The goal of Black Sabbath: The Secret History of Black-Jewish Relations, a compilation released by the Idelsohn Society For Musical Preservation, was to “gather the US history of Black-Jewish relations into a selective pop musical guide.” While a lot has been published about black and Jewish musical influences, there hasn’t been an actual musical guide to Jewish music by black artists, and this is what the Society set out to accomplish.
Of course, it’s slightly less universalist in its approach than that; Black Sabbath focuses on the ’30s through the ’60s, a time of enormous racial oppression for both groups, and also a time when the cultural exchange between the two was especially great. This really shines through in this compilation; for all that it’s only one CD. It is an amazing effort and even more amazing in that it succeeds.
Even now, race and ethnicity are still popularly considered to be binaries, and there is little room to see music as anything other than black and white. It’s framed as a conflict, as people stealing from other people, exploitation and competition. Though this compilation does not deny the struggle, it shows that even at such a heavily segregated and hostile time in US history friendship and collaboration were possible. And even hip.
One thing that was difficult to judge with this compilation was intent. It’s hard to tell which were considered parodies and which were considered authentic performances at the time they appeared. However, even from the songs featured here, it is clear that in some ways, race was both easily and viciously parodied and performed before the ’60s because of the excessive stereotyping and caricaturing already inherent in popular culture.
The Cab Calloway song featured, “Utt Da Zay,” seems to parody blackface music with its hammy delivery and incomprehensible language. Calloway himself was interested in the sounds of Yiddish, which was a fashionable musical language at the time because of its use in vaudeville (often in questionable acts like the Sam & Moos revues in Europe), and frequently enjoyed using it in his music. Here, he makes it modern and funky, in one of my favorites from this compilation. The improved sound quality truly does something to make this song sound like it could have been recorded recently.
Then it gets complicated with the Aretha Franklin cover of Al Jolson’s “Swanee.” For all the academic writing about blackface, it seems pretty straightforward compared to what actual black musicians were doing at the time, and it is a real shame that there is such a cultural focus on it in the US. Swanee songs have always been particularly disturbing to me because I didn’t understand them for such a long time (Old South nostalgia is not really something that comes across in Northern Europe). But this version is all soul and gospel joy, and not creepy at all until you stop to think about it.
Lena Horne’s “Now” is probably the most overtly political song, telling the world to take action with regard to human rights to the tune of “Hava Nagila.”
Slim Gaillard’s “Dunkin Bagel” and Eartha Kitt’s “Sholem” are also signs of cultural mayhem, and both quite fun. “Dunkin Bagel” was a big audience hit for Slim, and it’s a marvelous and completely unique song, using Jewish foods as replacements for the Yiddish words that typified vaudeville songs. “Sholem” is either the logical insane result of the ’50s craze for multilingual songs, or a parody of the phenomenon, as Kitt names different types of greetings around the world, culminating in “Shalom Haleechem.” She learned a lot of Yiddish from her surroundings according to the press release, and this is also where she learned this religious song.
Full of funk and cheer, with an arrangement of “If I Were A Rich Man” Gwen Stefani can only dream of, even the Fiddler On The Roof medley by The Temptations is much better than seems possible, and not cheesy at all.
Doom and gloom are kept to a minimum in this compilation, but there are moments of spirituality. The Cannonball Adderly version of a Sabbath Prayer is dreamy instrumental blues, capturing the chanting nature of Hebrew prayer while making it swing. Billie Holiday’s “My Yiddishe Momme” has none of the original’s sentimentality but a whole new beauty and melancholy. It’s a bootleg recording, and it seems a real shame that she did not release this song “officially.” Her voice, like Nina Simone’s later on on the CD in “Eretz Zavatt Chalav,” seems particularly suited to the song and style.
The song that prompted the creation of the compilation, “Kol Nidre” by Johnny Mathis, is heartbreaking and soars with emotion and the sheer skill of Johnny Mathis’s singing. It is no wonder that it formed the inspiration for this, and it’s shocking that this recording has gone unnoticed for so long.
The first thing about this compilation I noticed was that the sound quality was amazing. This may have something to do with the fact that I know most of these songs from YouTube videos and low quality vinyl rips, but it sounds fantastic. Aside from the changes in song style and the names of the artists, it’s hard to tell the ages of the songs apart. They all might have been recorded yesterday.
Black Sabbath is a spectacular collection and one that definitely gets its point across. Aside from that, all the songs feel special. They are completely unique sounding, even though they appear on a themed compilation. This is extremely rare stuff in many ways; get it while you can.
Black Sabbath: The Secret History Of Black-Jewish Relations was released on September 14 and contains a deluxe booklet chock full of information. For more on the compilation and to find out how to order your own copy, please check out the Idelsohn Society’s website.