Let’s begin by noting that Black Sabbath the CD I am reviewing has nothing to do with either the band, Black Sabbath, or any of its vocalist front men: not Ozzy, not Ronnie, not any of the others. This Black Sabbath is a compilation of songs related to Judaism in one way or another by a variety of African-American artists. Thus what you’ve got is black and Sabbath, or Black Sabbath.
The roster of artists includes well known jazz and pop singers like Billie Holiday, The Temptations, and Johnny Mathis, as well some lesser known performers, like Johnny Hartman and Marlena Shaw. They sing in Yiddish; they sing in Hebrew, and they sing in English. The songs come from the Yiddish theater and the Broadway stage, as well as from Tin Pan Alley and Jewish folk traditions. But in nearly all cases the musicians make the music their own, sometimes so much their own as to be jarring to the listener familiar with the traditional versions.
Marlena Shaw’s rendition of “Where Can I Go” for example uses upbeat Latin rhythms which seem to work against the song lyric’s passionate plea for a homeland for those oppressed in the Diaspora. While the song does end with the promise of a homeland, the happy danceable beginning seems out of place. Lena Horne’s “Now!” takes the Israeli folk standard, “Hava Nagila” and transforms it into a demand for equal rights. While there is no quarrel with the sentiment, it’s militancy seems alien to this classic expression of rejoicing. The Temptations’ Fiddler on the Roof medley does some funky things with the rhythms of “If I Was a Rich Man” and the harmonies they use for “Sunrise, Sunset” turn a beautiful melody into something eerily discordant. In general the arrangements of all the songs in the medley are enough askew to annoy anyone who loves the originals.
On the other hand, Cab Calloway’s “Utt Da Zay” which begins with very traditional sounding pseudo-chanting and then morphs into some vintage jive with a Yiddish touch makes something exciting out of what is essentially an ephemeral pop novelty song. Eartha Kitt’s “Sholem,” her version of the traditional religious anthem “Shalom Aleichem,” captures its spirit of fervent joy, even discounting her characteristic spoken interpolations. Alberta Hunter’s impassioned “Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Leiba” is a beautiful take in both Yiddish and English of the oft recorded classic, usually translated “I Love You Much Too Much.” The Cannonball Adderly Sextet’s “Sabbath Prayer” featuring Nat Adderly’s cornet is an eloquent jazz interpretation of the Fiddler on the Roof ballad.
But it is Johnny Mathis and his bravura rendition of the opening prayer of the evening service for Yom Kippur, “Kol Nidre” which is the highlight of the album. He could easily have been mistaken for a traditional cantor, chanting the High Holy Day services on the altar of your local synagogue. It is a performance that you would probably never expect from the man who crooned “Chances Are” and “It’s Not For Me to Say.” It is a performance that captures the spirit of the prayer with dignity and passion.
Aside from the aesthetic interest in these explorations of Jewish themes by African-Americans, part of the CD’s intention is to “shed light on the historical, political, spiritual, economic, and cultural connections” between them and Jewish-Americans. Both cast as outsiders in the country that had become their homeland, they faced many of the same problems of discrimination and alienation. Though their relations were sometimes awkward and complex, it is not strange that they should find some kinship in each other’s artistic accomplishments. After all Jewish-Americans were equally as much inclined to put their own stamp on the African-American experience and their music, if not more so. George Gershwin, represented on this album by Aretha Franklin’s “Swanee,” built his career on the representation; some would argue the misrepresentation, of the black experience.
Then, of course, there were all those Jewish singers who performed in black face. Today we find that kind of thing offensive, and even in that era, it was more than likely an attempt to capitalize on a cultural stereotype, still in some way it must also indicate a kind of admiration and respect. After all, a singer, like Al Jolson, wasn’t donning black face to ridicule.
Cultural interaction goes both ways. While one or two of the tracks on Black Sabbath miss the mark, most are an important record of an African-American perspective on the Jewish-American experience as well as a compelling performance in their own right. You only have to hear Billie Holiday’s brilliant soulful interpretation of “My Yiddishe Momme” or the understated passion of Jimmy Hartman’s “Exodus” to understand the connections they felt with what the material represented and how they capture it in performance.