Evening Standard/Hulton Archive
Black Sabbath chronicles black American artists who sang Jewish songs, including Johnny Mathis.
Black Sabbath chronicles black American artists who sang Jewish songs, including Johnny Mathis. Evening Standard/Hulton Archive
What do Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Johnny Mathis and Nina Simone all have in common? Besides stellar voices, they were among many black American artists who sang Jewish songs. This rarely told American story is chronicled on a new compilation called Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations, which uses music to connect these two seemingly disparate groups.
Simone's version of the biblically based "Eretz Zavat Chalav," in particular, spurred on Idelsohn Society for Music Preservation member Josh Kun to compile Black Sabbath.
"It was a song that [Nina Simone] heard not in Israel, but in the States," Kun says. "It was a song she [sang] at the height of the folk movement in the United States, but also in the heat of the civil rights movement. It was a song that she performed live onstage at Carnegie Hall. For me, when we were trying to put this together, it was a really good example of the way that the politics of Israel, of the Jewish search for a homeland, began to resonate with African-American artists in the U.S."
In an interview with NPR's Liane Hansen, Kun explains the Idelsohn Society and the stories behind the songs on Black Sabbath. The legendary vocalist Johnny Mathis also joins the conversation and explains why he chose to sing "Kol Nidre," one of the most beautiful and sacred pieces of the Jewish canon.