OKeh 14079: The 1923 Thomas LaRue recording
As noted in the first posting, Thomas LaRue's name was rescued from anonymity thanks to the groundbreaking discographic work of Dick Spottswood in his 1990 multi-volume Ethnic Music On Record, the definitive listing of foreign language commercial recordings made in the United States from 1893-1942.
The LaRue entry turned up during our research at CBS which, in Big Fish style, had acquired the Columbia label in 1938 just as Columbia had acquired the OKeh label in 1926. The ledger entry:
LA RUE, THOMAS; tenor
S 71580-A; Yidele Farlier Nit Dein Hoffnung Ok 14079
S 71581-A; Misratzeh Berach'mim Ok 14079
orch:NY June 1923
The information is in which sequence the sides were recorded, when, where and by whom they were recorded, and with which type of accompaniment. OKeh 14079 was its catalog number . Yet, despite having been pressed in what were possibly hundreds (thousands ?) of copies, a far rarer LaRue issue turned up first. (Curiously, the record would eventually turn up at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where I had been the founding director of its sound archives but was gone before the disc appeared.)
The Sheet Music
Thanks to the Library of Congress' program to scan and post sheet music submitted to the US Copyright office, this achieved the kind of vast circulation the original never did. (To see complete sheet, CLICK HERE.)
Underneath the obligatory ballyhoo of "Greatest Jewish Song Success" a pensive LaRue is pictured in secular street clothes unlike his standard photographs in full cantorial raiment.
The "H.I. Levitan beneath LaRue's credit was a Jewish theatrical producer who, at the time this was published, was partners with Edvin Relkin who woud produce the 1930 Thomas LaRue/Tuvye Ha'Cohen world tour.
The first page reveals the composers, the copyright date and that the copyright is held by LaRue himself, which, without publisher credit, points to it being a private printing possibly sold at his concerts. As LaRue is identified in several newspaper articles as being born in 1902, make this an ambitious project for an 18 year old.
The sheet was printed by local vest-pocket publisher Max Mansky who, thankfully, used the same cover design template and type style on several of his other publications making the identification easy.
Co-composers Isidor Lash and 26-year old just-starting-out Samuel ("Sholom") Secunda, appear to have been Mansky's "house composers" at the time of the LaRue publication. (Secunda was part of another important interconnection for LaRue: The original Yiddish lyrics to Secunda's famous 1932 composition, Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn, were penned by Jacob Jacobs, the co-owner of the Harlem Lenox theater, who, in 1922, hired LaRue for his Yiddish theater shows Dos Khupe Kleyd and Yente Telebende.)
Yidle, Farlier Nit Dein Hoffnung
It would take three years from the publication of the sheet to its appearance on record — no doubt owing to LaRue's increased public visibility as "Der Shvartzer Khazn" (the sheet music does not include this popular stage name while the record label does include it but only in Yiddish.) LaRue probably came to OKeh the same way he published his sheet music and even got on station WOR: all three had a strong Newark presence which gave an inside edge to a local talent.
Also, while labels like Columbia and Victor had much larger Jewish catalogs, OKeh lead the way in the number of African-Americans who recorded for them in their so-called "Race"(i.e. Black) catalog. (Some of LaRue's label mates were: Louis Armstrong, Alberta Hunter, Duke Ellington, Victoria Spivey, Clarence Williams, Lonnie Johnson, etc.) Thomas LaRue may have been the only Black recording artist at OKeh not on the "Race" series.
God long ago made a pledge to the Jews
That he would never allow them to lose
They’ll grow in number like sand on the shore
Like stars in the heavens and then, even more
So, what has become of the Jew today
The Gentiles, the monsters, their pogroms carried out
Make Jewish blood gush as if from a spout
His life is embittered, a constant ordeal
As Gentiles take away all they can steal.
The monster, will slay your children his prey Jews dream of the God who in Egypt
once saved them
“Next year in Jerusalem”
Don’t give up hope yet, Mr. Jew
One day it will all work out for you
Pharaoh, Haman and Amolek taught a bitter lesson
But those days are through
Czar Nikolai, has met his destiny
And from Poland, you’ll be free
Don’t give up hope yet, Mr. Jew
You’ll be brought with pride to save it
Into the land of the Star of David
This most unapologetic listing of historic tormentors of the Jews and, the blunt invocation of Jewish blood bought cheap, is simultaneously a throwback to the earliest seedling days of the Yiddish theater a half century before, with the street singing shtetl griot — the Broder Zinger —and also a leap ahead as a Yiddish corollary to another Jewish composition against racist violence with a powerful African-American association: Abel Meeropol's 1937 "Strange Fruit" and its unforgettable Billie Holiday interpretation.
That corollary to "Strange Fruit" is chilling given the backdrop of when Yidle, Farlier Nit Dein Hoffnung was written/published. 1920 saw both the continuation of murder of African-Americans with over 50 lynchings while in Poland — called out in the song for its deadly pogroms — saw its most recent anti-Jewish violence in the city of Zamość with multiple pogrom related murders. Given the narrow swath of subjects African-Americans could make on commercial recordings, Dick Spottswood offers the keen observation that on record LaRue could "make assertions in Yiddish that he couldn’t (in English) make as a black man."
Given the American flag on the cover of the original sheet music — and the stunning "State of Liberty" OKeh label motif used on Jewish and other foreign discs from 1923-1924 — one could be excused for thinking the song's narrative denouement would involve emigration to the United States, di goldine medine (The golden land) which instead, arcs off to the "land of the Star of David."
For the cantorial side of the recording, LaRue chose not one of the barnburner titles like Kol Nidre from the high visibility High Holiday, but a modest prayer of supplication from the daily morning shakhris services: Misratzeh Berach'mim ("Become favorable through compassion")
Become favorable through compassion
and become appeased through supplication
Become favorable and appeased to the poor generations for there is no helper
Our Father our King be gracious with us and answer us
Though we have no worthy deeds
Treat us with charity and kindness and save us
According to Rabbi Zoe B. Zak:
The prayer Shomayr Yisrael is part of Tachanun prayers which are prayers of supplication. We fall on our face as we say these prayers as a way of physically enacting what we hope to be doing inwardly, really submitting ourselves to the Divine. Just that act alone is quite humbling. In this prayer,there is an intense longing for the people Israel not to be lost. It is a fervent cry and deep longing of a people to keep those that have scattered safe and to keep from being obliterated all together. It is also a pleading, a reminder to Hashem saying, “don’t forget us, you are our guardian, we the people you said were so unique.” We remind Hashem we are a “holy people” and at the end of this prayer, find our humanity and humility by stating that we know we really aren’t worthy of being saved, but plead none the less for that outcome."
On Misratzeh Berach'mim, LaRue begins in the quieter head tone, but switches into his resonant chest voice mid-way on the significant words Ovinu malkeynu (Our Father, Our King,) melding messenger and message and catapulting the quotidian prayer to its powerful conclusion.
LaRue's performance ends up confirming the contentions of both his supporters and detractors that he was heavily influenced by the recording cantors, such as Yoselle Rosenblatt. LaRue is more a singer than a cantor (he misses a series of subtle tonalities which keep him from being able to melismatically explore more fully the modal sinews of the composition.) Yet, LaRue seemd to have judicously hand picked only a precious few techniques of other cantors (Rosenblatt's signature glissandos into and away from key melodic notes, for example) For the most part, LaRue sings in his own voice.
It is unclear whose musical setting is LaRue's Misratzeh Berach'mim though expediency points to it being an uncredited early work of the young Secunda who would eventually go on to create scores of new liturgical works.) LaRue's recording of Misratzeh Berach'mim preceded those of his idols cantors Mordechai Hershman and Yoselle Rosenblatt by four years. Rosenblatt, who is featured in the 1927 "The Jazz Singer," was not just an inspiration to LaRue but also a fan. As reported in the African-American The New York Age, Rosenblatt was one of hundreds of attendees of a LaRue concert at Harlem's Lenox Theater on April 5, 1922 during its run of Yente Telebende.
It would seem that great deliberate care was taken in the coupling of the songs for LaRue's record. Both call out about the welfare and security of the Jewish people, one from a time immemorial text and the other ripped from the day's headlines. Taken together, LaRue's performances are passionate and present buoyed by his strong command of the languages and his sure touch of familiar cantorial tonalities embuing his singing with a powerful and instant veracity. In that respect, LaRue fulfilled the long time honorific given to cantors sheliakh tzibur ("Messenger of the people.") And, of course, the combination of liturgical and secular Jewish songs reflect what you'd hear at a Thomas LaRue concert.
The Thomas LaRue recording is both a great recording and an important one. It is great because it stands on its own merits when compared to other better known period Jewish recordings of the same genres. And it is great because it accurately transports us to the creative foment of the moment which, as ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin wrote me, "shows the elasticity of Jewish eclecticism" and the porous cultural perameters of neighboring communities.
The recording is important because it successfully and triumphantly stands in for the muted voices of the other shvartze khazonim who were once part of a fully formed free standing phenomenon but who never stood before a recording microphone.
Back in the 1990s, I submitted OKeh 14079 to the Library of Congress "Lost Recording List," the national wish-list of missing pieces of our vital historic audio jig-saw puzzle. I now have the pleasure of moving OKeh 14079 to another Library of Congress list: the "National Recording Registry" whose mission of "showcasing and celebrating the depth and diversity of American recorded sound heritage and sound preservation" makes the Thomas LaRue recording the perfect candidate.
If the teeterboard life and career of Thomas LaRue proves anything, it is that even with the good will of an accepting broad audience, being a Black cantor was a difficult and uncertain undertaking at best. One then wonders could there have been an even more difficult and uncertain undertaking for an African-American to ply in a meaningful musical dynamic with the Jewish community?
Goldye may steiner:
di Shvartze KhazntE
The Black Woman Cantor
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