As Mike Mashon mentioned in his recent blog post, Tales of the Unexpected, you never know what you’ll find in the Library’s collections. While the Library has great interviews of musicians, as found in the Joe Smith Collection, the Studs Terkel Collection contains interviews of musicians and performers that are particularly fascinating and revealing.
Since May 2010, the Library of Congress and the Chicago History Museum have been partners in a major project to digitally preserve and catalog thousands of unique and endangered sound recordings from the Museum’s Studs Terkel Collection. The collection includes complete oral history interviews Terkel conducted for his books and interviews from his WFMT radio programs.
Terkel is best known for his books of oral histories that documented the lives and stories of many Americans and the issues they faced. His books examined the Great Depression, World War II, race relations, working life and the American Dream. But from an early age, Terkel was enthusiastic about music. He had a particular passion for opera, jazz, and blues. It’s easy to overlook his first book, Giants of Jazz, published in 1956, profiled thirteen great jazz musicians.
After a brief stint in the Army, by 1945 he found work in local Chicago radio stations writing scripts and working as a disc jockey. He soon became host of his own program, The Wax Museum, on station WENR. By 1952 Terkel had joined WFMT where he was host of the Studs Terkel Program, which aired daily for 45 years. His guests on the show ranged from local Chicagoans to international figures, historians, writers, musicians, social activists, and labor organizers.
Studs asked musicians and performers about inspiration, motivation, and what each was feeling when writing or singing. His expertise and eclectic interests in music, literature, art, history and politics, as well as his curiosity and interest about people, were key to his interview style. Through his radio program he supported many artists, such as Mahalia Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy and Pete Seeger, and helped promote their music careers.
Terkel said he improvised the direction of his interview depending on the responses to his questions. He liked to begin each one as a jazz musician might approach a song, building on a theme. His treatment of guests, which was respectful and not too probing or too personal, allowed for a relaxed interview session. In fact, Terkel often said that by not asking confrontational questions his guests would repay him with honesty and truth.
In his interview with a young Bob Dylan, Terkel asks what makes him write a song. You’d be surprised at the answer. I know I was. As Dylan relates about this particular song, he was afraid he’d never be able to write another song as the United States was in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This interview with Janis Joplin was conducted in a noisy dressing room. Terkel asks Joplin how she came to the blues while growing up in Port Arthur, Texas. Her answer tells of her first introduction to the blues and how Bessie Smith became an inspiration for her music.
Terkel liked to educate his listening audience to different types of music, and jazz was one of his major passions. In this clip with pianist Oscar Peterson, Terkel wants to expand what his listeners might consider “great music,” as WFMT was mostly a classical music station at that time. He asks about Peterson’s humming, which launches an in-depth and articulate explanation by Peterson of his process and technique in playing and improvisation.
Like Peterson, Memphis Slim sits at the piano during this next interview. Terkel asks him “what’s the secret of boogie woogie?” and then asks him to demonstrate different bass lines. Slim plays a musical answer.
These short clips are just a tiny fraction of the wealth of rich content available in the Studs Terkel Collection. The Collection provides additional resources for research on Terkel himself, as well as all the people he interviewed. Currently, about a third of the collection is digitized and available in the Recorded Sound Research Center. The rest of the collection is being processed, and will be available in the future. The Studs Terkel / WFMT Oral History Archives, online at both Chicago History Museum and the Studs Terkel Archive, is another resource for this collection.
Terkel made lasting contributions to the world of music and oral history. His 45-year career on the air left a collection of recordings that are a rich resource documenting American life and the evolution of political and social thought. His interviews with musicians provide valuable insights into their lives and the evolution of their music. Researchers examining the Studs Terkel Collection are likely to find as I did something completely unexpected.