Talk to Him

Oral historian Studs Terkel gets 20th-century singers to spill it

Studs Terkel
And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey
The New Press

Halfway through And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey, a book of oral histories collected by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel, composer Leonard Bernstein starts complaining. He talks about the "good old days" of Italian opera, when a Puccini or Verdi premiere would be "the talk of every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next several weeks." "That doesn't happen much anymore," he tells Terkel. "The new works don't seem to cause any anticipation, and very few of them cause any aftermath of excitement." Terkel agrees. "Today, it's much more of a 'what's this guy gonna do?...show me.'" In pop terms, they're talking about pogoing versus standing with arms crossed, lazily ashing a cigarette. As a certain grungy boy once sang, "Here we are now/Entertain us."

Studs Terkel is 94 years old and an open-heart surgery survivor, so he's not much for moshing. But if he could, he'd definitely be one of the pogo-ers. He genuinely respects his interviewees, knows and admires their work, and asks questions with humor, tact, and a razored intellect. Anyone can corner a pop tartlette into lipsticked gossip, but Terkel talks Greek mythology with guitar virtuosos and childbirth with opera singers. Two paragraphs later, they'll dive back into Bach or Billie (Holiday, of course. "I listen to her a lot," admits Janis Joplin, "but I don't have any of her subtlety").

Trust the DJ: Author Studs Terkel asks the next question
Nina Subin
Trust the DJ: Author Studs Terkel asks the next question

And They All Sang is Terkel's 12th collection of personal narrative. His works are diverse in subject—the city of Chicago, race, World War II, death—but similar in structure. Each time, he simply sits down with his subject and has a conversation. Some interviews are printed as straight Q&A, while others are woven into monologue or historical context.

As paradoxical as this might sound, Terkel's greatest talent is his invisibility. His questions dig but don't trap, and he never censors or belittles. For example, instead of asking gospel singer Mahalia Jackson directly about racism, he asks her about the time she spent wet-nursing for white mothers in New Orleans. "I nursed little Jimmy like he was my own," she tells Terkel. "Do you think he was in that mob that threw rocks at Dr. King?" he asks. The anecdote cuts deeper than any dictionary definition, and Terkel prints it unembellished. (Today, few critics still use this technique, and Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis, who wrote this book's foreword, isn't one of them. I would have preferred to read Ann Powers, Elijah Wald, or Jason Gross, all of whom are a bit more Terkelesque in their journalism.)

There are 44 interviews in And They All Sang, ranging from avant-garde composers and five-foot tall divas to a 22-year-old Bob Dylan. Given mid-century gender politics, the male/female ratio is surprisingly even, especially if you count the number of times Pete Seeger talks about the shape of his mother's hands.

Because And They All Sang contains interviews from throughout Terkel's career, it lacks the temporal and stylistic cohesion of his other books. However, this lets the reader watch him mature into critical sainthood, and it also gives a bird's-eye view of 20th-century music. Certain sections are like Wikipedia Gold, stuffed with names worth Googling: Robert Gover, Marc Blitzstein, Maxwell Perkins. There are some dated entries (Ravi Shankar, explaining namaste long before Gwen Stefani did the blue hair and bindi thang) and also a few ageist barbs.For example, the jacket claims that And They All Sang will "strike a chord with any music fan old enough to have replaced a record needle." Now, I'm no older than Dylan was, but I have at least one friend who refused a non-air-conditioned apartment because he was afraid that all his vinyl would melt. But there's not as much handwringing as you might think. Sure, several grayhairs mewl over the children! And their music! But Terkel's a historian, not a rockist, so he'll talk pop with one and opera with another, all sans snoot or snark. Sure, he has his favorite questions— those about childhood and the working class, mostly—but as Bernstein also said, "you can't be stuck enough on [the working class problem], because of the problem and the immensity of it."

Interestingly, Terkel started his writing career while DJing at WENR Chicago, roundabout 1944. His show, The Wax Museum, featured everyone from Caruso to Guthrie, and when everyone from truck drivers to society women responded favorably, Terkel started playing less music and asking more questions. In that sense, And They All Sang is a turning-in and holding-on: a bookending of a career. But it's a giving-back, too.

One night in Chicago, I asked the Constantines' Bry Webb about the inspiration behind his latest album, Tournament of Hearts. I expected the usual replies: Springsteen, a breakup, junior high. Instead, Webb looked me in the eye and answered straightaway. "Well," he said, "I've been reading a lot of Studs Terkel."

 
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