A farewell tip of the hat to Louis “Studs” Terkel (1912–2008), who passed away last Friday.
I owe a great personal debt to his inspiration. His books got me started in collecting oral history and writing my first book, an effort of many years to record the stories and music of ordinary, homegrown fiddlers, the old-time musicians of Midwestern farm neighborhoods.
A lot of those field trips were taken on a motorcycle, with my mouse-chewed fiddle strapped in its case to the roll-bar, leaning into the curves of the coulee roads, in search, from one lead to the next, of anyone who could tell a few stories and play a few tunes.
They were talented but self-taught fiddlers, run-of-the-mill sawyers and parlor virtuosos, who played at house parties (“kitchen sweats”), mostly through the winter months when farmwork was slow . . . when neighbors wanted to get together, roll up the rug and carry out the cookstore, and dance till the sun came up the next morning.
That resulted in a book I did, with wonderful documentary photos by a good friend, Lewis Koch of Madison. Farmhouse Fiddlers: Music & Dance Traditions in the Rural Midwest is still available here and there online.
To share a few words of advice on storytelling from the great Terkel (from his memoir, Touch and Go):
What first comes out [of an interview] are tons of ore; you have to get that gold dust in your hands.
But that was just the beginning:
Now, how does it become a necklace or a ring or a gold watch? You have to get the form; you have to mold the gold dust.
That sums up the storyteller’s gift: to take the mountains of stuff that is told or written in the first draft . . . to sift through it for the good stuff . . . and then, in the jeweler’s magical workshop, to find that golden form, to shape it into something of beauty that others will treasure . . . for many, many years.
It’s not just the words . . . but the shape of the tale that carries it out into the world to be passed as a gift from one to the next.
Thanks, Studs. You showed us the way.