Josh White, Jr. Sends a Message to the Planet

Josh White, Jr. is a direct link to the deepest roots of folk blues. He’s the son of singer/songwriter and social activist Josh White, who is one of only four folk musicians in U.S. history to be honored with a commemorative postage stamp. (The others are Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Sonny Terry.) Josh White, Jr. started performing with his father in nightclubs at age four, and went on to be a Tony-winning child star of the Broadway stage. White made his first single, “See Saw,” way back in 1956, which means that 2006’s Delicate Balance [Silverwolf] marks an impressive 50 years as a solo-recording artist. Throughout his career, he has honored his father’s musical and social legacy. Josh Jr. recorded the tribute album, House of the Rising Son [Silverwolf], at the turn of the century, and the New York City native relates the universal message of primal blues to the hip-hop generation through educational outreach programs in his adopted home of Detroit.

Can you provide some historical insight about your father and his guitar style?

My old man was from Carolina, and he started leading blind men at the age of seven. During the ’20s, he traveled all around the South, then into Texas, and up into Chicago. He led 66 men. All of them sang spirituals, and some sang blues, but none taught him how to play. He learned by playing their guitars when they weren’t around. Once he got his own career going, he played a Martin OO-21—which I still have, and I use it to play his music. He favored open D and E tunings. He never used fingerpicks or flatpicks. He used his fingers to pluck, and one of his signature things was using all five fingers at the same time to strum up and down with his right hand. He had a way of sliding his finger up the guitar neck as if he were playing slide, but he never used a slide. He would barre his finger over the first four strings, leaving the fifth and sixth strings open. He incorporated walking bass lines by using the top of his left-hand thumb to slide up and down the sixth string. He played a lot of single-string leads, but then he’d turn around and do “Waltzing Matilda” by plucking arpeggios using all the strings and his fingers. He didn’t stick to a specific sound.

Did your father teach you to play?

He got me a guitar when I was 11 years old, and he showed me the basics. We worked together for another nine years, so I picked up the rest by watching him play. We rarely played guitar together. He did the first half of the show, then I did my set, and then he’d come back and play while I sang along. I went out on my own for good in 1961, when I was 20. I used his guitar style as a foundation, but I’ve incorporated so many other things over the years. I play a 14-fret Franklin that I’ve had for about 35 years, and I’ve also got a 14-fret Taylor. I play primarily in open D, although I play some songs in open G.

Can you explain the evolution of your material and your message?

I’ve always been eclectic. I leaned on the old man’s stuff when I started out on my own, and I’m always searching for material, because I’ve never been as much of a songwriter as I am an interpreter. I use my guitar style and my voice to create a unique arrangement. I love chord progressions, but a song has to speak to me. I tend to like songs that talk about how we are more alike than different as people. My father got to meet the president because he had the courage to speak out against racism at a time when it was very dangerous to do so, and I’m proud to carry on his legacy. The overriding message at my shows is “One world, one planet.”