Saturday, November 04, 2006

Review: And They All Sang

And They All Sang - The Great Musicians of the 20th Century Talk About Their Music
Studs Terkel

Charles Lamb once said that he never picked up a newspaper without anticipation and never put it down without slight disappointment. One could never say that about the great oral historian Studs Terkel - until now. This worthy, bargain-priced, readable but ultimately frustrating book was always likely to be overambitious - no less than a swatch of the musical history of the 20th century by interviewing 40 or so of its stars - Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson, Josef Krips, Woody Guthrie, Birgit Nilsson, Bob Dylan. Sounds broad? Too, too broad by far. Everyone who picks up this book will be able to list more notable absentees than those musicians included.

Terkel's unearthed some diamonds here, nonetheless; Louis Armstrong's wife Lil's racy narrative of being a black, female jazz pianist in the 1920s is hilarious. Alfred Brendel is predictably and enjoyably cerebral ('all important music incorporates silence'); yet another pianist, the Canadian Garrick Ohlsson, is impressive on Chopin and Liszt.

But Terkel's uncharacteristic failure to draw more anecdotes out of the classical conductor and lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky - who knew almost everyone from Rimsky Korsakov to Stockhausen - characterises a curious emptiness. There is too much luvvie-ish self-regard by the likes of Schwarzkopf and Gobbi, and names are dropped like confetti - Toscanini, Furtwängler, Miles Davis - without any real insight into the method of their genius or their foibles as humans. Classical music, of course - as Slonimsky, more than anyone, would have known - has just as much human interest as jazz or rock. The reader feels slightly shortchanged, a leitmotif of 'yeah, but what about...?' repeating over and over. And when the tenor Jon Vickers is allowed to get away with something so preposterously ill-informed as to claim claiming that Tristan und Isolde is a 'Nietzscheist'[sic] opera without Terkel challenging him (one might as well suggest it influenced Ice-T), one wonders as to just what other faux-pas litter the text.

It's nonetheless a good read, ideal for the loo, and repays study; Terkel's chapter on 'Spirituals, Gospel, Blues and Rock' features extraordinary people like the folksong collector Alan Lomax and bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. These 60-odd pages along inform more about the music of American poverty than far more scholarly tomes, and we'll even forgive his inclusion of the deplorable Janis Joplin. Here Terkel is on firmer ground, that of his masterworks like Division Street USA and The Good War. I am not suggesting Terkel is a prole-poet of an Ordinary Joe America, an Edward Hopper or James Baldwin, incapable of engaging with high art - it's just that he seems unable to draw much from classical practitioners.

But bite the bullet and buy this book; for all its faults, if enough of us show our hand, follow-ups to plug the gaps and flesh it out might yet be forthcoming.

And They All Sang is published by Granta

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