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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    Goodnight Irene

    As Chimesfreedom prepares for Hurricane Irene in New York, we wish others in the hurricane’s path to be safe in weathering the storm. Hopefully, we soon will be wishing Irene goodnight, as in the great song. Unlike the hurricane, “Goodnight Irene” is timeless, so that nobody knows where the song originated. Huddie Ledbetter, i.e., Lead Belly, made the first recording of the song while he was in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. His recording is a beautiful, haunting version of the song about the deep sadness of lost love, as the singer tries to warn others to avoid his fate (“Stay home with your wife and family / And stay by the fireside bright”).

    Goodnight Irene, Lead Belly

    Pete Seeger’s The Weavers helped make the song a national hit in 1950, and there have been numerous covers through the years, including interesting upbeat versions by Fats Domino and by Brian Wilson (the latter is on the tribute CD, Folkways: A Vision Shared (1988)). In the version below, Pete Seeger sings with the great Mississippi John Hurt, who tells a story about getting his first guitar. Then, the group, which includes folk-singer Hedy West (“500 Miles“) and banjo player Paul Cadwell, breaks into playing “Goodnight Irene.”

    The above performance appeared on Rainbow Quest, a show Pete Seeger started on a local UHF New York television station in the 1960s. At the time, many television stations feared featuring Seeger, who had been blacklisted because he asserted his First Amendment rights before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Fortunately, through YouTube, many more people get the opportunity to see some great performances hidden away at the time. Seeger, who now is a respected sage from a different time, has always been a bit of a hurricane himself.

    What is your favorite version of “Goodnight Irene”? Leave a comment. In times of natural disasters, it is always a good reminder to help others by donating to organizations like the Red Cross.

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