IT'S tempting to mock this uneven collection of conversations as an attempt by Studs Terkel, now 93, to squeeze every penny out of every inch of recording tape he's used in four decades of collecting oral histories. It's tempting to complain that the book's title is misleading -- people rarely sing in these pages, they simply talk about singing, or playing or composing. It's tempting to dismiss the book as stuck in another era, when radio show guests were allowed to meander by an overindulgent host.
But then you find yourself caught up in the inner life of American piano virtuoso Garrick Ohlsson. It's 2001 and Terkel has admiringly noted that Ohlsson, the day's guest on his weekly radio show, sometimes sings as he performs. The observation sparks Ohlsson to explain:
"You strike the note, the hammer strikes the string, it begins to vibrate. That's the strongest impact. The tone develops a bit and then dies away very beautifully. That's all piano can do. Everything else, all the illusion of growth, of sustaining, is all what we do as magicians. Every good piano teacher has said to his students, 'Make the piano sing, don't make it sound percussive.' In other words, make it suggest something else. It's an instrument of suggestion. A violin really makes the note grow and wax and wane. A singer can do that, a wind or a brass instrument can do that. We pianists have to suggest it .... Singing at the piano is ... a way of connecting [the notes] so that they sound songlike."
This, at its best moments, is where Terkel's book takes the reader, to that place within the artist where talent bubbles into creative impulse and then invention. It is a place with no common vocabulary, a garden Terkel loves to wander in.
And so New York opera soprano Catherine Malfitano talks about welcoming risky moments: "I think that one has to always have the sense that death is right next to you." Folk singer Pete Seeger describes how seeing a picture of U.S. troops wading across Vietnam's Mekong River set off the metaphoric refrain of his bitter antiwar song: "Waist-deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on." Alan Lomax, who recorded countless early folk musicians, suggests that the special cruelty of Texas prison guards produced the most powerful blues he'd ever heard. "Go down old Hannah," Lomax sings, explaining that "Hannah" was a reference to the sun. "Well, well, well ... Don't you rise no more...."
The interviews, conducted from the late '50s onward, come from a weekly radio show Terkel began hosting on Chicago's fine-arts station WFMT shortly after World War II. His background served him well: He was a fan of opera, folk, jazz and blues. ("The blues to me was all the things I wanted to be and never got around to being.") The show ran for 45 years. Over time, Terkel became America's preeminent oral historian, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for "The Good War," his book of Americans remembering World War II.
This book lives up to its subtitle's promise of eclecticism: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Welsh baritone Geraint Evans, jazz pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines, folk singer Jean Ritchie, guitarist Andres Segovia, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Sol Hurok -- nearly four dozen conversations in all. The book groups them by category, allowing the reader to pursue first loves first.
The 1963 Dylan interview, conducted when he was receiving his first national attention as a "protest" singer, put a sympathetic Terkel on shaky ground; unlike almost every other artist in this book, who seemed flattered to be interviewed, Dylan already was honing his guarded manner, his conceit that art should speak for itself.
Terkel, 51 at the time of the interview, flails to connect with the 22-year-old songwriter. ("It seems you can write about any subject under the sun.") Finally, Dylan gives him a sliver of an opening, mentioning that he'd briefly attended college: "If I talk about college [days] I ain't talking about 'em just from anything people have told me."
"Some will say," responds Terkel, even then one of the most class-conscious observers in U.S. history, " 'listen to Bob Dylan, he's talking street mountain talk now, though he's a literate man, see.' "
Dylan is exposed, reduced to a laughing denial. Score one for the eclectic disc jockey.
Bob Baker, a former Times reporter and editor, is co-author of "Burn, Baby! BURN," the autobiography of R&B disc jockey Magnificent Montague.