How a century-old recording revealed the lost world of African-American cantors
In over 40 years of working with historic sound recordings, there has only been one record in which I had an irresistible burning interest and passionate curiosity to hear but one which a) no one had or b) had never even heard of: a single June, 1923 OKeh session credited to a Thomas LaRue billed as "Der Shvartzer Khazn/The Black Cantor."
I knew about this recording because in the mid-1970s, famed discographer/music historian Dick Spottswood had come to New York to begin work on what would becoming his monumental 7-volume Ethnic Music On Records 1897-1942 (EMOR) a listing of every foreign language record made in the US between 1895 and 1942. Dick invited me to join in his research on the Jewish records and, over the next few years, cataloged some five thousand entries, including the LaRue titles.
For the next four decades, while quietly (but fruitlessly) searching for this recording, I slowly built a dossier of period news articles, advertisements, reviews, all of which revealed a heretofore wholly forgotten moment in Jewish and African-American cultural symbiosis.
And then recently -- quietly -- the recording turned up enabling me to finally scratch a decades old itch and, at last, to tell this amazing and long obscured story.
A moment in african-american jewry 1920s-1930s
The Moorish Zionist Temple, Harlem (Photograph: James van der Zee, 1929)
The first few decades of the 20th century saw the rise of African-American synagogues simultaneously drawing inspiration from Jewish tradition and a Black worldview. What accounts for this rise is manyfold: Jim Crow laws which supplanted Reconstruction in the south drove a northern migration, a demographic shift which, in New York, brought African-Americans to the already established Jewish community in Harlem (by World War One, Harlem boasted the second largest Jewish community in the country.) Blacks were now encountering Jews as neighbors, employers, inspirations, customers and rivals.
Simultaneously, Black national aspirations grew, and drew inspiration from Zionism -- itself a "back to Africa movement" — as a model.
Unaffiliated and unaccepted by the Jewish religious establishment, the congregations were for the most part small and poor, meeting in a storefront or a house -- what similarly sized Orthodox congregations would call a shtibl , a little house -- they constructed a crazy quilt of traditional Jewish practices (life cycle events, modesty of dress, kashrus/dietary laws, separate seating, etc) plus rituals which reflect the unique African-American worldview. Services were for the most part in Hebrew with some congregations conversant/fluent in Yiddish. Vestigial remnants of these Jewish inspired congregations still exist today in everything from Chicago's prestigious Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation to derivative fringe "Black Hebrew" groups and even in the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam.
Interestingly, many of the founders of African-American synagogues were not American born, some came from the Caribbean others claimed Abbyssinia with its unbroken historic Black identification with Old Testament Hebrews and giving modest bragging rights to their existential claims. The surprisingly large percentage of Carribean Blacks with a predisposition to Judaism might point to possible Jewish slaveholders who, like Christians, had slaves who converted to the owner's religion.
Among the period Black synagogues were The Moorish Zionist Temple founded in 1899 by Rabbi Leon Richlieu (above center, arm raised with tallis) who claimed direct Ethiopian lineage for himself and his congregants; The Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation founded in 1919 by Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, a West Indian immigrant who would establish a network of synagogues in the US and the Caribbean based on traditional Orthodox Ashkenazi traditions.
There was also Congregation Beth B'nai Abraham founded by the Barbados-born Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford (pictured below with string bass.) Ford, who would found his synagogue in 1929 as an outgrowth of his right hand work with Marcus Garvey, came to Harlem in 1909 and, given an interest in music and social uplift, joined the progressive Black music organization The Clef Club run by the pioneering musician, James Reese Europe.
Congregation Beth B'nai Abraham, Harlem, (Photograph: James Van Der Zee, 1929 )
Another member of the Clef Club was Harlem stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith (b. William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff, 1897-1973) who, throughout his life, actively proclaimed his Jewish connection.
In the opening of his 1964 memoir Music On My Mind, Smith pays homage to his Jewish father, his youthful years in Newark, New Jersey and Jewish neighbors, the Rothschilds. In a story which closely mirrors the childhood experience of Louis Armstrong (i.e. the intervention of a supportive Jewish family) the Rothschilds allowed Smith to not only receive religious instruction from a local rabbi alongside their own children, but the rabbi, took great pains with him when he saw how receptive he was in preparation for his bar mitzvah by teaching him the vast literature of cantorial modes, tropes and articulations.
"You could say I am Jewish partly by origin and partly by association," Smith wrote, "As it turned out I favored the Jewish religion all my life and at one time served as a Hebrew cantor in a Harlem congregation. "
Willie "The Lion" Smith, at home (below) and his "Yiddisher khazn" business card.
In a recent e-mail, dean of jazz historians Dan Morgenstern offered another perspective on The Lion's black-Jewish culture crossing:
While I got to know Willie quite well he was evasive about the extent of his cantorial activities.
And I never heard him sing anything approaching it or say or sing anything in Hebrew.
His Yiddish, however, was fluent and he set witty lyrics to
"I’ve Found a New Baby" that I wish he had recorded. His sing-songey
vocalizing had a definite Jewish tinge. I’m no authority on Yiddish
though my father was. And so was my little trumpeter friend
Nat Lorber who certified the Lion‘s to me. They sometimes conversed...
The RISE OF african-american cantors
It is not surprising that, in tandem with the rise of Black synagogues, there would be a concomitant rise of those who served the synagogue, among them, cantors.
But what would have ordinarily been a sheltered in-group/community function, did, in the wake of vaudeville, Yiddish theater and expanding popular culture, become a full-fledged -- if short lived --- cultural phenomenon.
The fact is, cantorial singing had already briskly migrated out of the synagogue and onto the secular stage thanks in no small part to the giddy excitement brought about by commercial sound recordings (from 1900-1942, nearly 40% of all commercial American Jewish 78s were of cantorial singing, the largest percentage of any Jewish music genre.)
That we even know anything about the diversity of Black cantors in the 1920s, is thanks to journalist and essayist Sh. Rubinzohn of Di Yiddishe Togblatt (The Jewish Daily News) who, in his weekly column Fun Groys New York (From Big New York) produced a series of pithy feuilletons, well-observed portraits of local Jewish life.
In his June 28th, 1920 column, entitled Mendel, der Shvartzer Khazn (Mendel the Black Cantor) Rubinzohn tells of arriving in his office to a young Black man waiting to speak to him.
He introduced himself as Mendel (below) a press agent for Kessler's Theater — a popular Yiddish stage on the Lower East Side — and was looking for a plug in Rubinzohn's column for their new show which featured Mendel's specialty: Yiddish songs and cantorial prayers.
Asked for a demonstration, Mendel launched into the industrial strength Yiddish showstopper, A Khazndl af Shabes (A Cantor On the Sabbath) a demanding pyrotechnical mix of ornate cantorial melismas and snappy barn burning theatricality.
"He sings with a real Yiddish turn," Rubinzohn marveled.... "with a real Yiddish moan and sigh. The old time Jewish trope is there and really Jewish....Make no mistake," he assures his readers: " until now we've only had a Jewish black — Al Jolson — a cantor's son who makes believe he is Black. But here is a Black man who is a cantor who calls himself "Mendel the Black Cantor."
Rubinzohn comments on Mendel's reyner yiddish (a literate Yiddish) about his birth in Barbados, his coming to America around 1910 and his eventual migration to the Yiddish theater, concluding:
"Here is Mendel the black cantor: a non-Jew, a Black who offers up no name other than "Mendele" but who is a real cantor, here in Big New York. "
"Happy holiday," trumpets Rubinzohn in a column a few months later on September 20, "we have another Black cantor in New York!" Entitled Dovid, di Kalskrite Ha'Cohen der Falash (below) Rubinzohn introduces us to the Jewish kalskrite, (which Rubinzohn translates as a "calligrapher,") from the Ethiopian port city of Masawa, who claimed to know 29 languages and who, in a wide ranging conversation which toggled effortlessly between Yiddish and Hebrew, offered a whirlwind narrative about being educated in Paris and Palestine, studying under a cantor in Russia as a meshoyrer (an apprentice cantor) marrying a Jewish woman in Pinsk and fathering two children, doing translation work for the US Army and coming to the United States to become a cantor.
Rubinzohn was curious: what did his parents say about his marriage? They were horrified and that it was "a shande" (a disgrace.) "The real Jews of old were all brown or black," his parents said, "white Jews are not real Jews; they're just fakers."
A notice in the June 1921 edition of Variety notes that Dovid Ha'Cohen (now "David Kohl") has embarked on the vaudeville stage both singing Yiddish songs and cantorial hymns and showing off his skills in 28 languages.
In a November 13, 1934 article in the Brooklyn Times Union he is "Rabbi David Kollscritta" ("...wearing a skull cap and traditional black beard and dark skinned as Othello...") who delivered testimony in a civil case against a divorce.
We hear of him one last time in 1943 as Rabbi David De Kollscritta the dean of the Pittsburgh Afro-American Language School of the Universal Ancient Ethiopian Spiritual Church of Christ whose congregation he leads in Hebrew prayer.
These, and other Black cantors would appear in the pages of Yiddish and African-American newspapers of the day but only one -- billed simply as der shvartzer khazn (the Black cantor) -- would be instantly indentifiable to Yiddish theater audiences in the 1920s: Thomas LaRue Jones.
Next: "Thomas LaRue: King of the Colored Cantors"