Josh White Jr. & Robin Batteau, |
Jazz, Ballads & Blues
Josh White Jr.,
House of the Rising Son
I once heard that the most important choice aspiring Olympic athletes must make is to pick their parents carefully. In the world of musical greatness, Josh White Jr. certainly qualifies as a musician who made a successful choice when he picked his father.
My first contact with the guitar playing of Josh White Jr. came a decade ago when I discovered Jazz, Ballads & Blues, a Grammy-nominated musical tribute to Josh White Sr., in which Josh Jr. teamed up with jazz violinist Robin Batteau. I play guitar and violin, and though my playing is very much at the amateur level, it helps me appreciate just how wonderful and technically difficult some performances are, especially when they are so artfully masterful that they sound simple to the unseasoned ear. To be honest, I have had very little exposure to jazz violin, being more conversant with other styles, but I knew good playing when I heard it.
Batteau and White first performed together in 1981, and at the time this CD was made Batteau had eight recordings, two film scores and a sold-out concert (with David Bruskin) at Carnegie Hall to his credit. His songs have been recorded by Anne Murray, the Oak Ridge Boys, Bette Midler, Tom Rush and many others. But it was the interplay between Batteau's violin and the superb guitar playing of White that caught my attention. The two musicians create a seamless point and counterpoint that cannot fail to delight the listener. On a personal note, it also creates a rather nice soundtrack. I never fail to think of the time that I had this CD spinning away on a boom box while on a camping trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, and a rather large black bear wandered through our campsite. When I caught the image of the bear on videotape with "Frankie and Johnnie" playing in the background, the bear seemed to stroll to the beat of the music.
When I listened to this CD, it was the first time I was exposed to the "Josh White style" of guitar playing, with its emphasis on slides, both of single notes and chords. There seemed to be echoes of many styles, but it was distinctly different -- I had simply never heard anything quite like it. I didn't realize it at the time, but White was doing a perfect duplication of his father's playing. I was familiar with many of White's songs, of course, but they had been covered by other musicians, and I had never had the opportunity to hear this fruit that had been picked from the true vine.
Fast-forward a decade to House of the Rising Son. This was when I discovered that Josh White Jr.'s rich and powerful voice is just as spectacular as his playing. In fact, one can compare his voice with that of his father on the last cut of the album, a duet arrangement of "One Meatball," performed when Josh Jr. was only 4 years old. Recording quality aside (and after Josh Jr.'s voice had matured), their two voices seem close to identical, taking the scratchy technically inferior qualities of the early recording into consideration. This is not surprising, considering that the two performed together for nearly 20 years. If anything, it seems that Josh Jr. might well be the better singer and guitarist.
The press release for House of the Rising Son reports that, since the age of 4, he has been performing continuously as well as writing songs of his own. He has written songs for Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, headlined thousands of concerts, starred in three television specials and earned a Tony award performing on Broadway, where he first performed with Lilian Gish at age 9. During his career he has shared the stage with other such legendary artists and personalities as Bojangles, Paul Robeson, Ethel Walters, Leadbelly, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, Mary Lou Williams, Burl Ives, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson and Eleanor Roosevelt (a supporter of Josh Sr., whose efforts on his behalf during the McCarthy era proved fruitless). Josh Jr. has received almost innumerable awards and honors, including two honorary doctorates, the NACA Humanitarian Award, and acting as the personal host, emcee and performer for the pope on the final legs of his American tour.
But it was Josh Sr.'s music and style of performance which is given tribute on these two albums. White was not only an originator of a style of playing, but an original whose stunning history is so powerful that he influenced generations of musicians. Tragically, he was blacklisted during the notorious McCarthy era, although it appears the government attempted to make some amends by featuring his image on a 32-cent postal stamp.
Included in the jewel case of House of the Rising Son is a brief history of Josh Sr., penned by Josh Jr., which describes his remarkable career. He began at the tender age of 7, when he left home to lead an old, blind, black singer named "Blind Man Arnold" across the dusty dirt roads of the rural south, playing tambourine and dancing while cajoling listeners to pay for the entertainment. Over the next eight years, White was "rented out" to more than sixty-five old black street singers, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Willie Walker, Archie Jackson and Blind Joe Taggert, after which he began to get credit for his contributions and to emerge as a brilliant guitarist. This was a skill that was acquired with great difficulty. Most of the old men who Josh led as far as Florida and Chicago generally treated their young charge badly and refused to teach him how to play the guitar himself. But a lad so enterprising was not easily deterred, and after the old musicians had gone to sleep, he would take their guitars and steal far enough away not to wake them and learn their individual licks until he had melded them into a style of his own that was so original and powerful that it was one of the most influential of the last eighty years.
According to the liner notes by Douglas Yeager which accompanied Jazz, Ballads & Blues, prior to the emergence of the Josh White style, "most of your blues or ethnic folk guitarists generally just strummed the strings of their six or twelve string guitars, making simple chords with their left hand. Josh's recordings were among the first to incorporate a five-finger picking style playing single note leads, and the bending of the strings with the right or left hand to create a bluesier sound. Complementing the guitar style, his vocal patterns often duplicated and accompanied the sound of the bending guitar strings...." From the same liner notes, White Jr. goes on to say: "Throughout the history of music, inventive guitar stylists have always had their own approach to whatever song they may be performing -- from the classical Andre Segovia, to the jazzy Earl Klugh to the R&B rocker Eric Clapton. All guitarists have their own individual touch much like the vocalists who put their individual touch to a song -- no matter how many other singers had performed the song before...."
And just what songs are we talking about? Gracing the albums are the following songs written by Josh White: "House of the Rising Sun," "Outskirts of Town," "Frankie and Johnnie," "Saint James Infirmary," "Call Me Darling," "Gonna Live the Life," "I Believe I'll Make a Change," "Betty & Dupree's Blues," "Blind Man," "Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed," "Blood Red River Blues," "Southern Exposure Blues," and "Hard Times Blues." Two songs, White's "House of the Rising Sun" and Lewis Allan's "Strange Fruit," are performed on both albums. It is particularly interesting from a guitarist's perspective to listen two these two versions and to take note of the differences. The style is unmistakably the same, yet there were also distinct dissimilarities when the guitar underscored Josh Jr.'s powerful voice or Robin Batteau's elegant jazz stylings. Other songs performed include the previously mentioned "One Meatball," "You Won't Let Me Go" by B. Johnson & B. Allen, Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," and "Miss Otis Regrets," as well as "Don't Smoke in Bed," by W. Robinson. The songs all became classics either before the McCarthy Era -- or in spite of it, and they tell stories so deep and powerful that they have become folk music icons. On House of the Rising Son, one particular song is repeated. Listening to both of these albums, it is clear that there is a reason: the lyrics describe the aspirations of both father and son -- lofty aspirations that in this writer's opinion have been accomplished by both of them. Would that we all could live up to the desires expressed by the following lyrics!
"I'm going to live, live the life I sing about down in my soul, down in my soul. I'm going to fight, fight for the right and shun the wrong, shun the wrong. Out in my street or in my home, if I have company or I'm alone, I've got to live, live the life I sing about down in my soul, oh yeah, down in my soul."
Both of these CDs are treasures. I cannot recommend them more highly.