Studs Terkel died on October 31 2008.
I first discovered the work of Studs Terkel in 1980 when I studying Politics at City of London Polytechnic. One book, ‘Hard Times’ (1970) an oral history of the great American depression of the 1930s looked the least dull of a typical reading list stuffed with texts on economics, politics and constitutions.
It proved to have a deep significance for me. Firstly, it was the first time that I had encountered the concept of oral history, as I read (and I also seemed to be able to hear) the authentic words of real people, both well known and perhaps more importantly ‘the ordinary’, the voices of those who never reach our history books.
It also fired from then on, a life-long infatuation with Studs Terkel, the grand master of oral history. Although I’ve never actually met him in person, we’ve communicated via letter, through conversations with colleagues, and even by a short video message that he once recorded for my colleagues at an Oral History Society conference. In fact he’s completely unaware that I’ve recently completed a BBC Radio 4 feature about the life and times of America’s most remarkable writer, commentator and broadcaster.
For us living in the UK, it’s the books that have made Terkel a respected name. His great breakthrough here came in 1974 with the publication of ‘Working’, with its poignant sub-title ‘People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do’. When Terkel visited Britain to promote the book, he was greeted as a visionary, someone who could unlock people’s minds, and share their thoughts, hopes, fears and most importantly, their feelings with a complete stranger. The only person here who was doing this kind of work was Tony Parker (later to become Terkel’s close friend and his biographer too), but Parker’s efforts, although extraordinary, tended to focus on the lives of the disenfranchised and the marginal – prisoners, recidivists and sex offenders.
But in the States, particularly in Chicago, Terkel was, and is, a legend. Through his radio show on WFMT which ran for 52 years, he quite simply became the voice of Chicago. Anyone – actors, activists, writers, poets, educators who happened to be passing through the Windy City, were invited to be interviewed by Studs Terkel in his downtown studio. I don’t think anyone ever refused to talk to Terkel, and when you listen to the Terkel archive (http://www.studsterkel.org/), there’s no doubt that the conversations are meaty, politically charged, and very honest.
It’s ironic that Mr Chicago, Studs Terkel, was not even born in the city, but on the East Coast in New York City. His love affair with Chicago began when he was barely in his teens, watching the diverse cast of characters who would book into his parents rooming house. That’s where he fell in love with life, real people and in particular, the worker, and even more importantly, the labour agitators committed to battling big business.
It’s amazing that Terkel kept hammering out books – he had four new ones published while in his 90s, including observations about dying, about faith and an illuminating autobiography.
Inspired by Terkel, I’ve been working as an oral historian for over 20 years. I always recommend his books to anyone who’s genuinely interested in understanding other peoples lives, and as a human response to the swill perpetuated by American popular and political culture. It’s heartening to see that so many of his works are now back in print, and that Terkel has just about won every award going in his massive career.
Studs Terkel always used to sign off his radio programme with the catch phrase "Take it easy, but take it." Remember in the 1950s, Terkel, like many of his left-leaning contemporaries were hounded by McCarthyism. His TV show Studs Place was kicked off the air, but Terkel didn’t give up. He turned to radio, and broadcast Jazz and Blues, and interviewed the musicians well before the Civil Rights era.
Basically what he was saying, and what he still believes, is in a culture where the past is either forgotten or distorted, there is another path - take what life brings your way, but also take up the stuff of life that makes you believe.
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