Black, Jewish musical cultures collide
A few months back, an album called “Black Sabbath” showed up on my desk. As a longtime fan of that legendary heavy metal band, I naturally took interest, especially as there was no mention of Ozzy Osbourne or even “Iron Man.”
Instead, the track list read like my great-grandmother’s favorite jams — a string of Yiddish songs, and a “Fiddler on the Roof” medley.
So what was going on?
The album, it turned out, is a collection of traditional Jewish songs, available to the public Sept. 14, as sung by a veritable who’s who of legendary black vocalists, highlighting, so say the liner notes, a “soundtrack to a rarely told American story” — the relationship between blacks and Jews in America.
The artists featured on the album are nothing short of impressive. Aretha Franklin appears, singing “Swanee.” Eartha Kitt wails through “Sholem” and Cannonball Adderley’s saxophone brightens “Sabbath Prayer.” Even The Temptations show up for the aforementioned, 10-minute “Fiddler on the Roof Medley.”
It’s an odd combination — at its oddest when Johnny Mathis applies his powerful voice to “Kol Nidre,” as if he’s the cantor at some swinging synagogue — but somehow, it works.
It’s a treat to hear some familiar voices take on some familiar songs, both familiar for completely different reasons. And luckily, the novelty doesn’t wear off after repeated listens, leaving an album full of weird, lost recordings. Instead, once you get over the shock of hearing Billie Holiday sing in Yiddish, you’re able to hear the beautiful subtleties in these songs.
No matter who’s singing, these are classics that many of us, as Jews, have grown up with. “Eretz Zavat Chalav” is a spirited sing-along on its own. Now add in the low, soulful voice of Nina Simone and some rolling drums and the song’s appeal has a new shine.
To understand the significance of this music, though, one can’t simply pop the CD in a player and press play. The liner notes of “Black Sabbath” give the album some important background, starting, not unintentionally, with a Ray Charles quote: “If someone besides a black ever sings the real gut bucket blues, it’ll be a Jew. We both know what it’s like to be someone else’s footstool.”
A history of oppression isn’t the only tie between Jews and blacks, of course, but it’s an obvious starting point. The album’s packaging includes several essays further illuminating this oft-forgotten cultural connection, and a read-through with this music playing will undoubtedly be an educational, and entertaining, experience. In that way, “Black Sabbath” may be best suited for those interested in the history of minority culture. But casual listeners will certainly find plenty to enjoy. The album is worth checking out just to hear The Temptations put “If I Were a Rich Man” to a funk beat, and truly make it swing.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)