“Black Sabbath” Exposes the Musical Connection between Black and Jewish Cultures

17 Jul

What a fascinating concept! I certainly give these guys an A+ for creativity. And you know what? They somehow manage to pull it all off. This is a really fun, well-researched collection of Jewish songs (some traditional, some more obscure) performed by some of the biggest African-American artists in the history of popular music. Nina Simone, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and The Temptations all make appearances — alongside lesser known entertainers such as Libby Holman, Jimmy Scott, Malena Shaw (who performed the ’60s classic “California Soul”), and Slim Gaillard of “Slim and Slam” duo fame.

Gaillard’s “Dunkin’ Bagel” is a highlight and immensely catchy. Slim was known for his silly scat numbers and often used food as his lyrical inspiration. Calloway’s “Utt Da Zay” is another winning contribution to this recording. The track starts slow, but really swings. I also found The Temptations’ “Fiddler on the Roof Medley” and Aretha’s “Swannee” (a 1920 hit for the legendary Al Jolson) to be both eye-opening and ear pleasing. The “Theme from “Exodus” has always been a favorite melody of mine. Jimmy Scott gives it the good old slow burn treatment. And I must admit to renewed respect for Lena Horne’s vocal chops after hearing her passionate demand for social justice simply entitled, “Now!”

And please remember, you don’t have to be Jewish or African-American to enjoy this CD. “Oy Vey, y’all!”


CD compilation with deluxe booklet to be released by the Idelsohn Society on September 14; features Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Scott, Cannonball Adderly, Nina Simone, the Temptations and more

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Black Sabbath: The Secret History of Black-Jewish Relations is the first CD compilation to showcase legendary African-American artists covering Jewish songs. Focusing on the 1930s through the 1960s, it uses popular music to shed light on the historical, political, spiritual, economic, and cultural connections between African Americans and Jewish Americans. Featuring Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, and many others, Black Sabbath explores the myriad ways that Jews and African-Americans have coalesced and clashed, struggled against each other and struggled alongside each other. This is the soundtrack to a rarely told American story. The CD, produced by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation (http://www.idelsohnsociety.com) is set for September 14, 2010 release.

This is the first attempt to gather the U.S. history of Black–Jewish relations into a selective pop musical guide. The relationship between African Americans and Jewish Americans has long been a reliable subject of rigorous attention. Books and articles focusing on the musical landscapes shared by Blacks and Jews have been equally numerous, indeed most general histories of American Popular Music even turn on the synergies of Black-Jewish creativity, influence, and exchange, be it African-American spirituals, Tin Pan Alley, Klezmer, the Yiddish theater, jazz or R&B.

Yet for all this attention there has yet to be a one-stop musical source of evidence and exploration, a single CD release that succinctly and selectively gathers together some of the key songs that speak to the vibrant and often dazzling musical back-and-forth between the two communities. The Black Sabbath collection samples a century’s worth of extraordinary and fascinating musical performance that finds African-Americans performing Jewish music and appealing to Jewish audiences.

After hearing the compilation, legendary jazz singer Jimmy Scott, whose version of “Exodus” is featured, had this to say: “”A wonderful musical composition by our Isrealite brotherhood. Well done and all that jazz!”

The CD moves from early black performers like Slim Galliard singing about bagels gefilte fish, and pickled herring (in a self-penned song) and Cab Calloway mixing Yiddish into his hepcat dictionary of jive to Billie Holiday singing “My Yiddishe Momme” and Aretha Franklin doing a ’60s take on the early blackface hit for Al Jolson, “Swanee.” Indeed, while much scholarly and media ink has been devoted to the Jewish attraction to Black music, this anthology — while surely demonstrating that — focuses instead on the long history of African-American interest in Jewish musical practice, performance, and composition.

The Idelsohn Society was so inspired and astonished by the Johnny Mathis version of “Kol Nidre” that they tracked the crooner down and interviewed him about his motivations for recording one of the most beautiful and sacred pieces of the Jewish canon.

“When I was growing up in San Francisco as a teenager, I would visit temple with some of my Jewish friends and I loved to listen to the cantors,” says Johnny Mathis, whose version of “Kol Nidre” is featured on the compilation. “They helped me learn these songs long before I recorded them.” Paul Robeson, no stranger to either repertoire, put it this way: “If it had been true that the Jewish people, like so many other national groups for whom I have sung, have warmly understood the loved songs of my people, it has also been true that Negro audiences have been moved by the songs of the Jewish people.”

About the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation

The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation is a critically acclaimed all-volunteer non-profit organization. They are a small but dedicated team from the music industry and academia who passionately believe Jewish history is best told by the music we have loved and lost. In order to incite a new conversation about the present, we must begin by listening anew to the past.

They do this in a number of ways:

–Re-releasing lost classics like Mazeltov Mis Amigos, and compilations like Jewface
–Filming the story of every veteran Jewish musician they can find across the country to build a digitally-based archive of the music and the artists who created it in order to preserve their legacy for future generations
–Curating innovative museum exhibits that showcase the stories behind the music, like “Jews on Vinyl,” which is currently travelling the nation
–Creating concert showcases like “Mazeltov Mis Amigos” at Lincoln Center and, coming this August, the “Jews on Vinyl Revue” at the Skirball Cultural Center

All of this work is driven by the passion and energies of volunteer supporters and donors across the country who share the belief that music creates conversations otherwise impossible in daily life. Our work has lifted the past into the present, from the pages of the New York Times, to the NPR airwaves, to the stage of Lincoln Center. You can join the Idelsohn Society in their mission by visiting them at http://www.idelsohnsociety.com .

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