October 1st, 2010
Label: Idelsohn Society
Release date: September 14, 2010
If someone besides a Black ever sings the real gut bucket blues, it’ll be a Jew. We both know what it’s like to be someone else’s footstool. — Ray Charles, Beverly Hills Lodge of B’nai Brith, 1976 (from the liner notes)
The caption from a 1920s Yiddish cartoon depicting a Jewish cantor singing “Aida” alongside a black performer singing “Eli, Eli,” reads: an upside down world. Since neither was an especially rare occurrence in the days of vaudeville theaters and minstrel shows, the use of the spatial metaphor “upside down” to describe the integrated stage is a wry acknowledgement of the cultural fluidity at the center of Black-Jewish relations. Black Sabbath, a new collection of African American popular music renditions of traditional Jewish songs, explores the secret musical history shared by Black and Jewish communities.
The interplay between Black and Jewish music is a many-storied phenomenon, and hence no big secret. From the shared themes of suffering and the retellings of Old Testament stories in their repertoire, to the prominence of Jews and African Americans in the popular music industry, the two musical traditions contain obvious parallels and historical overlaps. But these points are not ignored by Black Sabbath; they are given comprehensive treatment in its forty-page booklet of liner notes and are used to bolster the compilation’s raison d’être. The “secret” component of the collection is not the fact of these cultural affinities and collaboration, but their extent. Josh Kun, a music scholar and critic who helped compile music for the project, writes in the liner notes about the dynamic process of musical exchange and reproduction. He relates how the Yiddish theater tune “Bei Mir” was adopted by the black vaudeville duo Johnny and George, who sung it at the Apollo Theater, where it was heard by the Jewish songwriter Sammy Cahn, who rewrote the song into a pop hit for The Andrew Sisters. It is a convoluted and winding history of dependent clauses.
While African American performers often recorded songs penned by Jews—Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, et al.—what makes Black Sabbath so unique is its selection of Jewish-themed songs recorded by famous black torch singers, soulsters, and jazz cats, many of whom, while stylistically reinterpreting the material, sing in the original Yiddish, Aramaic, and Hebrew.
The bill is shared by such inimitable talents as Cab Calloway, Eartha Kitt, Cannonball Adderley, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Johnny Mathis, and many more. The opening track “My Yiddishe Momme,” to which Billie Holiday brings her signature reedy melancholia, is followed by Holiday’s studio banter. She dismissively asks, “How you gonna do anything with this [track]?”, a question that, despite the irony of its present context, hints at the reasons for the obscurity of this and other songs on the compilation. Cab Calloway seamlessly transitions from incanting Yiddish syllables to his characteristic jive-beat scat-singing, which lends some credence to the myth that Louis Armstrong modeled his vocal technique on davening, the recitation of Jewish prayers. Soul singer Marlene Shaw interprets “Where Can I Go?”, a Yiddish lament written by a Holocaust survivor, through the lens of the late-sixties civil rights struggles, belting her mournfully defiant pipes over a psychedelic-funk groove. Despite the absurd antics of Slim Gaillard on “Dunkin Bagel,” a gentle parody of the food songs found as much in Gaillard’s repertoire of jazz and blues numbers as Jewish repertoires, he swings with the same humorous charm and energy as Dizzy Gillespie on “Salt Peanuts.” Similarly, the remaining tracks are fresh to our ears but accessible and strangely resonant, even upon the first listen.
Following is a video of Nina Simone singing the Israeli folk song “Eretz Zavat R’á’lav U’dvash” which is featured in the compilation:
While these recordings, some rare indeed, might at first glance seem to represent a specialty niche, a mere footnote in the history of the recording industry, the amazing variety of moods and styles in combination with the consistent owning of the material, in the artistic rather than the propertied sense, make this an impressive feat of production and a highly entertaining listen. It is completely unlike (and exactly like!) anything you’ve ever heard, and that’s what makes this collection so interesting. Upon listening, we discover our hitherto unknown familiarity with the material and the history surrounding it. The creative collaboration between Black and Jewish communities lies at the heart of American music history, and we know when we hear it. That’s the secret that Black Sabbath let’s us in on.
Editor’s note: If you plan to be in San Francisco in the near future, you might wish to check out the related exhibit “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through March 22, 2011.
Reviewed by Betsy Shepherd
Review Genre(s): Popular, Rock, and Misc.