Studs Terkel: A National Literary Icon
Studs Terkel, now approaching the age of 94, has just published his latest book, And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey. In addition to Terkel, Chicago has been the home or springboard for many other American authors of great renown, including the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie), Phillip Roth, James Purdy, James Farrell (Studs Lonigan), Saul Bellow, Richard Stern and others. However, for some fifty years, Studs Terkel’s works have consistently served as a testament to the voice of the common man, imprinting that voice upon the national and international “minds.”
Studs’ works have included, among many others, Division Street: America, Hard Times, Working, The Good War and Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession. He has been the recipient of many national awards for his works, including the Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards.
For those familiar with his work, it should come as no surprise that the hallmark virtue of Studs Terkel’s newest oral history, And They All Sang, is its limitless breadth of spirit. The book collects more that 40 interviews conducted over the past 50 years with singers, musicians, composers and producers for the daily radio show that he hosted on a Chicago’s radio station, WFMT-FM. WFMT had it’s humble beginnings in a small studio located in the basement of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry; over the years, it has grown to be a nationally reknowned voice for the fine arts, receiving numerous prestigious national broadcasting awards.
In Terkel’s latest publication, there is no shortage of major musical figures, or of insightful observations about their music. Louis Armstrong, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Guthrie, Ravi Shankar and Aaron Copeland constitute just a sampling of the musical legends with whom Terkel engages, and their remarks alone–about their own work and the creative process in general–make this book well worthwhile. But far more valuable are the inspiring assumptions upon which these conversations are based.
We live in a time of bitter partisan divisiveness, where forms of communication have evolved into seemingly ever-expanding, microscopically defined segments. The intention of this activity appears to be to assure that increasingly intolerant audiences will always be guaranteed the opportunity to never, or at least only rarely, encounter an idea, person or political/cultural perspective with which they aren’t familiar or that they don’t already like or embrace.
To say the absolute least, that is not the way that Studs Terkel has approached the world. He has always approached his work from the viewpoint of an opportunity to speak to other people as a journey of discovery, an adventure, a continual fountain of fulfilling surprise. His books have always been triumphs of simplicity and basic human virtue. They are firmly bound to Terkel’s conviction that if he treats his subjects with respect, listens carefully and attentively to what they have to say and takes their concerns seriously (though never humorlessly), they will repay him with honesty. His newest book, And They All Sang, comes closest to capturing what Terkel has always achieved in his writings, which are both wildly ambitious and yet as casual as can be.
The singing metaphor in Terkel’s latest work comes ever-closer to describing how he has achieved his singularly magnificent approach, functioning almost like a producer, working behind the scenes to coax extraordinary spoken performances from his subjects. His goal is to elicit arias in speech. And, like most great producers, he is essentially content to erase his own participation and permit his subjects to shine through him, as if his role is utterly transparent. Of course, it is not. Terkel has achieved the perfection of the art that conceals art. In fact, to appear casual in approaching very serious matters is a very difficult task. And because Studs likes to make himself appear invisible, his occasional interventions have always been some of the more delectable and inspiring pleasures in his interviews and writings.
In conclusion, it has always been the common human voice that Terkel has drawn out and captured. Underlying the conversations that he has presented over the years is the trust that people can come to understand each other, and that the more understanding that we are able to achieve, the better off we will all be. It is a faith that has been tested and has stood the test. Studs has lived through, and often written about, the Depression, World War II, the Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts and blacklists (which Terkel personally experienced), the civil rights struggles, Vietnam and 9/11. He continues to hear and listen to America, and the world, singing.
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