In this compelling biography, Elijah Wald traces White's journey from a childhood leading blind singers on the streets of Greenville, South Carolina, to the heights of Manhattan cafe society. He explores the complexities of White's music, his struggles with discrimination and stereotypes, his political involvements, and his sometimes raucous personal life.
White was always drawn to music and made his first recordings at age fourteen. By the 1930s he had become a recording star, with equally strong careers in blues and gospel. In the 1940s he was discovered by white audiences and regularly appeared in New York cabarets alongside such artists as Billie Holiday. He also became an outspoken proponent of civil rights and frequently appeared at rallies and benefits, as well as at the Roosevelt White House, becoming known as "the Presidential Minstrel." He was one of the few black figures to star on Broadway and appear in Hollywood films, the only black solo performer to have his own national tour, and a daring sex symbol with adoring fans on both sides of the color line.
In the 1950s, White won acclaim in Europe, then saw his achievements collapse in the polarized political ferment of the McCarthy era. Attempting to strike a balance that would keep his career afloat, he instead ended up alienating both political camps. Although still a star in England, he became the forgotten man at home until his resurrection during the folk revival.
"Society Blues incorporates a skillful and thought-provoking critique of the ideological presuppositions that guide the promotion of authenticity. Wald achieves this goal by sticking to the details of White's career, not generalizing about its implications, yet the point comes across with clarity and conviction."—David Sanjek, American Studies
"[An] affectionate, careful biography."—The Washington Post
"This is an outstanding contribution to scholarship, presenting a fascinating, broad-based, complex understanding of a seminal musical figure. The scope and detailed information will appeal to a scholarly audience, while the style and subject matter--popular music and twentieth-century politics, society, and racial issues--will appeal to a larger public."—Ronald D. Cohen, Indiana University, Northwest
"Josh White's career made a major--and often overlooked or trivialized--contribution to the folk music revivals of the twentieth century. Elijah Wald's work addresses the serious lack of a full-length biography of this important figure."—Millie Rahn, folklorist
"Wald's well written and deeply researched biography of Josh White is the best book on American music I've read in years (and I've read a lot of them). Anyone interested in the development of our popular music can't afford to miss it."—Dave Van Ronk
"I learned things about Josh White from this detailed biography that I never knew. Elijah Wald has done a fine job. This is a more complete and fair book than I would have believed possible."—Pete Seeger