Josh White

From New York to London

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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. Although some folk purists were aghast, doubting White's authenticity as a folk-blues performer (perhaps unaware of White's solid Piedmont blues background and his fine run of vintage blues 78s in the '30s), 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. This double-disc, 42-track set is drawn from White's cabaret period and features recordings he made in New York between 1944 and 1947 (disc one) and in London in 1950 and 1951 (disc two). The range of styles here is telling, as White rolls all manner of songs, from light gospel to small-combo jazz and blues, into a kind of folky high art. Among the highlights are a stark reading of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and White's small-combo jazz take on Casey Bill Weldon's classic "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town." Fiercely independent, and always in control of his own image in an era when black performers were seldom afforded that luxury, White helped pave the way for Belafonte, who followed the same sort of template to international stardom a mere half-dozen years after these recordings were made.

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