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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

And They All Sang by Studs Terkel

And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey by Studs Terkel. New York: The New Press, 2005. ISBN: 1-59558-003-4

So what's this book about? Studs Terkel can tell us in his own words, better than I could hope to:

Nineteen forty-five, early autumn. A month before, World War II had ended with a flash and a bang. Four Sundays later, I began as host of a one-hour weekly radio program of recorded music called The Wax Museum. The phrase “disc jockey” had not yet entered our working vocabulary. In effect, though, that is what I was.

The program was eclectic in nature. A Caruso aria . . . might have been followed by Louis Armstrong . . . In turn, there came forth a Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl ballad. Whatever piece of music caught my fancy, I offered it to the listener, no matter the genre.

Later, on WFMT, a Chicago classical music FM station, Terkel had an hour program in which he could do anything he wanted. He read short stories. He interviewed guests. Again in Terkel's words

Nevertheless, during my forty-five years on WFMT, although there was considerable conversation, a piece of music was invariably included, if merely to italicize what the guests had to say. It could be a pop trifle, a show tune, a folk song, or any art song. It could be a passage from a symphony or concerto. It wasn't as though i was seeking music in the words of my visitors; it was simply my talisman—a fetish, some would say.

Out of those conversations with musical guests came this book, consisting of many of those interviews, transcribed and printed here. Mostly the guests speak for themselves, interrupted only briefly by Terkel's pithy comments or questions. And wow! What an assemblage he gathers! There's something for all musical tastes. He begins with John Jacob Niles, “An American Original,” indeed, the collector and inventor of America's folk tradition.

We get a large section devoted to classical music, with singers such as Birgit Nilsson, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Marian Anderson, Jon Vickers, and many more. We get conductors and composers: Joseph Krips, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland. We get performers: Andrés Segovia, Ravi Shankar, Alfred Brendel.

Then comes jazz: Louis Armstrong and his wife, Lil Armstrong; Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, Keith Jarrett and more. John Hammond, the “Impresario.” A chapter titled “Spirituals, Blues, Folk, Rock” gives us the words of Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seegar and Janis Joplin. What a treasure trove of words—words about music and words about life! Studs gives us two fitting epigraphs for the book, both worthy of repeating:

Many say that life entered the human body by the help of music but the truth is that life itself is music. —Hafiz, Fourteenth-century Persian poet.

In the olden days, everybody sang. You were expected to sing as well as talk. It was the mark of a cultured man to sing, to know music. —Leonard Bernstein.

For anyone who loves music and enjoys hearing the voices of those who have touched our lives with their music making, this book is an essential read. Highly recommended.

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