By Paul Snyder
Studs Terkel can talk.
This is unsurprising to those familiar with the Chicago legend’s broadcast career. Terkel’s voice could be heard on radio waves in the City of Big Shoulders as far back as the 1930s, when he would provide dialogue for soap operas and announce news and sporting events to the city. One of the most eclectic and enjoyable disc jockeys on the air, his award-winning Studs Terkel Program aired until 1997. There was also a short-lived TV show in the 1950s, called Studs’ Place.
But his wider audience may know him mostly for his books. Required reading in assorted classrooms throughout the United States, Terkel’s print work expanded his audience from one city to the entire nation, and established him as a preeminent voice in the American oral history genre. Titles like Working, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression and The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream exposed readers to stories of the common man and told about our country’s history from the eyes and mouths of those who lived it.
It’s ridiculously difficult to avoid clichés like “full circle,” but it seems more than apropos that a half-century’s worth of published work is book-ended by two volumes on one of the man’s deepest passions – music.
And They All Sang chronicles Terkel’s time behind the mic hosting The Wax Museum, his radio show that debuted in 1945 and explored all genres of music. Interviews range from Edith Mason to Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin to Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie to Ravi Shankar.
But those are the big names. Mention one of music’s unsung heroes, and Terkel raves like your best friend trying to turn you on to this great new album he’s just heard. Take Bill Broonzy, for instance…
“Big Bill Broonzy!” he exclaims. “Oh, he was wonderful! You like him? He’s an underestimated blues singer of our time, and none of the guys ever mention him. I’m glad you did. That was his farewell song that he did on my program. He was saying goodbye to all his friends. That was a wonderful one. Boy, you’ve got good taste.”
In reading Terkel’s interview with Broonzy, one can almost imagine high school teachers and college professors poring over the socially-conscious undertones of the interview for history lessons. It took place shortly before Broonzy’s death and found the artist musing on the new sensation of rock & roll and white folks essentially pilfering this old black music.
Though the interview was far from containing hostile overtones (much less undertones), it is ironic to note Broonzy’s reflection on how much money and notoriety white folks were getting from playing the blues. Though considered highly influential in the music industry, even name-checked by George Harrison in his 1987 song, “Wreck of the Hesperus,” Broonzy’s contemporaries often overshadowed him.
But as always, Terkel had his fingers on society’s pulse and took notice of the musician, who enjoyed a fair amount of popularity in Chicago. Like many of the interviews in And They All Sang, Terkel carries on an informal and natural conversation with the artist. And he is the first to admit the inherent similarities in interviewing a legendary musician and a blue-collar worker.
“Well it was the same as other people,” he says of conducting the radio interviews. “They were talking about their work, their craft. You could almost call this book a sequel to Working, only these were musical artists, you see? It’s no different than any other people. They were close to their work – the same as if I would interview a truck driver.”
The interview with a young Bob Dylan also proves to be fascinating in light of the recent renaissance spurred by Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home. Any thoughts of a button-lipped tough session were quashed by Terkel, who eased the enigmatic artist into talking at length about the lyrics to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
Terkel remembers it well.
“He was 22 years-old, he happened to be in Chicago then, and I knew the guy who was his manager, Albert Grossman, so we had this conversation,” he says. “I remember I opened it very casually. I said, ‘Where have you been Cotton-Eyed Joe?’ Because ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe’ was the name of a folk song that was sung at the time. And he said he’d been talking to Woody Guthrie, and he talked about Woody Guthrie’s influence on him.”
But the big thing is that song – I got him to sing that song.”
There’s a pause, and you can sense the wind filling Terkel’s sails. He’s right back in that Chicago studio in 1962.
“Now here’s the thing, you see,” he begins. “I asked him if he meant the atomic rain, and he said ‘No, it means everything.’ And then I said, ‘There’s one line that knocks me out.’ As a matter of fact, my wife pointed that out, because she loved it. That line – ‘The executioner’s face is always well-hidden.’”
Cue the ultra-liberal 93 year-old we all know and love.
“Now think about that line,” Terkel says. “He was saying that every single line in that song could be the basis of another song, but the big thing is ‘The executioner’s face is always well hidden.’ Well, think of the history! A man with the axe, choppin’ people’s heads off, the hangmen – they always got masks over their faces! I’m sure the guy who’s pullin’ the switch in the electric chair was in hiding. Or why was it done at night? They don’t wanna be seen!”
Terkel’s excitement is now palpable, and he casts Dylan’s lyric toward Washington D.C.
“Even today we got ‘The executioner’s face is always well hidden!’” he says. “The executioner could be thousands of miles away from the people he’s incinerating! And I’m – you know who I’m referring to! I mean it’s quite obvious when talking about even our own officials! Not just us, but the world! Big shots, you know, who wage wars! Their faces are always well hidden! Because they’re…‘Well I’m not there, what have I got to do with it?’ You see?!”
He speaks with such invigoration that I don’t know whether to break down all over again over last November’s election results, run for my copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, or simply shout “Hallelujah!”
Of course, the heartfelt sermon is hardly surprising, considering it comes from a man who told a gathering at University of California-Berkeley in 2003 that he’d worked out John Ashcroft’s real age to be 350 years old. You see, the Attorney General had returned from his previous incarnation as a reverend during the 1690 Salem witch trials, spreading fear of witches, to his present-day incarnation, spreading fear of terrorism.
Terkel also handled his blacklisting in the 1950s in a characteristically individual fashion. After signing petitions against poll taxes, lynching and Jim Crow laws, Terkel was told Communists were behind the petitions and that he could be forgiven if he admitted he had been tricked into signing the documents. A proponent of the causes he signed for, he refused to say he had been tricked, believing it to be the equivalent of telling people he was dumb.
It’s this honest, individual, working-man quality that has endeared Terkel to a nation of readers and listeners. And he knows better than any that the formula works.
I make sure the tape recorder is working properly. It is.
“So it works on my side,” he continues. “Because that person is made to feel important. In other words, it’s not Mike Wallace coming down from 60 Minutes to interview him, you know, from on high. Or Barbara Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-walters coming down. It’s not that. It’s a guy! Who’s vulnerable himself! And that makes them feel freer. You follow?”
Terkel’s propensity for interviewing seems to be stronger than his taste for being interviewed. In less than a second, he has begun asking me about my life and my own journey from the Chicago area into Wisconsin. And just when the realization hits that I’m being interviewed by Studs Terkel, he brings our meeting to a close.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” he says, citing his age, life and sense of humor in one of the finest closing statements ever.
“I’ve been involved in all kinds of movements in my life. The Civil Rights movement, the Peace movement, and now it’s the bowel movement!” VS