Born in South Carolina in 1915, White’s musical career was something of an enigma. The early part was almost the epitome of what an impoverished blues singer’s history should be. In his later years he became a suave, sophisticated performer, feted by the white cabaret and café society of New York City. He had left home when aged only seven after he saw his father so badly beaten by whites that he died later in prison of his injuries. He spent the next eight years wandering around the southern states of America acting as the eyes and legs of a group of old and often blind blues singers that is said to have included Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson. By the time he was sixteen he was an already an accomplished blues singer and guitarist, recording with Blind Joe Taggert in Chicago.

He then moved to New York where he became a very successful solo recording and performing artist as a blues singer and, more latterly, as a folk singer. When he was 26 he became the first black artist to appear at a White House Command Performance, and at 29 he was the first black artist to have a million selling record, "One Meatball". One year later he became the first to make a solo concert tour of America. During the 1940’s there were Broadway shows and Hollywood films and then, in the early 1950’s his career faltered. Always something of a political activist, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy witch-hunts, after which his health deteriorated. Nevertheless the resurgence of interest in folk music in the 1960’s gave him the opportunity to regain his earlier popularity, out ranking Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie, and on a par with Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. By the time of his death at aged only 54, he was arguably the best-known folk/blues artist in America.