Terkel book gets to the heart of musicians

Critical Eye

November 27, 2005|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN REPORTER

HE HAS BEEN THE WORKing man's interviewer for longer than one can remember without looking it up.

Author and oral historian Louis "Studs" Terkel -- he of summer heart surgery, he who gave us Working -- now is treating readers to his childhood passion: music. And They All Sang (New Press) is Terkel's 16th book but his first collection of interviews mined from his storied career as a disc jockey.

"As an asthmatic child of eight, hearing came to me with much more ease than breathing. Bound to the hearth, I heard music I might otherwise have missed," Terkel, 93, wrote in the book's introduction. A month after World War II ended, Terkel launched a one-hour Sunday radio show called The Wax Museum. From WFMT studios in Chicago, Terkel "read short stories I liked" and spun 78 rpm records to his curiosity's delight.

"Whatever piece of music caught my fancy," Terkel wrote, "I offered it to the listener, no matter what the genre."

He stayed at his radio post for 52 years.

The book's eclectic roster of interviews features musicians from Marian Anderson, Woody Guthrie, Andres Segovia and Ravi Shankar to Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Edith Mason, and the Baltimore-born Larry Adler, whom Terkel considered the world's greatest harmonica virtuoso. You will not find interviews with, say, Jessica Simpson or Kanye West.

And They All Sang, published this fall, includes interviews with composers Aaron Cope-land and Leonard Bernstein and "impresario" Sol Hurok, who managed such artists as dancer Isadora Duncan: "If they're not temperamental, I don't want them," Hurok said. Terkel interviewed John Hammond Sr., the legendary talent scout who "stumbled onto Billie Holiday in a speakeasy in Harlem during the Prohibition." Hammond produced Holiday, Count Basie, and later, some Jersey kid named Bruce Springsteen.

The 44 interviews -- recorded from 1953-2001 -- have that "just-dropped-by-the-studio" feel to them. Host Terkel, clearly a man dedicated to homework, kept his questions short and smart; he did not expend airtime on his own musical dissertations. And, as always, when his guest talked, Terkel listened and recorded.

Where do you come from, Cotton-Eyed Joe?

"The beginning was there in Minnesota. But that was the beginning before the beginning," replied a 22-year-old folk singer. Even in 1963, Bob Dylan had a knack for poetic double-talk. He also had a knack for songwriting.

There's one song, the only way I can describe it is as a great tapestry -- "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."

"Every line in that really is another song. Could be used as a whole song, every single line. I wrote that when I didn't know how many other songs I could write...It was during the Cuba trouble, that blockade, I guess is the word. I was a little worried, maybe that's the word."

Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie stopped by Terkel's show in 1982. "I hate drunken people listening to music and trying to make you think that they're enjoying it, and they're only enjoying the whiskey," said Gillespie, before offering a clarification. "I'm not speaking against whiskey because it has its medicinal values."

Dylan and Gillespie are well known, but Terkel also introduces us to obscure musicians. In 1963, he interviewed a Louisiana blues singer named Emanuel Dunn, an "early rapper" who became known for his "talking blues." His parents had abandoned the boy after his birth. As Terkel discovered, Dunn's name was a story itself.

"I wasn't named nobody. Just Boy. That's all, just called boy," Dunn said. "Well, I got me a family of my own. Well, I named my own self."

To corral all his musical genres, Terkel divided the book into classical and non-classical sections. Still, And They All Sang feels all over the music map. This is just fine with us. Let others expertly connect the artistic dots between Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Woody Guthrie's "Tom Joad" or Mahalia Jackson's "Move on Up a Little Higher" and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or any other of Terkel's favorite recordings. The book's charms are more elementary, more intimate.

"Notice the curves of the guitar, so feminine," classical guitarist Andres Segovia said in 1978. "I have had three wives in my life. I have had three guitars. I have flirted with other guitars, not with other women."

Prettiness. For years we think of the young girl and pretty songs, Terkel told Janis Joplin in 1968. By then, the hard-living Texan had moved to California, discovered Southern Comfort and Joplin had also discovered she could sing the blues. She was not the prototypical female singer.

"I mean, you can't sing the blues and have your hair bleached platinum blond and look like a cheerleader," she told her Chicago radio host. "I mean, you gotta have something else going. You gotta be able to act a little, feel a little, think a little, guts."

There is no way to deftly segue from Janis Joplin to Leonard Bernstein in either book or article. It must be said, however, that the famous conductor explained well enough why music, any kind of music, is profound communication.

"You and I could talk for hours using words, and maybe spurt a few metaphors, and we could suddenly be talking on another level, which would be poetry," Bernstein said in 1985. "But we could never communicate on so deep a level as if we sang to each other."

Another Studs Terkel interview for the history books.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

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