Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(Soundbite of song, "Eretz Zavat Chalav")

Ms. NINA SIMONE (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) Eretz zavat chalav u'd'vash. Eretz zavat...

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This song, based on Biblical verses, was composed by an Israeli folk musician in the early 1950s. The Hebrew lyrics celebrate a land flowing with milk and honey. This cover version was recorded in the late 1960s by Nina Simone.

(Soundbite of song, "Eretz Zavat Chalav")

HANSEN: Simone was just one of many black American artists who sang Jewish songs. The Idelsohn Society for Music Preservation has just released a CD collection called "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations."

One of the famous singers on the CD will join us in a moment. But first, to Josh Kun, who is a member of the society and wrote the liner notes, and he's at NPR West. Welcome to the program.

Professor JOSH KUN (Co-Founder, Idelsohn Society): Thank you so much for having me.

HANSEN: This is a very exuberant Nina Simone. I mean, it's really not the kind of Nina Simone Im used to listening to. What were the circumstances of this recording?

Prof. KUN: It was a song that she heard - not in Israel, but in the States. And -was a song she decided, really at the height of the folk movement in the United States, but also in the heat of the, you know, the civil rights movement, was a song that she performed live, onstage, at Carnegie Hall. And for me, when we were trying to put this entire album together, it was a really good example of the way that - kind of the politics of Israel, of the Jewish search for a homeland, began to resonate for African-American artists in the U.S.

HANSEN: Tell us what the Idelsohn Society is.

Prof. KUN: We are a non-profit record label and online archive that is dedicated to excavating lost gems of American-Jewish music, in order to unleash new ways of telling American-Jewish history.

HANSEN: It's been described as four Dumpster-diving record collectors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KUN: Or there's that, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: So there's only four members in this society.

Prof. KUN: Correct.

HANSEN: And you're always looking for...

Prof. KUN: Yeah, we really spend most of our times in thrift stores and garage sales, and really are trying to bring back lost recordings.

(Soundbite of song, "Dunkin' Bagel")

Mr. SLIM GALLIARD (Singer/Musician/Dancer): (Singing) Dunkin' bagel. Dunkin' bagel. Dunkin' bagel. Smash, in the coffee. Dunkin' bagel. Dunkin' bagel. Dunkin' bagel. Smash, in the coffee...

HANSEN: This is a recording that was made in 1945. Who was Slim Galliard?

Prof. KUN: Well, he was one of the great early blues, R&B and jazz, jive experimentalists. He sang in a language that he often called Vout or O'Rooney, which is a language that - if you listen closely - has little, teeny, tiny bits of Japanese and Spanish, and once in while even a little bit of Yiddish.

(Soundbite of song, "Dunkin' Bagel")

Mr. GALLIARD: (Singing) Matzah balls. Matsoboutsiereenie. Gefilte fish. Ah, Gefilte fish O'Voutie. Pickled Herrings. Ah, pickled herrivoonie. Macarootie. Ah, not so rooty.

Prof. KUN: Yiddish found its way into many songs by African-American artists. Cab Calloway is also featured.

HANSEN: So what does that tell you, then? I mean, this collection is all about the relationship between African-Americans and Jews. What does it tell you about that relationship at this point in time?

Prof. KUN: Well, I think it told us perhaps two things. And one was that a number of black performers had very close relationships with their Jewish managers, who helped to teach them Yiddish; that was the Cab Calloway story.

But also I think that particularly in cities like New York and Los Angeles, there were so many Jews and immigrant Jews in the music industry as players, for example, who were in bands with black artists and who were exchanging languages and telling jokes to each other. And maybe you didnt know a lot of Yiddish but you knew a few good lines and you would pass it on to your friends, and it would make kind of, you know, it would make its way into the urban lexicon.

HANSEN: Our next song, which was composed to the tune "Hava Nagila," is sung here by Lena Horne.

(Soundbite of song, "Hava Nagila")

Ms. LENA HORNE (Singer): (Singing) Now is the moment. Now is the moment. Come on, we've put it off long enough. Now...

HANSEN: Lena Horne actually traveled to Israel in 1952, when the nation was quite young, and she was taken by what was going on there. And then it really changed her politically.

Prof. KUN: Absolutely. I mean, she writes about going to Israel, not only being kind of swept up - as many African-American artists were - by the energy and the idea of the foundation of a new nation for people who have been wandering and oppressed, but taken up particularly with seeing Yemenite children and seeing the kind of, you know, the racial diversity within Israel itself, and coming back renewed in a kind of political mission and musical mission in the U.S.

HANSEN: Im speaking with Josh Kun about the new recording "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations." The CD ends on a prayer for Yom Kippur.

(Soundbite of song, "Kol Nidre")

Mr. JOHNNY MATHIS (Singer): (Singing) Kol Nidre veesore vacharome. V'konome...

HANSEN: This singer is one you've heard in many musical settings during his long and successful career, Johnny Mathis - who joins the conversation now from NPR West. Welcome back to the program, Mr. Mathis.

Mr. MATHIS: Thank you very much, nice to be back.

HANSEN: This is one of the most beautiful and sacred pieces of the Jewish canon. What moved you to record it? What were the circumstances?

Mr. MATHIS: As I started to record songs that were a little bit out of the ordinary, I did a lot of Christmas music. And I got to meet Percy Faith and Mitch Miller, who are of Jewish faith. And they suggested that along with some of the religious music that I had chosen to record, I should maybe do something in Hebrew.

HANSEN: It says in the liner notes that the track today - when you hear it - it's the realization of a very young man beginning a career with the inspiration and guidance of the wonderful Percy Faith.

Mr. MATHIS: Yes. Percy was very instrumental in my career. I met him very early on, and he was a guiding light for me. Along the way, I've met so many people who have encouraged me and helped me. Percy was right at the top.

HANSEN: Did this challenge you, vocally?

Mr. MATHIS: Emotionally...

HANSEN: Ah.

Mr. MATHIS: I think I was concerned about how far to go. But I loved the enthusiasm that I had as a youngster, to sing this music.

HANSEN: Josh Kun, I want to bring you back into the conversation. I imagine when you and the other members of the Idelsohn Society for Music Preservation heard Johnny Mathis recording of this Yom Kippur prayer, did you feel as though you had struck gold?

Prof. KUN: Well, I think, like Mr. Mathis said, our reaction was so emotional. I mean, we heard this, and we were both kind of stunned by the sheer beauty of it. It really was the record that set us off on the quest to start gathering these songs that appear on this album.

HANSEN: Johnny Mathis, I have read that once Josh Kun and others heard this, they sought you out. I imagine that phone call when someone said: Mr. Mathis, do you remember that record you did when you were 23?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATHIS: Absolutely, and I was thrilled. Over the years, I've recorded so much music - and some of it a little trite, and some of it was beautiful. But these songs, as most of the holiday songs that I've recorded in the Christmas album, when I did the religious album, I did it with reverence for my mom and my dad - who were great, great people, in my estimation, raising seven children on domestic wages, and giving us all the love and inspiration that we needed - and that I needed to start a career.

So I was really adamant about this project that we're doing, and thrilled when someone came up and said that we want to do something with this particular recording. And I was crying - absolute crying, yeah. And Josh, thanks again for discovering it.

(Soundbite of song, "Kol Nidre")

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing)

HANSEN: The CD is called "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations. Josh Kun, of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, joined us from NPR West. Thank you.

Prof. KUN: Thank you so much.

HANSEN: And appearing on the CD is the one of music's smoothest crooners, Johnny Mathis. He also joined us from NPR West. Thank you.

Mr. MATHIS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Kol Nidre")

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing)

To hear Jewish songs sung by Johnny Mathis and Nina Simone, visit NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: