The Listener: Studs Terkel The Listener: Studs Terkel

The Listener: Studs Terkel

by Michaelangelo Matos

November 5, 2008

Remembering a great man's always-attentive ears

There's something cosmically appropriate about Studs Terkel dying, at age 96, on Halloween. It shares a similarity with James Brown dying on Christmas Day: the holiday adds a notable flourish. The Godfather of Soul lit up the stage like a Christmas tree, and Terkel's finest work came from walking in someone else's shoes. Few writers have the latter's degree of empathy, as an interviewer or as a scribe. He was unquestionably America's greatest oral historian. As his fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert put it earlier this year, "One reason Terkel gets people to talk so openly with him is that he's not an academic or a cross-examiner. He comes across as this guy sitting down with you to have a good, long talk."Terkel had good, long talks with a wide swath of people; he was, however, especially good at drawing out musicians. It helped that he adored music. In 1945, already a radio writer, actor, and sports announcer, he got his own Sunday-night program on Chicago's ABC-affiliate. According to his 2007 memoir, Touch and Go, he wanted to play records, "Not just jazz, but all kinds." The first installment of his show, The Wax Museum, featured Brazilian composer Hector Villa-Lobos, folk singer Burl Ives, jazz legend Louis Armstrong, and German opera soprano Lotte Lehmann. The operatic selections received commentary from local character Long Shot Sylvester--"a horseplayer, a tout, who happened to love opera," Terkel wrote. "He'd tell the story in his own lingo." (An example: "Carmen was about a tomato who loved not too wisely but too often. … And the moral is: better a live, cold potato than a dead, hot tomato.")Terkel's second book--1967's Division Street: America, interviews with the haves and have-nots along the Windy City thoroughfare--broke him outside Chicago. His first book, published a decade before, is a collection of 13 interviews simply titled Giants of Jazz, featuring conversations that peeled the curtain back on legends like Armstrong, Coltrane, Ellington, Holliday, and more. The New Press republished Giants of Jazz in 2006. The same publisher released a new Terkel collection, And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey, the year prior. (I have seldom experienced as hard a pang of professional jealousy as when a friend told me she'd been hired to fact-check it.)And They All Sang's 44 subjects include plenty of giants: Ravi Shankar, Leonard Bernstein, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin. Most of these, like so many of Terkel's interviews, he conducted on his radio show. The dialogue is consistently engaging-subject and interlocutor egging one another on, both parties clearly having a blast. Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, never an easy interview, opens up as fully as born yakker (and folkie activist) Pete Seeger. Best of all is the opening Q&A with folk eccentric John Jacob Niles; it's a rollercoaster, a forward-moving dance between two men whose steps are never predictable.My own introduction to Terkel was 1992's Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession. In one chapter, Terkel quotes a young hip-hop fan talking about the rapper "Iced Tea." Of course, he meant Ice-T, but to me the point was clear: Here was a 79-year-old still plainly committed to capturing the whole picture, even if a detail or two is smudged. How many people can you say that about, all the way into their mid-90s? That misspelling, if anything, deepened the ethos of Terkel's life and work: You might not know all the references, but what really matters is that you pay attention.
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The Listener: Studs Terkel