Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

San Francisco, CA, – 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. Open August 26, 2010 through March 22, 2011.

Based on the 2010 compilation soon to be released by the Idelsohn Society of 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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

About the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation

The Idelsohn Society is a critically-acclaimed all volunteer-run organization founded by Roger Bennett, Josh Kun, David Katznelson and Courtney Holt, a core 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.

The Idelsohn Society curated the Museum’s recent exhibition Jews on Vinyl, an exhibition based on their book And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost, which spans the history of Jewish recorded music from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Exhibition Sponsorship

Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations is organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum with guest curators Roger Bennett, Courtney Holt, Josh Kun, and David Katznelson.

About the Contemporary Jewish Museum
With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The new facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim” (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of the CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the 21st century.

Major support for the Contemporary Jewish Museum comes from the Koret and Taube Foundations; Jim Joseph Foundation; The Wallace Foundation; Bank of America; Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; Institute of Museum and Library Services; Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund; The Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation; Jewish Community Endowment Fund; Terra Foundation for American Art; Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; The Skirball Foundation; and Target. The Museum also receives major support from the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

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  1. sandy says:

    will an album be available to buy?

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