Josh White’s earliest recordings in the 30’s were “race records” intended for the black, rural population; but White later crossed over to a predominantly white audience. “One Meat Ball,” for the Asch label, was a depression-era song that became the first million-selling record by a black male artist.
More a cabaret singer by the late 40’s, White became a leading voice of black America and a voice that repeatedly reminded America of its social injustices. This led to his being singled out as a communist sympathiser and called before the House Un-American Activities Commission in 1950. It virtually destroyed his American career so White lived and worked predominantly in Europe until the mid-‘50s when Elektra offered him a contract. Jac Holzman signed him despite the communist cloud that hung over him.
Holzman also recorded Josh with an intimacy and presence that had never been heard on his prior records and their collaboration revitalised his career. White’s debut for Elektra in 1955 was, coincidently, the final Elektra ten-inch LP, The Story of John Henry. Josh At Midnight followed as Elektra’s first 12-inch release in 1956 and one of the company’s biggest sellers. It drew on blues material, with fresh versions of “One Meat Ball” and “St James’ Infirmary.”
Elektra would release five additional White albums by 1962, all emphasising blues and gospel material. Many major figures of the 60’s and 70’s acknowledge White as an influence: John Fahey, Ry Cooder, David Crosby, John Fogerty, Richie Havens and Fred Neil. For Jac Holzman: “Having an artist of Josh’s stature was a seal of approval for Elektra.”