Josh White on the CBS radio show “Back Where I Come From,” October, 1940. Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
Blues singer Josh White’s influence spanned continents and generations.
Before he became a musical innovator and civil rights activist, White was singing on the streets of Greenville to help ease his family’s desperate poverty. He left the Upstate as a teenager in the early 1930s. A decade later he became the first African-American entertainer to give a command performance at the White House.
Despite his million-selling single “One Meatball” and the postage stamp that bears his face, White’s name isn’t as familiar as those of other blues musicians. His impact, though, is undeniable. Musicians like Bob Dylan, John Fogerty and Jack White all were influenced by his Piedmont style of blues.
And now, a committee of Greenville residents is determined to keep White’s memory alive in his hometown. Soon, White, who died in 1969, will join such luminaries as Charles Townes, Joel Poinsett, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Peg Leg Bates with his own statue in downtown Greenville.
The same group that spearheaded the Bates statue is raising money to create a bronze sculpture depicting the phases of White’s life and career. When it’s completed, the three-paneled piece will be located on River Street, in the third phase of the Riverplace development.
The Peg Leg Bates sculpture, located at Spring and Washington streets, inspired the group to look for other artists whose impact extended far beyond the South Carolina border, but who were underrated or unsung, said committee member Dale Perry.
“We were trying to come up with names of people who had made contributions; who, to many people, are footnotes in history,” Perry said. “Rather than doing the headline historians, we wanted people who contributed to Greenville, although much of it, like Peg Leg Bates, was done from New York and around the world. … And Josh White was a name that people kept talking about.”
White also is a subject of artist Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series,” now on exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; his work linked with that of author Richard Wright and singer Billie Holiday.
But closer to home, White will be memorialized on a bronze-relief triptych, six feet tall by eight feet wide, on a base of black granite.
The city’s Arts in Public Places Commission has pledged $25,000 in matching funds for the project, estimated to cost between $122,000 and $125,000. Organizers hope to unveil the sculpture in early 2017.
Sculptor Joseph Thompson, chairman of the visual arts department at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, designed the piece.
Each panel will represent a phase of White’s life and career. The left panel will be dedicated to the White’s early years in Greenville. The center panel focuses on “the apex of his career,” particularly White’s years in Europe, Thompson said. And the right-hand panel will explore White’s activism and civil rights work, including his blacklisting by the anti-Communist House Un-American Activities Committee.
Flowing through each panel is a ribbon-like image, connecting the phases of White’s life and calling to mind the Reedy River as a symbol of Greenville.
“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.”
The components are linked by a nuts-and-bolts structure that connects the piece to Greenville’s textile history and “the grittiness of Greenville in the early 20th century,” Thompson said.
The rear of each panel will feature more text exploring Piedmont blues, as well as the role of blues in the evolution of rock ’n’ roll.
“We’re able to see how the richness of the black community has contributed to the richness of the culture that we have today,” Thompson said. “And that’s why I’m excited about it.”
Sean Scoopmire, vice chairman of the city’s Arts in Public Places Commission, is excited that such an influential yet less-familiar person will be honored.
“It’s really wonderful that the citizens committee is working so hard to remember Josh White,” Scoopmire said. “This is a story that I didn’t know about until they presented it to me. I think it’s a story that a lot of people didn’t know about. And it is something that’s an incredible part of Greenville’s past.
“Really, Josh White overcame an incredible amount of adversity in his life, growing up in the Sterling community, and he rose to international fame as a musician in the mid-20th century.”
For information about contributing to the non-profit organization raising money for the Josh White sculpture, call 864-282-3694