“Sometimes he’d just hit his guitar with his hand and sing a capella while people danced,” he continues, incredulous. “He was such a bizarre character, almost like an alien. Like Hank Williams or Michael Jackson, what these artists exude just seems unearthly.”
Similarly, White regards 1930s guitar and fiddle group the Mississippi Sheiks as the first rock ‘n’ roll band, maybe even the first punks. “This was the early days of a group of people getting together to plan an attack. They were irreverent, too. We forget that in the 1920s in America you could have nudity on film, and the censorship on records came later. These guys were saying very irreverent things about sex and racial relations that you’d think they wouldn’t get away with. The first song on the Mississippi Sheiks’ record is Driving That Thing.” Another honk of laughter. “The early rock ‘n’ rollers were singing about cars as metaphors for women, but this was happening in Mississippi 30 years before.”
It wasn’t all so overt. In the White Stripes, White covered Your Southern Can Is Mine by Blind Willie McTell, the third artist in the initial series. “I love that phrase,” he says. “At first I thought: ‘Your can? What are you talking about? A cup of coffee? Then I realized he’s talking about her ass: ‘Your ass is mine!’ That side of it is clear, but people think he was also singing about white ruling classes in America. He was very knowledgeable and knew what he could get away with. Even in interviews, you could tell he had a great sense of racial relations and how defiant he really was. To be blind, black and southern, he had a lot of strikes against him and his lyrics showed just how intelligent he was.”
Bob Dylan once sang: “No one sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” and like Dylan, White’s passion for these artists and their legacy is undeniable.
“Dylan could have sung anybody’s name and he used McTell’s to make a point that all these things have happened in the world and there is still somebody that’s going to scream about it,” says White. “McTell talks about power and greed and corruptible seed. That’s a far cry from, ‘No one sings the blues like McTell.’ But he’s saying that it’s been said before and will be said again, but these were the first people to say it.
“It’s important to go back and cleanse your palate,” he argues. “If you like punk rock now, there were people who did this with way more things against them than a suburban kid who goes to a guitar shop or someone buys him one and he starts singing punk songs. There’s beauty in that, too, but to be black and Southern in 1920 and have no rights ... that exemplifies struggle.”
White, of course, no longer has to struggle, but deserves credit for using his success and fame to promote musicians that are far from household names. “The beauty of Third Man Records is we’re not in business to make money. That sounds pretentious, but it’s true,” he argues. “We’re here to make things exist that we think are beautiful. Some people might go out and buy a Ferrari or something, but I would rather spend my time and energy in releasing these records. If only a thousand people get something out of them, it’s still something that makes me and the people here feel excited, because they know the power of this music.”