Happy Hanukkah to all who celebrate! For today’s Black Music Sunday, I’m featuring the collaboration of Black and Jewish musicians and songwriters. They’ve teamed up to create a lasting part of our musical history.
I grew up in Brooklyn in the late 1940s and 50s, in a neighborhood that was predominantly Orthodox Jewish. Yiddish was like a second language for me, and the celebration of Jewish holidays was as familiar to me as the Christian ones that my family hosted.
In previous, nonmusic stories, I’ve examined Jewish scholars escaping the Holocaust who wound up teaching at historically Black colleges, and have looked at Black Jews and the Black Panthers of Israel. Though these are not Hanukkah songs, in the spirit of the first night of the holiday, I’d like to highlight Yiddish and Hebrew songs found in swing, jazz, folk, mambo, and hip-hop—and the Black and Jewish musicians who performed them.
Like this Ella Fitzgerald tune, which got played frequently in our house since my mom’s favorite vocalist was Fitzgerald.
I didn’t think about the fact that “Bei Mir Bist Du Schöen” is Yiddish, meaning “to me, you are beautiful.” Nor did I know the fascinating history behind the tune, which has been documented by the Yiddish Radio Project.
The story of this tune’s stratospheric rise is as unlikely as that of Yiddish swing itself. “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” was composed by Sholom Secunda for a 1932 Yiddish musical that opened and closed in one season. Fast-forward to1937. Lyricist Sammy Cahn and pianist Lou Levy were catching a show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when two black performers called Johnnie and George took the stage singing “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” — in Yiddish. The crowd went wild. Cahn and Levy couldn’t believe their ears. Sensing a hit, Cahn convinced his employer at Warner Music to purchase the rights to the song from the Kammen Brothers, the twin-team music entrepreneurs who had bought the tune from Secunda a few years back for the munificent sum of $30.
Cahn gave “Bei Mir” a set of fresh English lyrics and presented it to a trio of Lutheran sisters whose orchestra leader, oddly enough named Vic Schoen, had a notion of how to swing it. The Andrews Sisters’ debut 78 rpm for the Decca label hit almost immediately. The era of Yiddish swing had begun.
Story Corps goes deeper into the story of Yiddish swing.
Yiddish swing. Jazz and klezmer. It may sound like an odd combination, but in late 1937 this mix of Old World and New took the music scene here and abroad by storm. The fad got its start when the Andrews Sisters, a young three-sibling act fresh from Minnesota, recorded an irresistible swing version of a forgotten Yiddish stage tune. “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen” (You Are Beautiful to Me) became an instantaneous hit, spawning an unending series of covers and, with them, a musical trend.
Within weeks, executives at New York’s WHN had created Yiddish Melodies in Swing, a weekly program dedicated to the new musical fusion. The talented pianist/composer Sam Medoff was hired to lead the show’s “Swingtet” and to arrange rollicking versions of traditional Jewish folk and klezmer tunes like “Dayenu,” “Eli Meylakh,” and “Yidl Mitn Fidl.”
You can hear the entire program below.
Much to my surprise, this version of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schöen” by tenor saxophone player Booker Ervin, recorded in 1966, opens like a melancholy dirge before shifting into hardcore swinging be-bop.
I didn’t have to look very hard for other songs from Jewish traditions that were adopted by Black artists. Harry Belafonte, known for his appreciation and explorations of world music, performed “Hine Ma Tov” in the 1950s, and included it on his 1960 concert album, Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall.
“Hinneh mah Tov umah naʿiym sheveth aḥiym gam yaḥadh” Its lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133, which reads, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
Here’s Belafonte performing “Hine Ma Tov” in 1959.
Belafonte also was a frequent performer of “Hava Nagila,” which Dr. James Loeffler discusses for My Jewish Learning, in the aptly titled “Hava Nagila’s Long, Strange Trip.”
In the 1950s, Hava Nagila began to attract the attention of well-known non-Jewish performers in the United States. This was the era in which American popular singers began to perform folk songs from around the world. Along with Italian, Calypso, and other ethnic pop song hits, performers turned to Hava Nagila.
Cuban-born mambo legend Machito and his Afro-Cuban Orchestra was one such example. His 1951 recording of Hava Nagila as “Holiday Mambo” made the tune into a dance hit. Dick Dale, the Californian king of the surf guitar, scored a popular hit with his 1963 version of the song (as well as his equally famous 1962 cover of “Misirlou.”) But perhaps the non-Jewish musician who did the most to make Hava Nagila into a mainstream cultural favorite was international pop star Harry Belafonte. In the 1950s, Belafonte used Hava Nagila as his regular closing number because of its uplifting melody and hopeful, brotherly lyrics.
Belafonte joined Danny Kaye on his television show for a 1965 duet.
As mentioned by Dr. Loeffler above, “Hava Nagila” became “Holiday Mambo” in the hands of the great Afro-Cuban bandleader Machito.
While searching YouTube for even more versions of “Hava Nagila,” I discovered Nissim Black. I admit it: At age 74, with no kids around the house, I’m not au courant with current music, despite the best efforts of my editor. (Editor’s note: Sigh. I try.)
So I had zero clue about Black. But I found out.
This Today Show interview from June gives the basics of Black’s story: He talks about growing up in Seattle, his parents who were involved in hip-hop, his involvement with crime and drug-selling as a kid, and his discovery of religion. Black was raised Muslim, then converted to Christianity before embracing Judaism.
Black was also profiled in The Guardian in a 2018 story by Robert Sherwood. He discussed the key turning point in his life:
After his mother died from an overdose, aged 37, Black launched his own independent label. “It started to make a buzz. It spread very fast.” It was at this point that the violent stand-off occurred with a rival. Seeking a more spiritual path, he turned to his local synagogue.
“The more I searched, the more I found I was lacking authenticity. At the root of Christianity and Islam, I found Judaism. I had a fiery, burning passion to join the Jewish people.”
Black released “The Hava Song” last year last December, on his 34th birthday.
Hava nagila I’m breathing, hava nagila we even
Got a Mazel Tov for the game, but I really do the thang
Dance homey, G-d’s only, G-d’s man how they know me
Call me NIS in the street’s, but we nobel like peace
I ain’t tryna hurt nobody, we just came here to party
Like it’s 59.99, they gone see us in our prime
Big house coming down, from thе sky to the crowd
We gon’ sing it out loud, Black, Jewish, and I’m proud
Ain’t a political man, ain’t no political stancе
But when the beat knock I jam, and I got that Hava in hand
Rikud when the beat smooth, 16’s on a sweet tune
Fast-forward then I rerun it, then I get down how we move
“Hava Nagila” has indeed come a long way, as Yiddish and Hebrew have flowed into swing, jazz, folk, mambo, and yes, hip-hop.
With that, Hanukkah sameach to those who are celebrating, and to those who aren’t, well … just enjoy the music!