African American artists perform Jewish music

Reprinted from the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin,
p. 19, September 27, 2010

by Michael Regenstreif

cd cover Various Artists / Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations,
Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, 2010

This fascinating compilation was conceived when members of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation—a group named for Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, the composer of “Hava Nagila”—chanced upon a 1958 recording by Johnny Mathis, the African American singer mostly known for his romantic, smooth pop songs, of “Kol Nidre,” the prayer traditionally sung on Erev Yom Kippur.

Singing in the original Aramaic, Mathis, sounds like a veteran cantor on this powerfully stirring interpretation, which provides the finale for Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations. The album explores Jewish music, or music composed by Jews in non-Jewish styles or even by gentiles in Jewish styles (or with Jewish cultural references) and performed by African American artists between the 1930s and 1960s.

That there would be a history of musical interaction between Jews and African Americans is hardly surprising. There are examples that stretch across the entire history of 20th century popular, jazz and folk music.

A few of the 15 tracks included on the CD are well known, some are surprising.

Perhaps the most surprising is the version of “My Yiddishe Momme” by the great jazz singer Billie Holiday that opens the album. On this private recording made at the home of a friend in 1956, and accompanied just by pianist, Holiday strips the song of its usual nostalgic sentimentality, offering instead a poignant, plaintive lament.

One of the most astounding tracks is Aretha Franklin’s 1966 recording of “Swanee,” a song written by Jewish songwriters George Gershwin and Irving Caeser and made famous by Al Jolson, who sang it in blackface, a performance style abandoned many decades ago in recognition of its inherent racism. Franklin—who was yet to record the soul classics that made her a huge star – turns in a soaring, powerful performance that makes Jolson’s version seem completely irrelevant.

Several numbers are guaranteed to put a smile on your face and a tap in your toes. Johnny Hartman’s 1966 version of “That Old Black Magic,” by Jewish composer Harold Arlen, incorporates verses from “Matilda,” the calypso song, and then, more relevantly for this compilation, the Yiddish song “Di Grine Kuzine.” There’s a 1939 version of “Utt Da Zay,” performed by Cab Calloway that Jewish songwriters Irving Mills (Calloway’s manager) and Buck Ram adapted from the traditional Yiddish folksong about a tailor. Calloway, one of the swing era’s great wits, sings the opening verses almost with reverence, interspersing them with some scatting that seems to sound like a Chasidic nigun. Soon, though, the band is in full swing mode and his scats let us know that it’s all in fun. And Slim Gaillard’s 1945 recording of “Dunkin’ Bagel,” is a musical hipster’s guide to such Jewish foods as bagels, matzo balls, gefilte fish, pickled herring, etc.

Fiddler on the Roof provides material for two tracks, including a spiritual-sounding instrumental version of “Sabbath Prayer,” recorded in 1964 by jazz saxophonist Cannon- ball Adderley. Later in the CD, the Temptations do a 10-minute, Las Vegas-style medley drawing on many of the musical’s hits.

A most interesting combination of composer, lyricist and performer comes in African American singer Jimmy Scott’s 1969 version of “Exodus.” The music was composed in 1960 as the theme for Exodus, the film based on Leon Uris’ novel about the founding of the State of Israel. The lyrics Scott sings, easily interpreted as being from the perspective of a Jew in his homeland, were written later by American pop singer and religious Christian Pat Boone. Another fascinating combination of song, creators and performer is Lena Horne’s 1963 recording of “Now,” a civil rights song written by Jewish songwriters Adolph Green, Betty Comden and Jule Styne to the melody of “Hava Nagila.”

In a similar theme, “Where Can I Go,” translated by Leo Fuld from a Yiddish song that longs for a Jewish homeland, also became a civil rights anthem in its English-language version. It’s included here with Marlena Shaw’s 1969 recording.

Other highlights include “Sholem,” a wild version of “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” recorded in 1959 by Eartha Kitt; the Yiddish love song “Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Lieba,” performed by Alberta Hunter, a 1920s classic blues singer, on a 1982 album at age 87; a 1963 version of the Hebrew folksong, “Eretz Zavat Chalav,” by the great Nina Simone; and a collaboration of Jewish singer Libby Holman and African American folk and blues legend Josh White on a 1942 recording of “Baby, Baby,” a variant of the traditional “See See Rider.”

These tracks just begin to illustrate the possibilities inherent in a musical history of black-Jewish relations. Let’s hope this is just the first in a series of volumes.

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