Leonard Cohen Recalls Seeing Josh White
[Question:] What was the first gig you went to?
[Leonard Cohen:] Josh White in Ruby Foo’s, a Chinese restaurant in Montreal, 1949. Josh White was a black blues singer, once associated with the leftist folk song movement in New York City but allegedly turned federal witness in the investigation of communistic folk singers and lost a lot of credibility. Still played a great guitar. He knew how to bend a string.1
Leonard Cohen was certainly correct about Josh White knowing “how to bend a string.” His playing style influenced many guitarists, including Pete Seeger, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt, Elvis Presley, The Kingston Trio, Merle Travis, Dave Van Ronk, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Mike Bloomfield, David Crosby, Richie Havens, Don McLean, Ry Cooder, John Fogerty, Eva Cassidy and Jack White.2
And Leonard Cohen’s summary of White’s political conflicts was similarly accurate. As Wikipedia notes,
White also became the closest African-American friend and confidant to president Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, White’s anti-segregationist and international human rights political stance presented in many of his recordings and in his speeches at rallies resulted in the right-wing McCarthyites assuming him a Communist. Accordingly, from 1947 through the mid 1960s, White became caught up in the anti-Communist Red Scare, and combined with the resulting attempt to clear his name, his career was damaged.
Josh White was also – before he was blacklisted – in demand as an actor on radio, Broadway, and film.
Josh White on Video