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Yiddisher Black cantors from 100 years ago rediscovered thanks to rare recording

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Early 1920s newspaper ads for the blockbuster New York Yiddish stage shows Dos Khupe Kleyd (The Wedding Dress) and Yente Telebende (Loquacious Battle‐Ax), featured a Black artist among the spotlighted performers. This was Thomas LaRue, a Yiddish-speaking singer widely known in the interwar period as der schvartzer khazan (The Black Cantor).

Although long-forgotten now, LaRue (who sometimes used the surname Jones) was among the favorites of Yiddish theater and cantorial music. Reportedly raised in Newark, New Jersey, by a single mother who was drawn to Judaism, he even drew interest from beyond the US.

LaRue was booked for more than one European tour in the 1930s, but audiences and critics in Jewish communities in Poland and Germany were somewhat more skeptical than the Americans. Although many were impressed with The Black Cantor — who sometimes added the Yiddish first name Toyve to his billing — others doubted his Jewish bona fides. One Warsaw newspaper published a cartoon of a Black man dressed as a cantor with an upside down prayer book on the podium in front of him, insinuating that LaRue was a scam.

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But LaRue was the real thing, according to musicologist Henry Sapoznik, who recently spoke with The Times of Israel about the little-known history of Black cantors. Sapoznik related that LaRue was hardly the only Black cantor or Yiddish theater performers of that era. There were at least a dozen, including one woman. ‘The greatest wonder in the world/The famous Black cantor who has astounded all America in a concert of folk songs of Rosenblatt, Kwartin, Rovner and others in all languages/Toyve the Black Cantor.’ (Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)

The proof of LaRue’s cantorial and Yiddish singing chops rests with what can be heard on a recently rediscovered 78 RPM record that he made in 1923. So far, it is the only known early 20th century recording of an African-American singing cantorial music.

An avid discographer, Sapoznik had been searching for this record for 45 years, and finally located it this past July. Ironically, Sapoznik recovered the disc at the sound archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, which he himself founded and directed from 1982 to 1995.

“From time to time I would put out calls to my network asking if anyone had seen the record, but I would never get any answers. At a certain point I thought, ‘This is crazy. I’m not going to ever find it,'” an amazed Sapoznik told The Times of Israel in a video interview from his home in New York.

Sapoznik’s prolonged quest for this particular recording led to the exciting discovery of other forgotten........

© The Times of Israel

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