Black Sabbath: The secret musical history of black-Jewish relations at the CJM

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David Katznelson found “Dunkin’ Bagel” while Dumpster diving.

No, he wasn’t crawling around in a metal trash bin behind Saul’s Deli. That’s just the term he uses to describe his method of finding rare LPs, 78s and 45s.

Hounding used record shops and garage sales, Katznelson has come across some vinyl gems, but few excited him like this one, recorded in 1945 by the Slim Gaillard Quartet.

A former Detroit bootlegger, Gaillard was an African American hipster famous for his hit “Flat Foot Floogie” as well as other cool and crazy jazz tunes.

One of them was performed in Yiddish, or at least his version of it. “Dunkin’ Bagel” is a jive-addled stomper sung in a kind of pidgin Yinglish, with “gefilte fish” and “matzah balls” thrown in the lyrics for good measure.

Katznelson had long known of Jewish musicians – from Al Jolson to Matisyahu – adopting black musical styles. This case was the inverse. Here he’d found a black artist exploring Jewish musical idioms. A music industry veteran and director of outreach for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the San Francisco native wondered if Gaillard was the only one.

Turned out he wasn’t. Katznelson and his colleagues at the New York–based Idelsohn Society of Music Preservation have tracked down a trove of recordings spanning several decades, all featuring black musicians performing Jewish or Jewish-influenced music.

(The society is named for Abraham Idelsohn, the early 20th century musicologist thought to be the man who wrote the lyrics to “Hava Negillah.”)

Billie Holiday

The Idelsohn Society culled the best of the best, produced a CD (to be released in October) and created the exhibition “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations.” It opened this week for a seven-month run at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Like the Idelsohn Society’s “Jews on Vinyl” project that premiered at the CJM last year, “Black Sabbath” is a multimedia affair. Visitors to the museum’s Yud space find it decked out like a 1940s nightclub. Listening stations sport iPads playing the “Black Sabbath” selections, while images of the musicians are projected onscreen.

Some of those artists, like Gaillard and singer Libby Holman, are more obscure. Others rank among the best-known names in popular music: Aretha Franklin, Lena Horn, Nina Simone and Cab Calloway.

There are plenty of surprises in the “Black Sabbath” exhibition and CD: Billie Holiday singing “My Yiddishe Momme” in a rare home recording. The Temptations performing a medley from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Johnny Mathis, sounding better than some cantors, belting out “Kol Nidre” in the original Aramaic (see accompanying story).

And legendary blues songstress Alberta Hunter singing –– are you ready for this? –– the popular ballad “Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Lieba.” In the original Yiddish. With a darn good accent.

Cab Calloway photo/carl van vechten

“It seems out of the blue when you approach it from the outside,” Katznelson says of the “Black Sabbath” tracks. “When you look at it on a grander level you see musicians going out into the world. With assimilation there came a blending of cultures.”

Museum executive director Connie Wolf is happy to welcome the Idelsohn Society back to her institution. She thinks this exhibition is just as thought-provoking as “Jews on Vinyl.”

“To imagine [African American artists] singing these Jewish songs is startling,” she says, “and it makes you experience afresh these communities coming together. That is what makes culture survive: learning to adapt and absorb and create something new.”

Josh Kun, a University of Southern California professor and an Idelsohn Society co-founder, says he cannot imagine American pop music without the blending of black and Jewish cultures.

“No Tin Pan Alley, no jazz, no rock ’n’ roll,” he sums up. “There have been many books and albums that emphasize the Jewish relationship to black music, but the stories less frequently told were how black artists responded to the Jews. Was Jewish music rubbing off on black music? We found a bounty of evidence that indeed that happened.”

The 15 tracks on “Black Sabbath” do cover a lot of ground. Cab Calloway’s  1939 “Utt Da Zay” (This Is How) has a juicy “Minnie the Moocher” vibe going for it, but it isn’t his only Yiddishized song.

Aretha Franklin photo/ap

Calloway’s discography includes tunes such as “Tzotskele” (My Darling) and “A Bee Gezindt” (sample lyric: “I’m hinky-dink, a solid sender/ A very close friend to Mrs. Bender/ Bender, schmender, a bee gezindt…”) The aforementioned “Minnie the Moocher” –– the first No. 1 record for a black artist –– boasts Cab’s trademark “hi-de-his” and “oy-oy-oys,” incanted in a Hebraic melodic minor (probably picked up from his manager, a Russian Jewish immigrant).

Eartha Kitt, best known as Catwoman in the “Batman” TV series from the 1960s, was a singer of sultry standards. Who knew in 1959 she recorded the traditional “Sholem Alecheim,” sounding like a badchan at a Jewish wedding?

Several “Black Sabbath” tracks feature black artists performing standards written by Jewish composers, such as Aretha Franklin singing George Gershwin’s “Swanee” or Johnny Hartman crooning Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic.”

Those sorts of covers were common, considering so many Jews worked on Tin Pan Alley. Even the Temptations bopping to “If I Were a Rich Man” made its own kind of sense in 1969.

More striking are the straight-up Jewish songs adapted by black artists: Nina Simone with “Eretz Zavat Chalav” (Land of Milk and Honey) or Marlena Shaw’s take on “Where Can I Go,” written by Holocaust survivor Sigmunt Berland about the Jewish people finding a homeland.

Kun says that track points up “the role of the birth of Israel on black political consciousness. It becomes for a moment, for many African Americans, a model of social justice being realized, of migratory homeless people getting a home.”

Beyond social theories, there are some sound musical explanations for the fascination Jewish and black artists had for each other’s music.

David Katznelson

Kun notes that much has been made of the similarities between gospel and cantorial singing, and that certain strains of East European klezmer can sound a lot like African American blues.

That connection is obvious when comparing early New Orleans Dixieland to up-tempo klezmer.

While it’s tempting to view this musical alliance as a “Kumbaya” moment between two victimized peoples, Kun says the history of blacks and Jews, musically and otherwise, is “super messy.”

The two dueling narratives come down on clichéd lines: Jews marching arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr., or the wicked Jewish slumlord preying on poor ghetto dwellers.

“It’s been often joyous and politically utopian, and just as often exploitative and full of contention,” he says. “There are tons of tales of less-than-pleasant business dealings, and also tales of deep and tireless advocacy.”

Josh Kun

While materials included in the exhibition do not shy away from the seamier side of the history, “Black Sabbath” accentuates the positive.

“We share so much,” says Wolf. “We share our connection to literature and music, the oral tradition. So much that overlaps. I see this as an opportunity to talk about the positive side of these interactions.”

Kun sees music as a window that looks onto the bigger stories. In this case, he says, “Black Sabbath” can shed light on the history of two inextricably linked peoples.

The exhibition is about “the idea of music as a way of living through sadness and turning sadness into joy. Both traditions tap into that.”

“Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations” runs through March 22, 2011 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. (415) 655-7800 or thecjm.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.