The Secret Musical History Of... 'Black Sabbath'? 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 titled Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations..

The Secret Musical History Of... 'Black Sabbath'?

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M: (Singing) Eretz zavat chalav u'd'vash. Eretz zavat...


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.


HANSEN: 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.

P: 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 I'm used to listening to. What were the circumstances of this recording?

P: 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.

P: 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.


P: Or there's that, yes.


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

P: Correct.

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

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


M: (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?

P: Well, he was one of the great early blues, R 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.


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

P: 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?

P: 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 didn't 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.


M: (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.

P: 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: I'm 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.


M: (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.

M: 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?

M: 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.

M: 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?

M: Emotionally...


M: 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?

P: 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?


M: 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.


M: (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.

P: 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.

M: Thank you.


M: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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