Some artists are easily dismissed because they are simply not easily categorized or labeled. This was surely the case with the singer and guitarist Josh White - a man who'd grown up in the business (he made his first recordings as a teenager in the 1920's) playing and singing the dirty southern gospel blues with the likes of Blind Blake and Willie Walker. A hand injury sidelined him from performing for a couple of years in the late 30s, but by the end of the decade, he had returned a mature and complex artist, appearing on the New York stage and in Hollywood movies, with hit songs like "One Meat Ball", his act a little more showbizzy and sexual. He managed some impressive commercial success in the 40s, but his career was sidetracked again when he fell prey to Sen. Joe McCarthy's red scare and was blacklisted.
When Josh White made his unlikely (impossible) comeback in the mid-50s, the New York folk revival was ascendant, and blues purists were quick to count White as part of it. They weren't completely wrong about that - by then White was well known to stray from the blues to sing Irish folk songs - but he wasn't a purists' folk musician either, sometimes singing straight-up gospel, sometimes Tin Pan Alley, imbuing everything he touched with a dark (however playful), bluesy edge. As a stage presence, he was well in touch with his inner rock star (even though rock stars hadn't been invented yet), playing his sexual charisma to maximum effect and becoming both a musical innovator and a free-wheeling stuntman with his steel-stringed acoustic guitar.
A pre-rock n' roll extension of the guitarist-showman continuum that connects Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix to Prince, his influence extends to artists like Labi Siffre, Dave Matthews, and Ben Harper, and his music, in its articulate, stylish delivery, its gospel fervor, and its emphatic boundlessness often reads as an antecedent to colorful and genre-busting Southern hip-hop artists like Outkast and Cee-Lo. (His "rapped" delivery of a series of complicated chemical equations in the magnificent "Free and Equal Blues" sounds utterly current, foretelling the nimble over-enunciation of Cee-Lo with Big Boi's quickness and machismo.) By his association with the Village coffeehouse scene and the likes of Woody Guthrie, he was often deemed a traitor (or, more derisively, a whitener) of the blues. In truth, Josh White was a man without a genre in a fragmented (and segregated), genre-driven record industry. Nevertheless, it was in this phase of his career, in the 1950s and early 60s, that Josh White made some of his most popular records.
Of course, that the blacklisted White should have a recorded anything at all in the 50s is due to a felicitous meeting between his manager and a passionate young record industry upstart named Jac Holzman, who had dropped out of college to start a folk music record label - Elektra - and just a couple years earlier had fallen in love with Josh White's music after a guy in his dorm played him some records. At the time White was a 41-year-old veteran of the showbiz, and Holzman was a 23-year-old and a little bit starstruck at the opportunity to work with one of his heroes. But White had minimal prospects with any of the bigger labels, and Holzman had a vision for how he wanted to record White's music.
The Holzman/White partnership was christened during a recording session in a vacated New York church, and between 1955 and 1962, White would release seven albums on the Elektra label, including the label's first LP, the classic Josh White at Midnight, and hits like Chain Gang Songs an Empty Bed Blues, all boasting spacious, crystalline production unusual for its day, as well as powerful, even iconic cover art. (The photo of a nude white woman sitting up in bed with her back to us on the cover of Empty Bed Blues is subversive on many levels.) The end result being a wholesale revitalization of White's career, and much of his classic repertoire.
In 2004, Rhino Handmade enlisted Jac Holzman (who headed the Elektra label until the early 1970s and diversifying it in the late 60s by launching the careers of celebrated psychedelic acts like Love and the Doors), in re-mastering Josh White's Elektra recordings, resulting in Josh White: The Elektra Years, a 39-track, 2-CD anthology, released in a limited edition of 2500 (and selling for a budget-busting $40).
Included here are all of White's most popular songs, from his rendition of the Irish folk-ballad "St. James Infirmary" to the full-on tragicomedy of "One Meatball". There's a gorgeous rendition of "Gloomy Sunday" (popularized by Billie Holiday), a wonderfully self-referential take on the "Free and Equal Blues", spirituals like "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho", and folk mainstays like "Delia's Gone", "Sam Hall", and "The Story of John Henry", a 23 minute suite of folk songs telling the famous legend which was White's first release for the label.
If the first disc focuses on the more popular tunes, the second disc is dazzling in its earthy, sexual delights and its collection of prison and chain gang songs, often backed up with the mighty, defiantly black voices and harmonies of the Carolinans. The lyrics to songs like "Where Were You Baby", "Bottle Up and Go" and "Jelly, Jelly" (a song I'd love to hear Prince tackle) are equal parts political protest and lascivious sexual braggadocio; you can almost see the faces of righteous Dixiecrat politicians blanching, you can almost hear Strom Thurmond clawing madly at the lid of his coffin, when White suggests that he's gonna "do to her what her father does to us." Hide the womenfolk, gentlemen.
The music collected here is uniformly mighty in spirit, humor, and sex - and White's got a voice that is equal parts grit and gravy; and his sculptural, evocative guitar playing is full of vivid storytelling - the way he can make it sound like a chugging freight train in one song, or like a pindrop in a moment of silent sexual tension in another. Also, it's wonderful that Jac Holzman himself was able to prepare these songs for the 21st Century - both his re-mastering job, and his wonderful introductory notes full of affectionate reminiscences of the time, give this release a sense of immediacy and relevance. The art direction, which reproduces the graphic of White's At Midnight album, is clean and elegant.
As an anthology, The Elektra Years leaves little room for wanting. But it's not nearly as comprehensive nor as exclusive as one might expect from Rhino Handmade. Several of White's Elektra albums have been previously released on CD (albeit, without Holzman's hand in the re-mastering), and many of these songs have been anthologized before. The booklet, though well-designed, and despite both Holzman's notes, and a track-by-track commentary by blues scholar Elijah Wald, feels a little skimpy - and doesn't even include full-page reproductions of those classic album covers. Total bummer, that!
A label that recently reissued box sets collecting entire discographies of artists like Tony Joe White and Allen Toussaint should know that people willing to spend $40 on a "premium" anthology are even more likely to spend $100 on a truly comprehensive box set. If The Elektra Years had been released at a more standard price, it would be far more recommendable. As it is, it's merely a wonderful missed opportunity.
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BECAUSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:
"The Elektra Years" by Josh White
Rhino Handmade Records
Recordings and Compilation Produced by Jac Holzman
SONGS: St. James Infirmary - You Don't Know My Mind - No. 12 Train - Run Mona Run - Silicosis Blues - Red Sun - Southern Exposure - Timber - One Meat Ball - Gloomy Sunday - Free and Equal Blues - Jim Crow Train - Live the Life - Did You Ever Love a Woman - Delia's Gone - So Soon in the Morning - Halleleu - Mother on that Train - Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho - Scandalize My Name - Raise a Ruckus - The Story of John Henry - Where Were You Baby - Jelly, Jelly - Woman Sure is a Curious Critter - Empty Bed Blues - Bottle Up and Go - One for my Baby - Sam Hall - Prison Bound Blues - Trouble - Ball and Chain Blues - Twas on a Monday - Going Home Boys - Told My Captain - Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin' Bed - Bury My Body - Lay Some Flowers on My Grave
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