It sounds like a novelty recording; African-American recording stars performing traditional Jewish music, popular hits written by Jews, and a Jewish show tune. Scheduled for a September 14 release, the punnily titled Black Sabbath is a compilation of music designed to “explore the myriad ways that Jews and African-Americans have coalesced and clashed, struggled against each other and struggled alongside each other.”
There is something ironic about Aretha Franklin’s take on Al Jolson’s hit, “Swanee,” and odd about Billie Holiday singing “My Yiddishe Momme.” The Temptations medley of songs from Fiddler on the Roof is…hmmm…bizarre (although it wouldn’t be surprising if Temptations fans love it). The Slim Gaillard Quartet’s “Dunkin’ Bagel” is a questionable entry, and the Lena Horne song “Now!” takes Hava Nagila and turns it into a plea for equality, but the combination is just weird.
Johnny Mathis performs an impressively respectful rendition of the sacred “Kol Nidre,” a song for the most solemn Holy Day. Mathis is quoted as saying, “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. They helped me learn these songs long before I recorded them.”
The recordings featured are from the 1930s through the 1960s, although it’s not clear what was “secret” about these selections. They are not the songs most frequently associated with these artists, but most singers have recorded songs that are all but forgotten. The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation may have the best of intentions, however there is something discomfiting about a collection based on one ethnic group performing the songs of another. While an album titled “Patrick O’Shaughnessy Sings Italian Hits” does not seem inappropriate, one titled “Caucasians Do Chinese” (or any other ethnic group) just seems wrong. Perhaps I should take that back, since I can imagine an alt-rock or punk group calling themselves “Caucasians Do Chinese.”
Black Sabbath is entertaining, but not especially memorable. It doesn’t reveal anything about interracial relations, other than that music doesn’t observe borders and boundaries. Also featured on the CD are Cab Calloway, Jimmy Scott, Cannonball Adderly, and Nina Simone. The release includes a “deluxe booklet.”
Bottom Line: Would I buy Black Sabbath? I don’t think so. It’s an uneven mix of good, goofy, and peculiar.
“I’d give the world to be
Among the folks in
D-I-X-I-Even now my mammy’s
Waiting for me
Praying for me
Down by the Swanee” – George Gershwin
In 1920, “Swanee” became Gershwin’s all-time best-selling composition. It stayed on the charts for eighteen week (nine at number one), sold a million sheet copies and an estimated two million records. “Swanee” is covered by Aretha Franklin on Black Sabbath –The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations, a presentation of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation. This organization passionately believes “Jewish history is best told by the music we have loved and lost.”
This compilation consists of fifteen tracks of Jewish songs (from the 1930s through the 1960s) performed by African-American artists. The purpose of this project is to use “popular music to shed light on the historical, political, spiritual, economic, and cultural connections between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans.”
As a Louisiana (Dixie) native and long-time fan of Aretha, her rendition of “Swanee” was a show-stopper for me. Cab Calloway’s “Utt Da Zay” (that’s the way) was simply delightful and brought a quick smile. Fifteen artists offer up a variety of Jewish songs from the traditional “My Yiddishe Momme” (Billie Holiday), to popular “That Old Black Magic” (Johnny Hartman), to the religious “Sabbath Prayer” (Cannonball Adderley). The Temptations perform a medley from Fiddler on the Roof and Johnny Mathis closes with the prayer song, “Kol Nidre”.
Both members of a famous sports/interracial friendship would be pleased. Bill Russell and Red Auerbach set a great example that dates back to 1956. As Cab Calloway ad libs before a really cool scat, “Are you hip to this jive I’m laying on you?”