Black-Jewish history, lived through music

Dikla Tuchman, Jewish Sound Correspondent

Seattle has arguably been experiencing a Jewish musical revival, seen primarily in the form of klezmer music injected into local folk groups and the popularity of musicians like Nissim, bringing a hip-hop message of the Jewish–African-American experience.

USC ethnomusicologist Josh Kun.

USC ethnomusicologist Josh Kun.

In line with this current trend, Los Angeles musical scholar Josh Kun will visit Seattle on April 6 to present his project, “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black Jewish Relations” for the Stroum Jewish Community Center’s Jewish Touch series.

“Black Sabbath” is the first compilation to ever showcase legendary African-American artists covering Jewish songs. With a focus on the 1930s through the ’60s, “Black Sabbath” uses popular music to illuminate the historical, political, spiritual, economic and cultural connections between African Americans and Jewish Americans. This compilation features quintessential African-American musical artists such as Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne and Cab Calloway. In the same vein as Nissim’s musical message, “Black Sabbath” attempts to explore the myriad ways that Jews and African Americans have struggled against each other and struggled alongside each other.

The University of Southern California associate professor of communication and journalism points out that “Black Sabbath” is a good example of how we approach our work across a variety of platforms: An album, an exhibit, live performances, and online video histories of veteran performers.

“We knew all about the well-documented history of Black-Jewish relations in the U.S., but were struck by just how much that history focused on the Jewish participation in African-American music and not on the inverse,” said Kun.

He pointed to a recording of “Kol Nidre” by Johnny Mathis, which he called the spark that opened up a the floodgates to artists from Nina Simone to Franklin, and revealed new perspectives on music’s role in the civil rights movement.

“In my research as a scholar and in my work as part of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, I’ve looked mostly at musical exchanges between Jews, Latinos, and African-Americans,” Kun said. “We’ve been mostly interested in the more untold stories of Jewish-American culture and music.”

Kun explains that the next project for the Idelsohn Society will focus on how a particular chain of Jewish-American women, from the 1930s-’70s, used music and musical comedy as a way of pushing the boundaries of sex and gender norms — a kind of Jewish burlesque feminism.

“Black Sabbath” will be presented on Sunday, April 6 at 2 p.m. at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island. Cost for the event is $8 for SJCC members, seniors and students $12 general admission.

“Black Sabbath” will be presented on Sunday, April 6 at 2 p.m. at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island. Cost for the event is $8 for SJCC members, seniors and students $12 general admission.

Music was an important piece of Kun’s experience growing up, his childhood home always filled with music, especially the songs of the Weavers. Their “approach to music, radical politics and internationalism…left an indelible mark on how I listen to music,” he said.

“Music has always been a central part of my life and has always played a powerful role in shaping how I see the world and my place in it,” Kun said. “More than anything, my sense of what Jewish means came from listening to records and being able, in private, to figure out where I fit — if I fit— in all the stories and histories I inherited.”

Kun’s talk mixes storytelling and history with rare audio and video footage to bring the “Black Sabbath” story to life.

“My hope is that the audience will revisit the musical past with me as part of a larger hope that it at least does a little work in changing the way we think about questions of race and culture in American life,” he said.