Freedom's Road - Josh White 1942

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

From a 1946 concert at Temple Theater

Last weekend I was up in Seattle to play a doomed gig, far out of Portland and away from the drama of the white supremacist rally. Like everyone else I know, I felt a great deal of anxiety over the whole thing. However, as Saturday arrived, I was so heartened by the massive turnout of people creatively standing up against hate.

Seeing all the photos of people dressed as unicorns and bananas, with their anti-nazi protest signs, all standing in defiance of bigotry gave me some much needed hope. That's why when this song popped up in the random play on from my phone during my drive back home to Portland, I couldn't help but hear the parallels in the sentiment of these lyrics and the message of the anti-bigotry demonstrators. 

Freedom’s Road

Lyrics Langston Hughes

Performed by Josh White

That’s why I’m marching, yes, I’m marching, 

Marching down freedom’s road. 

Ain’t nobody gonna stop me, nobody gonna keep me, 

From marching down freedom’s road.

Hand me my gun, let the bugle blow loud, 

I’m on my way with my head a-proud, 

One objective I’ve got in view, 

Is to keep a hold of freedom for me and you 

That’s why I’m marching, yes, I’m marching,

Marching down freedom’s road. 

Ain’t nobody gonna stop me, nobody gonna keep me, 

From marching down freedom’s road.

Ought to be plain as the nose on your face,

There’s room in this plan for every race,

Some folk think that freedom just ain’t right, 

Those are the very people I want to fight.

That’s why I’m marching, yes, I’m marching,

Marching down freedom’s road.

Ain’t nobody gonna stop me, nobody gonna keep me, 

From marching down freedom’s road. 

Now, Hitler may rant, Hirohito may rave, 

I’m going after freedom if it leads me to my grave. 

That’s why I’m marching, yes, I’m marching,

I’m marching down freedom’s road.

United we stand, divided we fall,

Let’s make this land safe for one and all. 

I’ve got a message, and you know it’s right, 

Black and white together unite and fight.

That’s why I’m marching, yes, I’m marching,

Marching down freedom’s road.

Ain’t no fascists gonna stop me,

no Nazis gonna keep me, 

From marching down freedom’s road.

The voice and guitar you hear on this song are that of Josh White, a trailblazer in fighting for desegregation. A patriot who significantly contributed to the U.S. war effort during WWII. However, it's in Josh White's story that we see all of the contradictions of the story of the USA - All those contradictions we're seeing played out today. 

At age 7 he lost his father to a race-based attack and subsequent institutionalization. As a result, he needed to find a way to support himself and his family. As a boy he found himself working his way up the entertainment industry (as it were) from the bottom of the barrel to the highest echelon of society, becoming a close friend and influencer of the Roosevelts, bending their ears on the subject of desegregation. He was a star of Broadway, the first African-American to have a million-selling record, a movie star, and a cultural icon, all before contributing his talents to the war effort.

As U.S. involvement in the war approached, there was a school of thought at the time that if African-Americans helped to win a war against racial persecution, that Jim Crow back home would fall by the wayside. Thus, Josh White recorded songs to rally the troops and played USO tours to lift their spirits. If you look at the Langston Hughes lyrics of Freedom's Road, you'll see the message of desegregation and racial equality interwoven throughout the song. It was a song about fighting bigotry abroad AND at home.

How was Josh White thanked for his contributions? Well, he wasn't celebrated as an American hero. He was rewarded by being put on the McCarthy blacklist. This trailblazing American icon, this patriot, was labeled as "unAmerican" and had his career and livelihood taken away from him.

The tides turned quickly. It took just 5 years from the end of WWII for right wing politicians of the time to churn up enough of a dust storm from fear-mongering to empower themselves to persecute those they perceived as "subversive". These subversives included people working for racial equality in the U.S. That McCarthy-era persecution of free-thought seems to have been echoing the tyranny we were trying to defeat in WWII.

Excerpt from Josh White's statement to the House of Unamerican Activties - 1950

So, as I listened to Josh White on my drive back to Portland, my mind was sent a-wanderin', thinking about the sacrifices made by millions of people in this country (and overseas) to fight off Nazi tyranny. How could this be happening after we lost so many young men, all in the effort to squash what was considered an evil force? My grandmother's brother was a fighter pilot in WWII, shot down and killed during the war. She mourned him for the rest of her life. Was that all for nothing? I guess the same could have been asked just five years after the V-Day.

The lessons being, the battle for freedom is constant. Never take it for granted, and certainly never hand it over to the greedy. Our liberty is intertwined. Keep on fighting for the freedom of all

Josh White's full statement to the House of Unamerican Activities below. He used the opportunity to speak about racial equality:

Josh White's Statement to the House of Unamerican Activity Pt 2

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Portland, Oregon