To judge by the initial ovation, last night's crowd in Sanders Theatre expected great things from Josh White and his crew. It whistled, cheered, stamped, snapped its fingers and sang for two hours, and went away highly pleased.
Josh White suffers from having been over-recorded, which means that his audiences know his songs as well as he does. Yet he has to be seen to be appreciated; he is a powerful, vital and ingratiating man. In some concerts he has depended too much on his considerable charm, and simply gone through the motions on his songs. Last night he sang ten ballads and blues with drive and bite, and succeeded completely in keeping his familiar material alive.
The best part of his program was the series after the intermission; beginning with a fine, driving Frankie and Johnnie, he spun his way through two of the best blues ever written: House of the Rising Sun and Hard Times Blues. White followed these with a blues version of Molly Malone. This song, like Barbara Allen before the intermission, illustrates his tendency to convert songs alien to his background into personal vehicles; his Barbara and Molly come from New Orleans, but Josh makes them convincing.
Any complaints must be picayune; he lost a verse once or twice, he seemed to take the chorus of Hard Times too fast, and he mumbled a few words, so that his Cambridge audience missed some of the risque-er innuendos of Where Were You Baby. Still, it was one of his finest performances, whose thunder was almost stolen by Sam Gary.
Gary is Josh's perennial second-fiddle, an even more ingratiating figure who never falls victim to the slickness of his mentor. He began with a hammed-up version of Foggy, Foggy Dew, with exquisite footnotes from Josh's guitar, and the audience was his within a minute. His version of the Saints Go Marching In seemed to be a parody of his own singing, while his concluding His Eye Is On the Sparrow, aside from its own merits, convinced a perplexed audience that he was sober.
His three songs after intermission were sung straightfaced, and at a level of artistry matched by very few folk-singers. His Go Down Moses, which he mingles with a rehashed Yiddish song, is powerful music by any standard.
The only defect of the program was Josh White, Junior. The Young White is a boy of sixteen with a fine voce and an indifferent guitar. Although he has improved considerably in the last year, he still must make up his mind whether he is too be a folk-singer like his father or a pop singer of the order of Billy Eckstine. He is unhappily caught between the two genres, with talent enough for either. He sings well, and his naivete comes as a pleasant contrast to his father, one of the least naive men around.