Josh White overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the course of his lifetime. He experienced almost Dickensian privation as a child musician on the open road. Yet before he was twenty this child prodigy significantly influenced the Piedmont musical scene. When the Great Depression crippled the mainstream recording industry, White's early race recordings nevertheless sold briskly. Then, at the peak of his powers, he injured his hand and had to completely reinvent his style of guitar picking. Despite this, he went on to become an actor, radio, and cabaret star, a ground-breaking performer of powerful protest songs, and an intimate of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Countless performers covered signature versions (including guitar arrangements) of his repertoire such as The House of the Rising Sun, Saint James Infirmary, and Careless Love. On stage White pioneered a casual, intimate, yet serious persona, wearing attire that resolved the dichotomy between the tuxedo-clad night-club act and the overalls of the country singer. Harry Belafonte, among other acolytes, copied White's trademark casual slacks and a shirt with its top buttons opened.
The red scare of the 1950s marginalized folk music from mainstream broadcasting and drove a wedge between him and many of his former fans, seriously hurting his career (though he continued to star in Europe)