Josh White and the doorman

I became an immediate avid admirer of Josh White on first hearing him on a scratchy old 78 disc. He is often criticised for abandoning the folksy, raw style of his early recordings in favour of a more sophisticated “nightclub approach”. I’m not buying into that one, I liked his singing and I loved his playing. After almost 60 years of teaching myself to play guitar, I still can’t bend a string like Josh could. This was first published in the US on LiketheDew, an excellent southern on-line magazine – hence my uncertainty.

Pic in the Estate of Josh White (Sr.) and the Josh White Archives
Pic in the Estate of Josh White (Sr.) and the Josh White Archives

Whether or not this is an appropriate venue to air this memory – whether, indeed, the USA is an appropriate venue – I’ll leave you to judge. If it’s not, then my defence might be that I still haven’t entirely come to grips with differences in national senses of humour. Be that as it may, it was Tom Poland’s Riding The Chitlin’ Circuit that brought the memory so vividly back.

It was the early 1960s and I’d not long been in the Eastern States trying my music out in a larger, supposedly more sophisticated market than in my native, supposedly backward Western Australia. Back then, and still today, though to a slightly lesser degree, the relationship between The West and Tassie on the one hand and the more populous Eastern States on the other puts me in mind of the North–South thing here. One side uses the other as a convenient conscience salve and as a way of feeling better about itself.

Anyway, as I said, it was in the early 60s and I was sort of getting known on the “folk circuit” as a possibly passable blues singer – and there’s another argument right there, whether or not, as I have been told on more than one occasion, I have any right to sing blues songs because they’re not part of my ethnic heritage.

I keep getting sidetracked – sorry.

News had trickled to the Antipodes that Josh White would be among a flurry of visiting US musicians booked on the Australian show circuit so my long-time musical partner and best mate Chris Cruise and I trundled out to the airport, guitar and mandolin in respective hands, to welcome him to Australia with our somewhat garbled version of Colored Aristocracy.

Turns out, Mr White (he was Mr White to me then, my mother would have insisted on it, and I’ll leave it that way) had missed that flight so Chris and I ended up on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald photographed with one of the numerous “folk trios” that so proliferated in those days and who seemed amazed that not only had we never heard of them but that we didn’t know any of their arrangements. The photo was the smaller part of a montage that included a large glamour shot of a leggy female singer whose name now escapes me.

A couple of days later, we did meet Josh White and were tickled to bits to be able to jam with him, listen to his reminiscences and, oh boy, be given tickets to his show at the old Rushcutters Bay stadium – a giant tin shed used for professional boxing matches and anything else less sophisticated than Gilbert and Sullivan.

Come the big night and the Cruise and I float up to our front row seats. We felt a bit conspicuous – Chris was still in the Regular Army at the time and as he was intending to catch the last train back to base to stand guard duty at 0600 hours, he was in full uniform. I was in my usual beatnik costume of jeans and jumper – my beard had me labelled a “silly young bugger” at 15, a “beatnik” a few years later, a “hippy” later still and “Santa Claus” all the years I’ve had it. But there we were.

In walks Josh White, trademark lit cigarette poked upright behind an ear, and sits beside us, has a bit of a chat and gives me his guitar to hold while he hops up on stage to do a mike check – and Sydney thought it was sophisticated. By the way, that guitar, a custom-built Guild, was on the market just a month or so back for $16,000 – I haven’t got that sort of money but whoever bought it I’m here to tell them that very early in its life it was held and played by an Australian musician who is still living.

Sidetracked again.

So Josh does his concert – which included a slow Waltzing Matilda in D min (see my earlier remark about whether I’m ethnically qualified to sing the blues) – and at the end of the show, thanks the audience and, on the mike, in front of all those people, points to Chris and me and tells us not to go yet because he’ll get changed and we’ll go and have a drink and a jam.

A bit later and we’re in front of the then brand-new Chevron Hilton in King’s Cross, Mr White in a polo shirt and black slacks, Chris in uniform, me in, well I’ve already told you except to say that jeans could still get you kicked out of some places, and all of us carrying guitars.

The snooty doorman looked us up and down, then – and this is ridgey didge, the dinkum oil – said: “Good evening Mr White, come in,” then, looking down his hooter at Chris and me, “but you two will have to use the side entrance.”

Josh White turned, looked at us and said: “Boys, they ain’t never going to believe this in New York.”

I swear it’s true. Josh White died, aged only 55, on my birthday in 1969. It was as though I’d lost a close relative.

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