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For Blacks And Jews, A Musical Gray Area

For Blacks And Jews, A Musical Gray Area

Collection featuring black musicians singing Jewish songs masks a complicated cultural relationship.

In 1958, when Johnny Mathis was recording an album of African-American spirituals in homage to his black mother, he included a seemingly odd song: “Kol Nidre,” the centerpiece of the Yom Kippur service and perhaps the holiest of all Jewish prayers.


“Spiritual music is all about emotion,” Mathis, 75, told The Jewish Week in a phone interview last week from his home in Los Angeles. “If you can bring the emotion to the music, then that’s what you’re looking for.” He added, “‘Kol Nidre’ is just a big, big emotional outpouring.”

Mathis first heard cantorial music growing up in San Francisco, where many of his friends were Jewish. And when it came time to record an album of spiritual music, he could not resist including a version of “Kol Nidre.”

Many of the backup singers and producers at his label, Columbia, were Jewish, and he asked them for help tracking down recordings of the prayer so he could rehearse. They brought in several, giving him pointers, too. “Everyone had an idea about my [Hebrew] pronunciation,” he said. But in the end, he relied on his musical instincts.

“It was done in a rather innocent way,” he said. “I wasn’t even aware that what I was singing was Hebrew and not Yiddish.”

The recorded version was featured on a 1958 album, “Good Night, Dear Lord,” one of the few Mathis albums that did not sell well. And few would have remembered it had the Jewish nonprofit record label, The Idelsohn Society, not reissued it last month.

On a new compilation of black musicians singing Jewish songs, titled “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations,” Mathis is one of 15 musicians performing Jewish songs, few of them ever heard. Others include Nina Simone singing “Eretz Zavat Chalav,” an Israeli folk song; Billie Holiday performing “My Yiddishe Momme” and Cab Calloway doing “Utta Da Zay,” a spoof on shtetl life.

It is tempting to view the album as a celebration of black-Jewish bonhomie. But the album’s producers insist that it is just as much about exposing deep-seated tensions. Black musicians did not necessarily sing Jewish music because they felt a mutual connection or shared sense of suffering. They often did so to entertain a Jewish audience or Jewish producer.

“Not every version of cross-cultural appropriation is necessarily a testament to solidarity,” said Josh Kun, a co-founder of The Idelsohn Society, although he added that “‘Black Sabbath’” points to moments of celebration and identification [as much as it does] to the fraught relations.

A case in point is the Yiddish song “Eli, Eli,” based on King David’s Psalm 22. Before it became a staple for black musicians from Paul Robeson to Duke Ellington, it was standard fare for Jewish musicians on the Lower East Side.

Close proximity lent itself to musical appropriation. And at the same time that Jews were reworking black music — in short, the history of Broadway, where Jewish songwriters riffed on black spirituals — black musicians began performing Jewish songs. Sometimes it was out of respect, other times out of naïvete. But sometimes it was done with spite.

That is why Ethel Waters, for whom “Eli, Eli” was a staple, could say both that the song “tells the tragic story of the Jews as much as one song can … I felt I was telling the story of my own race, too.” But also: “Jewish people in every town seemed to love the idea of me singing their song. They crowded the theaters to hear it, and they would tell one another, ‘The schvartze sings ‘Eli, Eli!’ The schvartze!”

Though the complicated, often painful back-story is discussed in detail on the album’s liner notes, as well as the website (, some argue the essential product, a music album, cannot do the topic justice.

“There’s a real breakdown between the liner notes and the music that [the producers] include,” said Jeffrey Melnick, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and author of “A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song” (Harvard University Press). “In the liner notes, they’re trying to get at the complicated nature of it. But the music itself doesn’t really bear that out.”

Kun doesn’t entirely disagree. “That’s a good point. There aren’t really any songs that” evince the more troubling history, he said. “That said, I deal with those critiques from the very first paragraph of liner notes.”

Which is true. The opening paragraph discusses the case of the black blues singer Alberta Hunter doing a version of “Ich Hib Dich Tzufil Lib,” a popular Yiddish song. Even stranger, she sang it on the nationally televised “Dick Cavett Show,” in 1979.

On the show, Cavett asked her about the origins of her song. After telling him that she learned it on a trip to Jerusalem, she mentioned a story about Sophie Tucker. A renowned Jewish blues singer in her own right, who also used to perform in blackface, Tucker had once asked to borrow one of Hunter’s own songs.

But Tucker had her black maid send the request. And Hunter refused, recalling to Cavett: “Sophie, as good as she was, would never sing the blues like a Negro. And that’s not boasting. You see Sophie Tucker hasn’t suffered like we’ve suffered.”

Many of the songs have more benign histories too, of course. And it is often the case that what to one black performer felt like appeasement to a Jewish audience, to another, felt like an expression of mutual understanding. Or perhaps, the origins of some songs were purely accidental.

For instance, Louis Armstrong’s famous song “Heebie Jeebies,” one of the earliest known recordings of scat singing, was said to be inspired by Jewish prayers. Armstrong once worked for a Lithuanian Jewish family in New Orleans (the Karnofskys are believed to have bought him his first trumpet), and later told Cab Calloway that his scat singing was inspired by, as Calloway remember it, “the Jews rockin’, [by that] he meant davening.”

The album itself has its own back-story as well. It starts with The Idelsohn Society’s discovery of Mathis’ “Kol Nidre” a few years ago. Roger Bennett, another co-founder of The Idelsohn Society, said that he was sent the album after the success of their earlier reissue “Bagel and Bongos,” a recording of Latin music, played in the Catskills, by the forgotten Jewish musician Irving Fields.

“Bagels and Bongos” made the label something of a media darling, and the attention resulted in record collectors around the country shipping in rare vinyl records by the dozen. “We had hundreds and hundreds of albums sent to us when we started the archives,” Bennett said.

The organization received Mathis’ 1958 recording not long after, but it wanted to say something new about the find. After doing research, Idelsohn’s founders, who also include David Katznelson and Courtney Holt, felt that the story of Jews appropriating black music was well known. But the story of blacks performing Jewish music was not.

“It wasn’t like there was just one song, there were many of these,” said Holt.

In fact, the 15 songs on the album are just a fraction of the dozens more the founders collected. The group’s website, as well as an iPhone application, includes many of the songs not included in the CD. And so does as a recently opened exhibit now running at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

But it was Mathis who set them off. And when the founders called Mathis to see if he’d give the rights to re-release “Kol Nidre,” he did not hesitate.

“I was absolutely over the moon when these four gentleman contacted me,” Mathis said. “I had them come over my house, and they explained to me what they were doing. It reminded me of another part of my life,” he added. “I was just thrilled.”

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