Josh White

Blues: 1932-1945

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Josh White had a remarkable talent for self-reinvention, and his career -- which began in the 1920s and stretched essentially uninterrupted all the way into the '60s -- is an amazing story of adaptability and survival. Slick, sly, and fiercely intelligent, White became a sort of pre-Harry Belafonte black sex idol, complete with a leftist social and political agenda, during his so-called cabaret blues period in the late '40s, and when the McCarthy era led to his blacklisting, he rebounded into the folk revival period with several carefully assembled albums for Jac Holzman's Elektra label that recast him as a folk balladeer. This two-disc set skips White's early Piedmont-styled 78s from the '20s (which is a shame, since sides like "Blood Red River" and "Silicosis Is Killin' Me" are among the best White ever recorded) in favor of picking up the New York cabaret phase of his career. Few performers could make the folk-blues straddle the line between being rustic on the one hand and artfully urbane on the other like White was able to do, and while to some extent it was a stage act, there is no doubting White's ultimate devotion to his material. His version from this period of "Milk Cow Blues," included here, features gorgeous clarinet lines from Sidney Bechet and is one of the most striking renditions ever done of this blues classic. Although some doubted White's authenticity as a folk-blues performer (they really shouldn't have), the fact remains that White was an excellent acoustic guitar player and a subtle and versatile singer who carefully selected his material, well aware of how it made him appear. Since it lacks any of his striking early blues 78s and likewise lacks any of his later folk revival sides, this collection doesn't make the best introduction to the full range of White's intriguing legacy, but it does spotlight the pre-blacklist period when he saw his greatest public popularity.

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