BLACK SABBATH – The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations

At the Contemporary Jewish Museum, August 26th – March 22, 2011

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Yiddish jive?! Cab Calloway was the king. “If I Were a Rich Man” remade into a gospel reverie?! The Temptations did it in 1969. This fall, the Contemporary Jewish Museum invites you to sit down and relax or sing along and dance as you experience its newest exhibition, BLACK SABBATH: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations.

Based on the 2010 compilation soon to be released by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, Black Sabbath is a musical journey through a unique slice of recording history – the Black-Jewish musical encounter from the 1930s to the 60s. In contrast to the oft-told story of how Jewish songwriters and publishers of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway transformed Black spirituals, blues, and jazz into the Great American Songbook, scant attention has been paid to the secret history of the many Black responses to Jewish music, life, and culture. In the exhibition, visitors learn how Black artists treated Jewish music as a resource for African-American identity, history, and politics from Johnny Mathis singing “Kol Nidre” to Aretha Franklin doing a 60s take on “Swanee.”

kol-nidre

In a nightclub setting that evokes the 1940s, visitors can browse extensive playlists including some rare and unusual recordings and can access more in depth information as well as vintage videos on iPads.  An ongoing slideshow of album covers and images is projected on the wall of the Museum’s soaring Yud Gallery.

“A single recent find birthed the idea behind this entire collection,” says David Katznelson, President of Birdman Recording Group and one of the four record collecting dumpster divers that founded the Idelsohn Society. “It was a 7” version of “Kol Nidre” by Johnny Mathis, backed by the Percy Faith Orchestra. The second we heard his belting version of this Aramaic prayer intoned at the beginning of Yom Kippur, we had to know more.”

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Libby Holman and Josh White poster for a 1944 performance
Photo, Idelsohn Society for Music Preservation

What Katznelson and his Idelsohn Society colleagues Josh Kun, Roger Bennett, and Courtney Holt found was a treasure trove of recordings by various artists that revealed a significant Black involvement  with Jewish music and cast a new light on the history of 20th Century American popular music, which as Kun, Associate Professor of Communication in the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California,  says “…is hard to imagine without all the social and political push and pull between Black and Jewish artists, without all the kinship and without all the alienation, without all the imitation and without all the mutual understanding, appreciation and solidarity.”

In the 60s, Black artists like jazz and soul singer Marlena Shaw found particular resonance between post-Holocaust Jewish songs that expressed the desire for a promised land and the Black civil rights movement. Shaw proved that the question posed in Yiddish song king Leo Fuld’s “Where Can I Go?” / “Vu Ahin Zol Ikn Geyn?” (based on a song Fuld heard performed by a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto in a Paris nightclub) was not just a Jewish question, but a Black one.

The Oscar-winning theme to the movie Exodus about the founding of Israel was covered by scores of Black artists – Jimmy Scott, Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton – who often saw the birth of Israel as a victory for the oppressed. Lena Horne’s incisive 1963 rant against civil rights abuses “Now!” was composed to the otherwise joyous tune of “Hava Nagila.”

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LENA HORNE. Photo, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Old Testament stories were reborn as black spirituals as well. The song “Eli Eli,” based on King David’s lament in the 22nd Psalm, became a staple for left-leaning progressives like Paul Robeson and a must-cover for Black artists like Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters. For Waters, the song spoke to a history of shared suffering. “It tells the tragic history of the Jews as much as one song can,” she said, “and that history of their age-old grief and despair is so similar to that of my own people that I felt I was telling the story of my own race too.”

Friendship and working relationships with Jews were the inspiration for several forays by Black artists into Yiddish jive. Cab Calloway was probably the best-known “Afro-Yiddishist,” mixing his own hepcat jive tongue-twisting with a constant flow of swinging Yiddishisms and spoofs on cantorial pyrotechnics with songs like the 1939 “Utt Da Zay.” Calloway’s exposure to both Yiddish and the rhythms of Jewish prayer were a result of his close friendship with his Odessa-born Jewish manager Irving Mills.

Like Calloway, Slim Gaillard was a self-styled linguist who invented a language he called Vout, borrowing scraps of Yiddish as its essential building blocks. Legend had it that Gaillard, a Detroit native, had run bootleg booze for the local Jewish mob, the Purple Gang, before he headed into vaudeville. Among his many titles like “Meshuganah Mambo” and “Matzoh Balls” is his hypnotic 1945 Yiddish-Vout meditation on the pleasures of Jewish food, “Dunkin’ Bagel”.

The eight year (1964-1972) Broadway run of Fiddler on the Roof turned the show’s music into a must-cover songbook for just about everyone with a record deal. The jazz saxophone legend Cannonball Adderley re-imagined the whole Fiddler opus as swinging jazz instrumentals in 1964. The Temptations created a Fiddler medley in 1969 that was part gospel, part funk and part jazz. Songs of shtetl nostalgia had become American pop standards with room for everybody.

marlena-shaw

These songs and more can be heard at the exhibition’s two listening stations. Each station features a curated group of songs arranged around a particular theme. The “Heebie Jeebies” playlist focuses on jive. The “Go Down Moses” playlist features spirituals and soul music inspired by the Old Testament. Liner notes from the soon to be released compilation of recordings can be accessed via a special Black Sabbath application on the Museum’s iPads, and visitors can view vintage videos of performances such as a 1966 TV appearance by Danny Kaye and Harry Belafonte singing “Hava Nagila” and another in which Nina Simone sings the Israeli folk favorite “Eretz Zavat Chalav” in Hebrew. Still images and album covers can be viewed as projections in the gallery.

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ETHEL WATERS and LENA HORNE

Click on the title to sample and purchase MP3 downloads:
CAB CALLOWAY: If I Were A Rich Man
JOHNNY MATHIS: Kol Nidre
MARLENA SHAW: Where Can I Go?
LENA HORNE: Now!

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.


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