Week 69:
Lazy Black Snake Blues

Josh White
The Man
Josh White is a massive figure in the blues. His story is immense and diverse; from being the first black mega star to befriending presidents to being a leader for civil rights to being blacklisted under McCarthyism. Worldwide, Josh White introduced more people to the blues than anyone who came before him.
He was born Joshua Daniel White on February 11, 1914 in Greenville, South Carolina to the Reverend Dennis and Daisy Elizabeth White. Named after the Biblical Joshua, his family were very proper and god fearing African American southerners. Josh began his musical education singing with his local church at the age of 5. In 1921 a white tax collector visited the family home to collect payment for a late bill and in an argument spat on the floor. Enraged, the Reverend White threw him out of his house by the collar. As a lesson to other black folk, five white Sheriff’s deputies came to arrest him. In front of the young Josh, they beat his father, tied him behind a horse and dragged him through the town to the county jail. His father was severely injured and traumatised by the brutal beating, dying just 9 years later in a mental institution.
With no one to support the family, Josh become a ‘lead boy’ – a guide and side man to a blind street singer – and left home 2 months after his father’s arrest. At just 7 years of age he teamed up with John Henry “Big Man” Arnold, aka Blind Man Arnold, a guitarist and street singer and travelled with him throughout the south. Arnold would play, Josh would sing, dance, and collect coins on street corners. In return, Arnold would send $2 per week back to Josh’s family. Josh learnt the art of a showman, how play the tambourine and started to pick up guitar. His obvious and natural talent was easily exploited by Arnold, who ‘rented’ him out to other blind musicians such as Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie Johnson and Blind Joe Taggart.
To encourage more coins from the crowd, Josh was kept dirty, shoeless and dressed in rags. He travelled throughout the South in the Jim Crow era, sleeping in stables and fields while the musicians slept in black hotel. He witnessed fellow African Americans being tar and feathered, lynched and once witnessed a man burnt to death. In Florida he was mistaken for a fugitive and beaten and jailed. Blind musicians lead a hard life and they took a lot of their anger out on their lead boys. Josh was bitter at the humiliation and ill treatment he received on a daily basis.
The one silver lining was the opportunity to learn from the very best Piedmont players of the day. He played with giants – Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake are regarded as the best of their time, if not all time, but Josh rates Blind Willie Walker as his main mentor. Willie Walker is virtually unknown – he only ever recorded two sides – but he is regarded as the best of all the Piedmont players by his contemporaries. Josh would later say “the best guitarist I’ve ever heard…this man played so much guitar it wasn’t even funny” and “Blake was quick, but Walker was like Art Tatum.”
In 1928 Taggert, who had recorded religious songs for Vocation in 1926, took Josh to Chicago where the black producer Mayo Williams quickly recognised his talent as a performer and used him (uncredited) as a session guitarist. Josh was first recorded as the main singer and guitarist under “Joshua White”, performing with Taggert, in October 1928 on “Scandalous and a Shame”. Josh was just 14 years old.
Josh was still shoeless and sleeping in stables with all his earnings were going to Taggert and Arnold – until Mayo Williams threaten to call the authorities. Free at last, Josh bought some new clothes and shared a room with Blind Blake at Williams’ house for a few months before moving to a boarding house. He stayed in Chicago for a further 2 years working as a session guitarist, until he had saved enough money to support his mother and younger siblings and moved back to his family in Greenville.
In 1930, while recovering from a broken leg from a football game, two A&R agents from the American Recording Company tracked Josh down at his mother’s house. After promising to only record religious songs and not the ‘devil’s music’, his mother signed a contract for her still underage son. Josh moved to New York and recorded for ARC, billed as ‘Joshua White – the Singing Christian’. In 1932, ARC convinced him to record blues, signing a new contract under the pseudonym ‘Pinewood Tom’. He recorded his own songs and played as a session guitarist for huge artists such as Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr, Buddy Moss and Lucille Bogan. He also recorded under ‘Tippy Barton’. Josh’s solo records made an impact on the Piedmont scene – Blind Boy Fuller credits ‘Low Cotton’ as his motivation to become a musician, studying it night and day until he learnt Josh’s intricate fingering.
Josh married a fellow singer, Carol Carr, with whom he eventually raised 6 children while living in the Sugar Hill area of Harlem. In 1936 Josh released two songs that were a sign of the focus on his civil rights struggles that would dominate his later career – ‘Silicosis Blues’ and ‘No More Ball and Chain’. Later that year Josh was involved in a bar fight and punched his left hand through a window. Gangrene set in and the doctors recommended amputation, which Josh stubbornly refused. His hand became immobile. Josh’s recording career faltered and he took up a variety of jobs to support his growing family: on the docks, as an elevator operator, and as a building superintendent. He exercised his hand daily by squeezing a rubber ball and it took two long years before he could play again, albeit without the blindingly fast runs of his early days.
In 1938, playing with his brother and friends as the group Josh White and His Carolinians at a New Years’ Eve party, Josh met Leonard De Paur, a Broadway choral director. As fate would have it, de Paur was producing a musical titled ‘John Henry’ and needed a blues singer to play the role of ‘Blind Lemon’, the narrator of the story. The producers had auditioned New York singers without success, and had resorted to listening to old race records to find their man. They had narrowed it down to two choices: The Singing Christian or Pinewood Tom – both of who were Josh. Josh signed on with the proviso that the word ‘nigger’ be replaced with ‘man’ in the script.
The play debuted in 1940, and although not very successful it boosted Josh’s reputation. He joined the CBS radio show ‘Back Where I Come From’ and had a 6 month residence with Lead Belly at the Village Vanguard. He then teamed with the notorious Libby Holman – a white torch singer who had infamously shot and killed her millionaire husband – on and off over the next 6 years. They created history and controversy in equal measure, being the first mixed race duo to record, perform and tour together at previously segregated venues all throughout the United States. They recorded an album (and later appeared in a film) together, and were rejected from performing USO concerts for the troops on account of being ‘too controversial’.
In 1940 he released an album about civil rights titled ‘Joshua White & His Carolinians: Chain Gang’ which caused such controversy that it landed on President Roosevelt’s desk. On December 20 that year Josh performed with the Golden Gate Quartet at the White House for the 75th anniversary of the 13th Amendment to the US constitution – the amendment that ended slavery. In January 1941 he performed at the inauguration for FDR’s 3rd term.
Josh was 27; long gone was the shoeless young country bluesman. In his place stood a very successful and sophisticated star, empowered, attractive, well dressed, well mannered, proud of his heritage and willing to fight for equal rights. He became the star of the Cafe Society Nightclub, the first non-segregated club in New York, which had opened in 1938. The club’s owner Barney Josephson promised to make Josh the ‘first black sex symbol’, dressing him in a black velvet shirt open to the stomach and silk slacks. It was a massive success, New Yorker Magazine labelled Josh as ‘the darling of 5th Avenue’, but a bare chested black man singing to adoring white women caused even more controversy.
Throughout the 1940’s Josh’s star – and the controversy – continue to rise. He released more civil rights focussed albums – ‘Southern Exposure: an album of Jim Crow Blues’ caused a massive furore and resulted in the very unlikely friendship between a country bluesman and a war time President. FDR requested Josh for a Command performance at the White House – the first black man to receive the honour – and afterwards they spent hours discussing Josh’s father’s death and the struggles of African Americans in 1940s America. A life long friendship developed, with FDR becoming god father to two of Josh’s children.
Throughout the 40’s Josh’s status continued to grow – more Broadway performances lead to acting in Hollywood and his continued to release hit records, experimenting with jazz and urban sounds. He was already a huge star, and his future was looking incredibly bright. He toured with Eleanor Roosevelt on a Goodwill tour of Europe, performing for royalty and Prime Ministers, and played his Piedmont blues to a 50,000 strong crowd in Stockholm, Sweden. Unbeknownst to him, back in America he had made powerful enemies.
In June 1950 he was labelled as a communist sympathiser in the The Red Channels list – a list of 151 prominent entertainers who were alleged to have communist leanings. The list was produced by editors of a rightwing newsletter that had been trying to blacklist suspected communists since the end of the Second World War. Josh was touring Paris when he heard the news and immediately returned to the US vowing to clear his name. He was detained on arrival and interviewed for hours by the FBI who threatened to deport him to Europe. Due to his social activism Josh was a huge target. The brother of Cafe Society’s owner had been imprisoned for ‘anti-American’ activities in the late 40’s, and anyone who was a regular at the Cafe was targeted by the right wing media and politicians.
Despite neither being a communist nor a member of any political party, Josh was bought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on September 1, 1950 – against the advice of many of his friends who warned the HUAC would use his testimony against him, no matter what he said. Indeed, this was the case. Among questions about communism, the HUAC grilled Josh about the words of another prominent civil rights campaigner – the famous singer, actor and All American football player Paul Robeson. Robeson had previously stated that if a war broke out between the US and the USSR, black men would not fight for the USA. Josh disagreed with this, arguing that as Americans, black men would fight for their country against any enemy.
This was spun as ‘selling out’ Robeson, and Josh’s fate was sealed. Labelled a communist by the right, and seen as speaking out against a great civil rights leader by the left, Josh was effectively blackballed by both the right and left political spectrums. He was in his prime, and his American career was suddenly non-existent. He was blacklisted from radio and films, lost all his work and contracts and was forced to relocate to England. He lived in London during the early 50s, where he hosted a BBC radio program of roots music. He continued to perform concerts over the world, and his American comeback started slowly with an album in 1955, but his blacklisting wasn’t officially over until he made a television appearance on “Dinner with the President” alongside John F Kennedy in 1963.
After the blacklisting was lifted, Josh was regularly appearing on television and concert tours throughout the US and the rest of world. 1956 saw the printing of “The Josh White Guitar Method”, an influential book of lessons on finger style guitar. The book was a massive success and led to a series of signature guitars – a 1956 model by Zenith; a one off model by Guild; and the first guitar ever mass produced by Ovation was designed and played by Josh.
Josh was a lifelong smoker, and he had developed heart disease in the 1960s. He suffered a heart attack in 1961, and heart problems would plague his later years. During his final 2 years, he would tour for 2 weeks, then spend 4 weeks in hospital recovering. On September 5, 1969, Josh underwent an operation to replace the valves in his heart in an effort to prolong his life, but it was unsuccessful and Josh White, the first superstar of the blues, passed away on the operating table at age 55.
The Song
Lazy Black Snake Blues is a 12 bar quick change, played in open E tuning (E B E G# B E – tune your A and D strings a whole tone higher, and your G goes up half a tone) with a capo on the first fret, so the key of F. You can also tune to open D (D A D F# A D) to remove some of the tension of the strings, capoing on the 3rd fret. In a quick change 12 bar you change to the IV chord for bar 2 instead of the usual opening of 4 bars of the I chord. The song is a piano and guitar duet, with the piano doing most of the rhythm work and the guitar used primarily for licks over the top.
Josh’s fills are based on E minor pentatonic, but due to the alternate tuning the notes on the (usual) G, D and A strings will obviously be different to E standard tuning. He uses some major scale notes and some chromatic runs to great effect. His playing and pretty quick, but the main thing is it is clean.
For the verses, and the turn arounds, I’ve tabbed it using some of the piano notes to make it playable as a solo guitar piece. The interesting thing about the tuning is that it’s really hard to get the bass note of the IV chord, A, without barring at the 5th fret. So the A chords uses the 4th in the bass, C#. Have a look at the ‘Chords’ section before jumping into it.
It’s quite hard to hear exactly what is going on with the guitar between the licks, so I’ve approximated a guitar part based on chord shapes and the melody of the piano. It’s definitely not 100% correct – shoot me a message if you have any idea how I can improve this!
The Lyrics
E                                     A                  A7                  E
I'm a lazy black snake, laziest snake you've ever seen
A                                     A7                                     E
I'm a lazy black snake, laziest snake you've ever seen
B7                                   A7                                     E
All the women prays about me, 'cause I'm so doggone mean

When you get old and feeble, lord the people turn their back on you
When you get old and feeble, women turn their back on you
It makes me so mad 'cause I cant sing like I used to do

I'm so old my sting has lost its sting
I'm so doggone old my sting has done lost its sting
Aw, when I was young I used to sting and make 'em laugh and sing


When I was young they called me the lightning black snake fool
When I was young they called me the lightning black snake fool
But now I'm old and feeble they say the black snake ain't no good

I'm so doggone old that my poison bag is dry
I'm so doggone old lord my poison bag gone dry
Oh it hurts me so bad I wish that I could die
The Chords
Due to the alternate tuning, you’ll need to use some different chord shapes to what you might be used to. Here are the 3 main chords (and their 7ths) used in the song.
E E7 | A A7 | B B7 |
$6.0.$5.0.$4.0.$3.0.$2.0.$1.0 $6.0.$5.0.$4.0.$3.0.$2.3.$1.0 | $5.2.$4.0.$3.1.$2.2.$1.0 $5.2.$4.3.$3.1.$2.2.$1.0 | $5.0.$4.2.$3.3.$2.0.$1.2 $5.0.$4.2.$3.1.$2.0.$1.2 |
The Intro
Nice little intro into the turnaround to get us started.
$6.4 5 6 | $5.0 $2.0 $3.1 $5.3^ 0 $2.7/9 | $1.7.$2.9 $1.7.$2.9 $1.7.$2.9 $1.7.$2.9 $1.7.$2.9 $1.7.$2.9 $1.6.$2.8 5 5.$1.5 $2.4/5 | 5.$1.4 $5.3.$3.3.$2.3 $1.0 $5.2.$3.2.$2.2 $1.0 $5.1.$3.1.$2.1 $1.0 |
$6.0.$5.0.$4.0 $5.0 0.$2.0 0.$3.1 $5.0 0 |
The Progression
The progression is a standard 12 bar quick change with fills after each vocal line. I’ve tabbed the first verse in full, and only tabbed the fills for each subsequent verse.
Verse 1
$6.0.$3.0.$4.0 0.$3.0 $6.0.$3.0.$4.0 $3.0.$4.0.$2.3 $6.0.$3.0.$4.0 $3.0.$4.0 $6.0.$3.0.$4.0.$2.3 $5.2 | 2 $3.1.$2.2 $3.1.$2.2.$5.2 $4.3 3.$3.1.$5.2 $4.3 3.$3.1.$5.2 $6.0 | 0.$5.0.$4.0 $1.3^ $6.0 0.$1.0 $2.0 $3.1 $6.0.$4.3^ |
$6.0.$4.0 3 0 $6.0.$4.3^ 0 $6.0 $2.3.$3.0.$4.0 $2.3.$3.0.$4.0.$6.0 $5.2 | 2.$3.1.$2.2 $5.2.$3.1.$2.2 $3.1.$2.2 $5.2.$3.1.$2.2 $3.1.$2.2 $5.2.$3.1.$2.2 $3.1.$4.3 | $5.2.$3.1.$4.3 $3.1.$4.3 $5.2.$3.1.$4.3 $3.1.$4.3 $5.2.$3.1.$4.3 $3.1.$4.3 $5.2.$3.1.$4.3 $6.0 |
$6.0.$4.0.$5.0 $1.0 $6.0.$2.0 $3.1 $4.3^ 0.$6.0 $5.0 3.$6.0 $4.3^ | 0.$6.0 $1.0.$2.0 $6.0 $1.0.$2.0 $6.0 $6.4 5 6 | $5.0 $3.1.$2.0 $5.0.$3.1.$2.0 $3.1.$2.0 $5.0.$3.1.$2.0 $3.1.$2.0 $5.0.$3.1.$2.0 $5.2 |
$5.2.$4.0.$3.1 $4.0.$3.1 $5.2.$4.0.$3.1 $4.0.$3.1 $4.3.$3.1.$5.2 $4.3.$3.1 $4.3.$3.1.$5.2 $6.0 | 0.$5.0.$4.0 $5.0.$4.0 $5.3.$3.3.$2.3 $1.0 $3.3.$2.3 $5.2.$3.2.$2.2 $1.0 $5.1.$3.1.$2.1 $1.0 | $6.0.$5.0.$4.0 $5.0 0.$2.0 0.$3.1 $5.0 0 |
Verse 2 Licks
$6.0 $1.3^ $6.0 0.$1.0 $2.0 $1.3^.$6.0 $1.0 | $2.3.$6.0 $1.3 0.$6.0 $2.0 $6.0.$1.3^ 0 $6.0 |
$6.0 $1.3^ $6.0.$1.0 $2.0 $3.1 $6.0.$4.3^ $5.0 3^.$6.0 $4.0 | 0.$3.0.$6.0 $1.0.$2.0 $6.0 $1.0.$2.0 $6.0 4 5 6 |
Verse 3 Licks:
$6.0 0.$1.12.$2.12.$3.12 $1.12.$2.12.$3.12 $1.12.$2.12.$3.12 $6.0.$1.12.$2.12.$3.12 $1.12.$2.12.$3.12 $1.12.$2.12.$3.12 $6.0.$1.12.$2.12.$3.12 $1.12.$2.12.$3.12 $1.12.$2.12.$3.12 | $6.0.$1.12/.$2.12/.$3.12/ $1.0 $6.0.$2.3.$3.0 $1.0.$2.3.$3.0 $6.0.$2.3.$3.0 $1.0.$2.3.$3.0 $6.0.$2.3.$3.0 $5.2 |
$6.0 | 0.$4.0 2 3 $6.0.$3.0 1 2 3.$6.0 $2.2 $6.0.$4.3^ $3.0 | $6.0.$4.0 $1.0.$2.0 $6.0 $1.0.$2.0 $6.0 4 5 6 |
Next up is the solo, then we return to the verse licks. Verse 4 (bit of off the beat playing in bar 2):
$6.0 0 3^ $5.0 3 $4.0 $5.0 $6.3^ | $5.0 3 0 $6.3^ 3^ 0 |
$6.0 $4.0 $5.0 $6.0 3^ $5.0 | $6.0 $1.0.$2.0 $6.0 $1.0.$2.3 $6.0 4 5 6 |
The Solo
Kicks off in the last bar of the turn around.
$6.0.$5.0.$4.0 $5.0 0.$2.0 0.$3.1 $5.0 $1.3^ $5.0 |
$6.0.$1.3^ 3 0.$6.0 $2.3 $1.0.$6.0 $1.3 0.$6.0 $5.1 | 2 $1.3^ 0.$5.2 $2.0 $3.1 $5.2.$4.3^ 0.$5.2 $6.0 | $6.0.$4.0 2 3 $6.0.$3.0 1 2 3.$6.0 $2.2 $3.3 $2.2.$6.0 $3.3 $2.2 |
$2.3.$6.0 $2.2 $3.3 $6.0.$4.3^ $3.0 $6.0.$4.0 $1.0.$2.3.$3.0 $6.0 $5.1 | 2 $1.0 $2.0 $5.2.$3.1 $4.3 0.$5.2 $4.0 $5.2 1 | $5.2 $1.0 $2.0 $5.2.$3.1 $4.3 0.$5.2 $4.0 $5./3 $4.0 |
$6.0 $5.3 $2.3 $1.0 $2.3 $5.2 $3.2.$2.2 $1.0 $5.1 $3.1.$2.1 $3.0 | $6.0 $1.0.$2.0 $6.0 $1.0.$2.0 $6.0 $5.0 $2.0 2 3 | 4.$5.0 $1.2 $5.0.$2.3 2 0.$5.0 $2.0 $5.0 $1.3^ |
$5.2 $1.0 $2.0.$5.2 $3.1 $4.3^.$5.2 0 3 $4.0 | $6.0 $5.3 $3.3.$2.3 $1.0 $3.3.$2.3 $5.2.$3.2.$2.2 $1.0 $5.1.$3.1.$2.1 $1.0 | $6.0 $5.0 0.$2.0 0.$3.1 $5.0 0 |
The Outro
One last repetition of the progression into a tradition blues outro
Verse 5 licks:
$6.0 $3.11/ 12.$6.0 $2.12 $1.12 $3.12.$6.0 $2.12 $1.12.$6.0 $3.11/ | 12.$6.0 $2.12 $1.12 $3.12.$6.0 $2.12 $1.12.$6.0 $1.12 10.$6.0 $5.2 |
$6.0 $3.2/3 3.$5.3 $1.0 $3.3 $5.2.$3.2 $1.0 $5.1.$3.1 $1.0 | $6.0.$3.0 $1.0.$2.0 $6.0 $1.0.$2.0 $6.0 4 5 6 |
$6.0 $5.3 $3.3 $1.0 $3.3 $5.2.$3.2 $1.0 $5.1.$3.1 $1.0 | $6.0.$3.0 $2.0 2 0 2 3.$1.0.$6.0 ||