Q & A With Studs Terkel


In Studs Terkel’s newest book, “And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey” (The New Press, 2005), America’s preeminent oral historian once again collects his conversations with celebrated people, as he did in his 1999 book, “The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With the People Who Make Them.” This son of Jewish immigrants has covered a broad swath of the 20th century through broadcasting, recording and transcribing in numerous books and Q-and-As. His subjects range from the rich and famous to the broke and anonymous.

“They All Sang” brings together interviews from a half-century of taped conversations with prominent musicians, composers, lyricists and impresarios done for his radio program on Chicago radio station WFMT, with which Terkel has been affiliated since 1951. Reached by phone at the station, Terkel, 93, is as great an interviewee as he is interviewer.

The book includes many Jewish subjects. Bob Dylan noted in 1963 how the Cuban Missile Crisis influenced his lyrics for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” predicting “there’s got to be an explosion of some kind.” Ukrainian-born impresario Sol Hurok discussed “music for the masses.”

Aaron Copland, who composed distinctly American works, such as “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Billy the Kid,” told Terkel following a trip to the Soviet Union: “It’s easy for artists of different countries with different political systems to get together and completely forget about the political systems during the time that they’re talking about art. In that sense, music is universal.”

And in an interview with Leonard Bernstein, the maestro muses on music, politics and Broadway, which seemed like a good place to start this interview.

The Jewish Journal: What is the Jewish influence on the American musical?

Studs Terkel: Oh my God! Overwhelming! How can you even discuss it without Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’ choreography in “West Side Story?” And of course “Candide.” And then you’ve got Lorenz Hart and Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow.” The lyricists and composers — you’ve got yourself a whole testament there.

Marc Blitzstein wrote “The Cradle Will Rock” during the WPA days, when the New Deal saved our society. [The Works Progress Administration] provided jobs in the arts — theatrical, art and music projects. “The Cradle Will Rock” was a pretty tough, pro-labor play, about Steeltown. Blitzstein was very much influenced by Bertolt Brecht and [Kurt] Weill.

I once took part in a Chicago production of “The Cradle Will Rock,” [portraying] Editor Daily, who is owned by Mister Mister, who owns the town. And Bernstein started singing along with me. He knew all the words [and] was always pushing other people.

They were going to celebrate Bernstein’s 70th birthday in New York and make it the biggest celebration since Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight, and he said “no” — he wanted to celebrate in Lawrence, Mass., his hometown, because Lawrence was the hometown of the famous general strike of 1912. Out of it came the song, “Bread and Roses Too.”

JJ: What is the Jewish contribution to classical music?

ST: For Jews in the arts, there’s always been this connecting link. There’s [Lithuanian-born violinist] Jascha Heifetz., [soprano] Rosa Raisa, for whom Puccini wrote the opera, “Turandot.”

JJ: Tell us about your Jewish background.

ST: My mother came from Bialystock, near the Russo-Polish border, a very cosmopolitan town decimated by the Nazis. My father came from a suburb [and was] a tailor. Chicago is the biggest Polish population of any city outside of Warsaw.

JJ: Has Judaism influenced you?

ST: Of course it has. That’s a baby’s question. Of course it played a tremendous role. My father voted for [Socialist Party candidate] Eugene V. Debs for president. Of course, there’s anti-Semitism. Of course, there’s anti-everything. There’s always nativism. At the moment, it seems to be more [about] color, than anything else.”

JJ: You interview the salt of the earth, as well as the celebrated. Where does your compassion for common people come from?

ST: [At my mother’s] men’s hotel, there’d be arguing back and forth. I love the idea of arguments and debates. These were IWW [Wobblies] guys; the anti-union guys in the lobby called them IWW, meaning “I Won’t Work.” Of course, it meant Industrial Workers of the World.

And I loved those arguments. They were heated, full of four-letter words, but at the same time, there was something exciting. There was argument, debate — and we hardly have that these days. We just sit there, paralyzed or catatonic, watching the TV.

The word “couch potato” is a TV-originated word, never heard that in radio days. People would listen. Radio was made for Franklin D. Roosevelt — the Fireside Chat was made for him. He spoke not to millions — that’s the secret — he spoke to one person.

JJ: Like Copland, Harburg and [Zero] Mostel, you had a brush with the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism. Your 1949 NBC-TV series, “Studs’ Place,” was thrown off the air.

ST: I was blacklisted, but I found out women’s clubs were great. They’d pay me 50 bucks, 100 bucks, to talk about folk songs or whatever. This one Joe McCarthy guy, a legionnaire, threatened them for sponsoring a subversive: me. They all ignored him completely.

But one very elegant old woman was so furious at this guy that instead of paying me my agreed-upon $100 fee, she doubled the payment. I sent [the red-baiter] a $10 check as an agent’s commission, which he never acknowledged.

JJ: During the 1950s, when you worked for gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s radio program, you refused to sign a loyalty oath a CBS executive presented.

ST: I don’t believe in that stuff — at that time, I was influenced by the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers, who batted 1.000 on human rights, on everything. Mahalia told the executive: “If you fire Studs Terkel, you tell Mr. So-and-So to hire another Mahalia Jackson.” Nothing happened. We did the whole 26 weeks.

The moral is to say “bugger off” to your public [or] private servant, to disagree with him — no matter how big he is. That’s how our country was founded.

JJ: Throughout the decades, you’ve been associated with progressive causes: The New Deal, unionization, anti-fascism, civil rights, anti-war, etc. What do you think about the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe?

ST: The fact is we were unprepared for this, [we had] no money for this, because it’s going into our military endeavors. Our mal-adventure — I love that — to bring democracy to Iraq. What a joke. But now we’re catching on. It was based upon a lie — weapons of mass destruction.

The New Deal is being hacked to pieces by the current Republican administration; people’s sense of history is being challenged. We’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease.

JJ: What makes you tick?

ST: Curiosity, how do people think. What makes them do certain things. I want to find out what happened way back in the past; how it affects us in the present.

JJ: What is the art of the interview?

ST: My biggest asset is my vulnerability. The fact that I’m called “the poet of the tape recorder” is a joke. I’m very inept when it comes to mechanical things. I’m worse at tape-recording than a baby is. I can’t drive a car. I’m just starting to use the electric typewriter, which is a tremendous advance to me.

The computer age is a mystery to me completely. Sometimes, a shoemaker, truck driver or waitress helps me out, because I may have pressed the wrong button, which I do on occasion.

That’s how I lost Martha Graham, the great dancer; Michael Redgrave, the actor; and almost lost Bertrand Russell [when] I visited him during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 at his cottage in north Wales. He asked to hear my interview with [Summerhill educator] A.S. Neill, and I almost recorded Russell’s interview over Neill’s.

JJ: Any other advice?

ST: Let the guy finish his sentence. You’ve got to listen more. Let there be pauses, silence and then more comes out. Let it ride.

Ed Rampell is the author of “Progressive Hollywood, a People’s Film History of the United States” (The Disinformation Company, 2005).

 

Calendar


The Jewish Journal is no longer accepting mailed or faxed event listing information. Please e-mail event listings at least three
weeks in advance to: calendar@jewishjournal.com.

By Keren Engelberg

Calendar

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SHABBAT

Valley Beth Shalom Sisterhood:

9 a.m. Women’s Minyan with the theme “The Flame and the Soul: Reflecting God’s Light.” 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 343-3078.

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LECTURES

Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California: 2-4 p.m. “Jewish Sources: Space, Time and Memory” panel discussion on “Too Jewish – Not Jewish Enough: Jewish Art in the Art World.” Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 740-3405.

Kehillat Ma’arav: 7:30 p.m. Trudi Alexi speaks on “Spain and the Jews: A Paradoxical Relationship.” $10-$12. 1715 21st St., Santa Monica. (310) 829-0566.

EVENTS

Sinai Temple: 12:30-4 p.m. (Sun.) and 8:30 a.m. –6 p.m. (Mon.) Used book sale in the library. 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3215.

Westside Jewish Community Center: 1-4 p.m. Fiftieth anniversary celebration. Free. 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 938-2531.

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LECTURES

The New JCC at Milken: 7-9 p.m. “Bringing Meaning by Caring for Others,” part of the “Lights in Action Speaker Series.” Free. Finegood Arts Center, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 464-3300.

Jewish World Watch: 7:30 p.m. “Genocide – Emergency: Sudan – Who Will Survive?” Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 788-6000.

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EVENTS

Daphna and Richard Ziman: 6-8 p.m. Fundraiser reception for mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg. $500-$1,000. Beverly Hills residence. (310) 966-2613.

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EVENTS

Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring:

1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Reading and book signing for Florence Weinberger’s “Carnal Fragrance.” Free. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

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LECTURES

Sherry Frumkin Gallery: 7 p.m. “Meet the Press; How the Media Covers the Israeli-Palestine Conflict” panel discussion with journalists Amy Wilentz, Hussein Ibish and Rob Eshman. Free. Studio 21, Santa Monica Airport, 3026 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 397-7493.

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DECEMBER 17/FRIDAY

CHANUKAH

Sat., Dec. 11
Happy Minyan: 8 p.m. Chanukah concert and stories by Shlomo Katz. Congregation Mogen David, Los Angeles. (310) 285-7777.

Sun., Dec. 12
Klezmer Jews: 9 a.m.–noon. Chanukah Concert. Santa Monica. (310) 398-6055.
The Center for Sport and Jewish Life: Noon-6 p.m. Celebration with L.A.’s largest menorah and celebrity guests. Universal City. (818) 758-1818.
Chabad of Conejo Valley and Friendship Circle: 1-3 p.m. Extravaganza for children with special needs. Los Angeles.
(323) 653-1086.

Chabad of Ventura County: 2-5 p.m. “Chanukah at the Harbor” with the commanding officer of Ventura County Naval Base. Ventura. (805) 658-7441.

Congregation Mishkon Tephilo:
5:30 p.m. Party and Doda Mollie’s “Chanukah Pajamikah” sing-along. (310) 392-3029.
Sephardic Congregation of Northridge: 5:30 p.m. Chanukah celebration. Northridge. (818) 481-9709.

Tuesday, Dec. 14
North Valley JCC: 1 p.m. Seniors (55+) Chanukah Party. Granada Hills.
(818) 360-9384.

Friday, Dec. 17
Cheviot Hills Senior Citizens Club: 10:45 a.m. Latke Party, boutique and live entertainment. West Los Angeles.
(310) 652-7508.

Singles

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Harbor Jewish Singles (55+): 6 p.m. Chanukah party with catered dinner and gift exchange. $12-$14. Private residence in Orange. (714) 939-8540.

Sephardic Singles Havurah (40s-60s):
7 p.m. Chanukah celebration and potluck dinner with candle lighting, prayers, songs and dancing. $5. R.S.V.P.,
(323) 294-6084.

Elite Jewish Theatre Singles: 8 p.m. No-host dinner social followed by the play, “Play It Again, Sam.” $17. Santa Monica area. R.S.V.P., (310) 203-1312.

Jewish Singles, Meet! (30s and 40s):
8 p.m. Chanukah party. $10. Private Encino residence. R.S.V.P. by Dec. 10, (818) 750-0095.

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Singles Helping Others: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Assist the National Council of Jewish Women with their holiday flea market sale. (323) 663-8378. Also, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sierra Madre 2005 Rose Parade float decorating. (818) 345-8802.

Jewish Outdoor Adventures: 10 a.m. Hike to Saddle Peak via Backbone Trail followed by hot tub and Chanukah party. Free. Piuma Road, Malibu. JewishOutdoor@yahoo.com.

Conversations at Leon’s: 2-5 p.m. “The Modern Wines of China” wine tasting. $15. 639 26th St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 393-4616.

ATID (21-39): 4 p.m. Adventures in Judaism II presents “Chanukah: Lights, Miracles, Action!” $30. 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3244.

G.E.E. Super Singles: 7 p.m. Holiday Latke Party. $12-$15. R.S.V.P., (818) 501-0165.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple: 10 a.m.-noon. Lox Lattes and Learning program discussion with journalists Bob Baker and Paul Feldman on “Journalism and Israel: Is There an Anti-Israel Bias?” $50-$65. Private residence. R.S.V.P., rabbidennis@aol.com.

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Nexus: 7:30 p.m. Weekly dance classes for beginner and intermediate levels and open dance. $6. 3801 E. Willow St., Long Beach. www.JewishNexus.org.

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Westwood Jewish Singles (45+): 7:30 p.m. Discussion on “Commitment, the Big C.” $10. West Los Angeles area. R.S.V.P., (310) 444-8986.

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New Age Singles (55+): 6 p.m. “Eat and Schmooze” no-host dinner at Tony Roma’s Restaurant. 50 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 874-9937.

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L.A.’s Fabulous Best Connections: Dinner at Marmalade Cafe. R.S.V.P., (323) 782-0435.

Conversations at Leon’s: 7 p.m. “Sex, What Do Men and Women Really Want?” $15-$17. 639 26th St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 393-4616.

New Start/Millionaire’s Circle: 7:30 p.m. Social honoring men who do charity work. Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (323) 461-3137.

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Chai Center (40-55): 7 p.m. Singles Friday Night Shabbat. West Los Angeles area. R.S.V.P., (310) 391-7995.

Upcoming Singles

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DECEMBER 26, SUNDAY