Famed Activist and Blues musician Josh White will soon be honored with a statue in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. Josh started his career in Greenville singing on the street to raise money to aid his poverty-stricken family. He is best known for being the first African-American entertainer to perform at the White House at the request of a President. This is commonly called a “Command Performance”. A committee of residents are raising the funds necessary to build the sculpture. The sculpture will cost about $125,000 dollars. Josh Thompson, Chairman of the Visual Arts at South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities will serve as the sculptor for this project. The sculpture will feature a three paneled bronze-relief that measures six feet in height, eight feet in width and rests on a base of black granite. Each panel will represent a different phase of Josh White’s life and career. One panel will focus on his civil rights work and activism, another on his early years in Greenville and the last panel will focus on the years that he spent in Europe. A ribbon will flow through the three panels to tie together the different phases of Josh White’s life and represent Greenville’s Reedy River. The back of the three paneled Bronze relief, referred to in the art world as a triptych, will feature the history of the Piedmont Blues and discuss how the Blues genre influenced and birthed Rock ‘N’ Roll music.
Josh White’s career was historic for many reasons. He was the first African-American singer-guitarist to star in Hollywood films and Broadway. Josh was one of the musicians lauded for introducing white audiences to the folk-blues. He was the first African-American entertainer to have a song sell a million records, to perform in previously segregated hotels, to make a solo concert tour of the United States, featured on a postage stamp, and to tour internationally.
Josh White pioneered a sound labeled the “Protest Blues”. These songs contained references to current events and politics. His album, Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues, is known as the first Civil Rights record. This recording led to him being considered one of the voices of Black protest and gained the President’s attention as a result. Josh later performed songs from the album for President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his request. He also performed at the March on Washington and one of its organizers, Bayard Rustin, was a member of a group with Josh White at one time.
Despite all the success and fame that he enjoyed, Josh’s career was also filled with some serious setbacks. Authorities labeled him a Communist during the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s. This blacklisting almost ended his career and led to him performing primarily in Europe for years. A severe hand injury in his youth ended his budding musical career for years until he taught himself how to play a guitar again. A firm stance against segregation disenfranchised him with many conservatives. Finally, his father’s death when he was seven led to him going out on the road as an entertainer to support his mother and siblings. His father died in a mental institution after being beaten and dragged through town by a horse to jail for shoving a Caucasian bill collector out of his home who spit on his floor.
This sculpture will serve as a fitting tribute to the life and legacy of one of Greenville’s own.
Words from the Sculptor
“I have been interested in some time in relief sculpture, and we don’t have a great deal of relief sculpture in Greenville,” Thompson said. “The relief sculpture is useful because it has an opportunity to create a narrative and to use imagery in an artistic and poetic way and relate that to the person you want to commemorate. We’re able to see how the richness of the black community has contributed to the richness of the culture that we have today, and that’s why I’m excited about it.”
Videos Featuring the Music of Josh White