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).