Not long after his ninety-third birthday, Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian, had to undergo a risky heart procedure. “There’s a one-in-four chance that I will be checking out,” he told his friends. Well, extend the checkout time; he came through in good shape and in time to celebrate his latest book, And They All Sang, a rich collection of interviews with music people.
As an asthmatic child, he writes, “hearing came to me with much more ease than breathing.” He’s been listening ever since. He started his interviewing career as an “eclectic disc jockey” hosting a 1945 radio show in Chicago called The Wax Museum. A typical program might have featured Caruso, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven and Woody Guthrie.
Time passed, and Studs’s program evolved into more talk than music, and out of the former came the impetus for the books. The interviews collected in the latest one comprise an eclectic chorus of personalities, from John Jacob Niles to Birgit Nilsson to Lil and Satchmo Armstrong to Mahalia Jackson, spanning the broad spectrum of talent this democracy has produced.
“Eclectic” is the operative word for Studs. Also spelled d-e-m-o-c-r-a-t-i-c, small “d.” Read his books–Division Street, Working, Hard Times, “The Good War” and all the rest–and you’ll find the definition of the word. Studs’s slant owes something to the old Popular Front dream of a multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural America. That dream is scorned today in certain gated precincts, but it lives in the voices of the people speaking freely in his books.