Monday, August 18, 2008

She’d Rather Be Burned As A Witch


It’s well known that Eartha Kitt is a linguistic tongue-twister schooled in at least nine languages, from Spanish to Turkish. But she rarely meshed them all together in a single musical Babel like she did on her fifties version of “Shalom Aleichem” the all-time #1 hit on Billboard’s Shabbat Hot 100 List. For observant Jews, it’s what you’re supposed to sing when you get home from Shabbat services (”Peace Be Upon You”), and as a tune it dates back to the Kabalists, first showing up on the page in 17th century Prague. But the chorus is also a common “What up?” greeting and Kitt mines both here, even throwing in a bit of the H Song for good measure. Which makes her “Sholem” not really a cover of “Shalom Aleichem” at all then (see below for a more “standard” interpretation, albeit a Latin one, by Edmundo Ros), but more like a mash-up: part old-school hymn, part street dictionary, part Jewish greatest hits, and part “Introduction to Greetings of the Globe.” Kitt drops by France, Turkey, Italy, German, Spain, the American midwest (”how-dee-do?”), and finally “the old, old MIddle East.” The track appeared on Kitt’s first album for the Kapp label, after she had already been a Katharine Dunham dancer, a Victor/RCA recording artist, and an actress who could play Helen of Troy and later, Catwoman. It was joined in proto-world music style (Kitt beat Byrne, Cooder, Simon, & Gabriel to the internationalist punch by decades) by “Shango,” “Tierra Va Tembla,” “Jambo Hippopotami” and another Hebrew staple “Ki M’Tzion.”Maurice Levine conducted the orchestra and on the album’s back cover photo, the woman whose not-in-my-name-anti-war riffs made Lady Bird Johnson cry at a White House luncheon, is cradling a sleek black cat.

21 comments:

Wayne said...

I love this album, to my mind the best Eartha Kitt release but one that seems to be not very well known.

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