Where Were You, Baby? (Josh White)

Josh White was one of my first musical heroes, and when I began to try to play blues, his songs figured prominently in that effort. That was one of the things that endeared me to Dave Van Ronk, who was heavily influenced by Josh’s work — though if memory serves, we didn’t actually get around to discussing Josh until we were already pretty close, since by the mid-1970s his work had generally fallen out of fashion. Josh White Song BookThe 1960s generation of white urban blues fans tended to consider him too slick, and to prefer performers who sounded more rural, or who had had the grace to die back in the 1930s, or — perhaps most significantly — whom their parents hadn’t heard of.

Josh was slick, indeed. His guitar work was smooth and clean, with a vibrato unequaled by anyone this side of Lonnie Johnson; his voice was light and sexy; his diction was immaculate; and he was an expert urban cabaret performer, the model for Harry Belafonte among many others.

As I wrote in his biography, Society Blues, my parents used to have regular arguments about the first time they saw Josh. It was at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and my father always remembered him as an earthy, masculine performer, glistening with joshcovfsweat as he sang rough blues and work songs. My mother, by contrast, remembered his elegant silk shirt, and the second shirt he changed into during the intermission. They agreed about the sweat, but my mother did not associate it with work songs — like most of Josh’s female admirers, she thought of him as suited to a more intimate environment.

Josh did sing a lot of traditional blues and work songs, but he also sang pop songs, and British ballads, and some unique nightclub confections composed for him by professional Manhattan tunesmiths. I’m guessing “Where Were You Baby” is in that latter category — he is generally credited as the composer, but I’d bet anything the lyric was written to order for him by one of the pop lyricists who were bringing him material during his glory days as a cabaret star. Be that as it may, it suited him perfectly, to the point that it seems kind of silly for anyone else to do it…

…but what the hell. I’ve loved this song since I first heard it, and very few people know it (except a coterie of hardcore Don McLean fans), and it’s a great piece of work. It also played a vital part in my musical education, since it was the first song I ever learned that required a diminished chord. (Thankfully I had the Josh White Song Book, or I wouldn’t have known that, and God knows what I would have played instead.)