’ve amassed, there are some that I’m sure some day I’ll let got and not really think about it. I don’t think I can ever part with this one. It’s one of those records that reminds you, the whole process of capturing music, of capturing moments in time, is really pretty magic.
Guitar and Vocals: John White
Production Supervisor: Jac Holzman