The House I Live In: Josh White’s America

Josh White — who was born on February 11, 1914 — had one of the more interesting American lives during the twentieth century, even though he died at the young age of 55 on September 5, 1969.  He was a folk singer, guitarist, songwriter, civil rights activist, actor, friend to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and much more.

He was an important figure in the century, although many people born in the last fifty years may not have heard of him.  His music influenced many of the major performers who came after him.  Allmusic calls him “one of the unquestioned linchpins of the first stirrings of the folk revival.”

His work for civil rights and social justice made him a target of the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s.  He testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he read the lyrics to one of his recordings, the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” that was written by Abel Meeropol.  Many twisted his words, so that for a period he was blacklisted by both the Right and the Left.

White lived such a full life that I can’t even begin to summarize it here in a short blog post.  I encourage you to read more about him, including the long Wikipedia post about his life and this video of his son Josh White Jr. telling stories at The Bohemian Cafe in Greenville, South Carolina on August 20, 2016.

The House I Live In (What Is America to Me?)

White was among the first to record many songs we know today.  He had the first hit recording of “The House I Live In (What Is America to Me?).” The song, which was written during World War II by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan (a pen name for Meeropol), captured a dream for what a post-war America might be.

The children in the playground,
The faces that I see,
All races and religions,
That’s America to me.

You know the song, even though you may not have been around when White’s version was a hit.  But the reason you know the song is because of White.

It was White who taught “The House I Live In” to Frank Sinatra, who became identified with the song.  After White taught it to Sinatra, Ol’ Blue Eyes sang the song in an honorary Academy Award winning short for MGM. The short was made to oppose anti-Semitism.

As for White, I don’t know, but it seems that through all of the problems, he loved this country. Otherwise, he would not have done so much for it.

The blacklisting by the music industry ended in 1955, and he began performing in various venues around the world. The TV blacklisting ended later in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy asked White to perform on a national civil rights program, “Dinner with the President.”

Subsequently in that same year, he performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. And in January 1965, he performed at Lyndon B. Johnson’s inauguration.

Today, the lyrics of “The House I Live In” may seem a little naive. Some might find them cheesy. I suppose, though, that most people no matter what their political party, would agree that it was a nice dream. And while White never saw the accomplishment of the dream, he reminded us that it is one still worth fighting for.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Bob Dylan Croons “I Could Have Told You”

    Bob Dylan, who has already released two albums of American standards in recent years, is doing it again. But this time, he is releasing a triple-album of such standards called Triplicate. Like the two previous albums, Triplicate will include a number of songs previously recorded by Frank Sinatra.

    Bob Dylan surprised some by releasing Shadows in the Night in 2015.  Then, he followed that album with another album of standards, Fallen Angels in 2016. The triple-album announcement illustrates that Dylan is going all-in on this style of music, at least for the immediate future.

    Triplicate will include a number of well-known and some lesser-known American standards. The track list includes Sinatra classics like “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “September of My Years.” Also, the set includes “As Time Goes By” and “Stormy Weather.”

    The first release from the upcoming album is “I Could Have Told You.” Carl Sigman and Jimmy Van Heusen wrote the song. And Sinatra first recorded it in December 1953 during the same sessions with Nelson Riddle where he recorded “Young at Heart.”

    Below is the new recording of “I could Have Told You” by Bob Dylan.

    Below is Sinatra’s take on “I Could Have Told You.” The first time Sinatra included the song on an album was on Look To Your Heart (1959).  That collection featured singles and B-sides that he recorded between 1953 and 1955.

    Bob Dylan’s Triplicate set will hit stores and the Internet in various forms — including a Deluxe Limited Edition LP — on March 31, 2017.

    What do you think of Dylan’s take on the standards? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Frank Sinatra: “That’s Life”

    Frank Sinatra was born on December 12, 1915 in Hoboken, NJ. I wish he were still around entertaining us, but that’s life.

    Below, Sinatra sings “That’s Life,” which was released in 1966. Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon wrote “That’s Life,” which was first recorded by Marion Montgomery and released in 1963.

    Over the years, a number of artists have recorded the song. You recently may have heard a current version in a television commercial for Jariance prescription diabetes medicine.

    Sinatra, who passed away in 1998, first heard “That’s Life” in a version by singer O.C. Smith, who had a popular version of the song “Little Green Apples.” Smith, who was born in 1932, passed away in 2001. Below is Smith’s version of “That’s Life.”

    One can hear how Smith’s own excellent version would have attracted Sinatra to the song. Sinatra’s version, which would become the most recognizable version of “That’s Life,” appeared on his 1966 album That’s Life.

    Happy birthday Frank, wherever you are.

    What is your favorite Frank Sinatra song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    3 a.m. Albums: Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours”

    In our series “3 a.m. Albums,” we look at albums that are perfect for those nights when you cannot sleep due to sadness, loneliness, despair, or other reasons. We begin the series with an album that is appropriately named, In the Wee Small Hours, which is one of Frank Sinatra’s masterpieces.

    Frank Sinatra recorded most of In the Wee Small Hours in the late night hours in early 1955, releasing the album not long after completion in April of that year. Often considered as an early concept album, In the Wee Small Hours received its main inspiration from the dissolution of the relationship between Sinatra and actress Ava Gardner, who Sinatra had married in 1951.

    The ballads, arranged by Nelson Riddle, features more sparse instrumentation than on many Sinatra classics, allowing the heartache in Sinatra’s voice to bleed through your speakers above the sounds of the guitar, celesta, piano, and strings. The title song, which was new at the time, stands well next to the album’s classics like “Mood Indigo.” The song “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” remains one of the great opening album tracks of all time, setting the mood for the entire album.

    Sinatra poured his tears, sweat, and blood into these tracks. The liner notes claim the album creates “the loneliest early-morning mood in the world.” Reportedly, Sinatra broke down crying after recording “When Your Lover Has Gone.”

    The album has stood the test of time. The song “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” has stood the test of time, being covered by many singers, including a recent cover by another singer famous for his relationships, John Mayer. B.B. King has talked about listening to the album on many late nights (“I practically put that In the Wee Small Hours album under my pillow every night when I went to sleep”), and Tom Waits lists it as one of his favorite albums of all time, echoing the album’s artwork on his own The Heart of Saturday Night (1974).

    When one thinks of Sinatra, the songs on In the Wee Small Hours may not be the ones you first think of as you run through songs like “Lady is a Tramp” and “Summer Wind.” But it is one of his original albums best heard in its entirety from start to finish rather than as a collection of greatest hits or live performances. And it is best heard at 3 a.m. as you face the demons in your own life, somehow finding comfort knowing that even Ol’ Blue Eyes knew (and somehow survived) the same type of heartbreak. Thankfully, he is there, giving words and music to your feelings like a friend buying you a drink in an empty bar at closing time.

    What is your favorite 3 a.m. album? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Bob Dylan Sends Off Letterman With “The Night We Called It a Day”

    Last night, on David Letterman’s next-to-last Late Show With David Letterman, Bob Dylan appeared as the final regular musical guest for the show. Dylan performed the appropriately named “The Night We Called It a Day” from his latest album of jazz standards, Shadows In The Night.

    Some reviewers have claimed Dylan’s performance was “bizarre,” noting the way Dylan stands distant when the retiring host greets him. Other reviewers have labeled the performance “beautiful” and “haunting.” Probably only Bob Dylan, who first appeared with Letterman in 1984, could provoke such a diverse reaction, but in my mind, it was a nice musical sendoff to one of the all-time greats of late night.

    Interesting, after Letterman introduced Dylan as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, Dylan sang a cover song, as “The Night We Called It a Day” was written by Matt Dennis and Tom Adair in 1941. In 1942, Frank Sinatra released the song as his first solo recording.

    What did you think of Dylan’s performance of “The Night We Called It a Day”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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