And They All Sang, by Studs Terkel

In the musical chair with a maestro of the mike
Click to follow

Back in 1920, when Studs Terkel was eight, his father came home from the factory where he worked as a tailor with a gramophone recording by Enrico Caruso. Terkel was a sickly, asthmatic child, but those first notes of Celeste Aida did more than any doctor. For the first time, his breathing came easily. Listening to Caruso, he found his own voice.

And They All Sang is Terkel's homage to the life-changing power of music. It brings together some 40 conversations with singers, instrumentalists and composers conducted over 50 years on his celebrated daily slot on Chicago radio. The mix is eclectic, taking in legends such as Andres Segovia and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as performers whom even the most avid audiophile would be hard pressed to identify.

Emanuel Dunn, a figure out of Faulkner, sings of a Southern childhood drifting between swamps and sawmills, homeless, nameless and uncertain whether he was white or black; Julian Lee Rayford, a garrulous collector of ephemera, regales Terkel with street cries, train whistles and the sound of a hot dog vendor at a Houston prizefight. The Appalachian folk singer John Jacob Niles was jilted by the woman who inspired his ballad "Go Away from my Window": "As it is, she married a rich man and the two of them fell off a mountainside and they buried them".

What holds the vocal medley together is the passionate enthusiasm of Terkel himself. The author of 16 riveting oral histories - in which ordinary Americans reflect on the Great Depression, the Second World War, their experiences of race, class and the workplace - he reveals himself here as a music lover of catholic tastes, as comfortable with Janis Joplin and Ravi Shankar as with Leonard Bernstein and Alfred Brendel. His expertise is evident on every page, whether debating the harmonic structure of the spirituals or discerning the subtleties of Keith Jarrett's piano technique.

As ever, he is the most skilful of interviewers. His earlier volumes have amply demonstrated his knack for getting close to his subjects, be they pensive waitresses, embittered beauty queens, or repentant members of the Ku Klux Klan. In conversation with musicians, he displays the same sensitivity, rousing a dispirited Louis Armstrong by asking him about the "highlife music" he encountered in Ghana, and bemoaning the failures of his generation to a young Bob Dylan, sufficiently disarmed to respond with something close to a line-by-line explication of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall".

Eliciting larger-than-life eloquence is Terkel's stock-in-trade. His books are, perhaps, not for everyone - those suspicious of romantic populism are best advised to stay away. Yet the richness of And They All Sang lies in Terkel's unabashed conviction that music is the most democratic of art forms, at once magical and earthy. "Now, take a knife," explains Big Bill Broonzy. "How many things can you do with a knife? You can cut fish, you can cut your toenails, I seen guys shave with it, you can eat beans with it, you can kill a man. There. You name five things you can do with a knife, you got five verses. You got yourself a blues."

Marybeth Hamilton's 'In Search of the Blues' will be published in January by Jonathan Cape