Studs Terkel, 1912-2008

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Ah, sad news out of Chicago: Studs Terkel died today at the age of 96.

Studs was many things: an actor (most recently in “Eight Men Out,” the 1988 movie about the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal of 1919), a disc jockey, an activist and more. But he’ll be remembered best for his interviews – radio interviews with just about anybody who was anybody, as well as books of interviews with everyday people: people who lived on a single street in Chicago (Division Street: America), people who worked in all kinds of jobs (Working), people who came through the Great Depression (Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression) and the Second World War (The Good War), race relations in the U.S. (Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession), and many others.

I’ve been listening to WFMT radio, the Chicago station where Studs had a daily show for 45 years (and was billed in the staff directory as “free spirit”), which is running old interviews by him and reminiscences about him. One of the reminiscers said that Studs had been saying for the last year or so that he was ready to go – he’d apparently been telling everyone, “I ain’t buying any green bananas!” But then last week, he said he had to live to see the outcome of the U.S. election. He was living in his own home, and his absentee ballot apparently arrived in today’s mail.

Studs was one of my own heroes when I decided to study journalism. The great thing about his interviewing style was that he was fully engaged and certainly brought his own personality to his interviews, but he didn’t dominate them. He didn’t compete with his interview subjects, and he knew when to listen and let them take flight. As I write this, WFMT is replaying his interview with the U.S. contralto Marian Anderson, and she just spoke, uninterrupted, for at least four minutes.

Someone – it’s attributed only to Newsweek magazine – said, back in the 1960s or 70s, that “No journalist alive wields a tape recorder as effectively as Studs Terkel.” And it’s also been said by several observers that Studs didn’t invent oral history – but he might as well have.

I never met him. The closest I came was on a visit to Chicago in 1992, when he was participating in mock soapbox speeches in Bughouse Square, the informal name was given to Washington Square Park where cranks and religionists and labour unionists used to hold forth. The park is across the street from the Newberry Library, which has organized recreations of free-speech gatherings each summer in conjunction with its annual book sale. I took some pictures there, and when I find them, I’ll post them, but in the meantime, I’m using the cover of his memoir that was published about a year ago. Another new Studs book – P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening – is scheduled to be released on 15 November.

You can read his obit in the Chicago Tribune here, and I found the following mp3 of his reflections on 40 years of interviews:

@import url(http://beemp3.com/player/embed.css);

Studs Terkel (c) HighBridge – Voices of Our Time
Found at bee mp3 search engine

As Studs used to sign off his WFMT show: “Take it easy, but take it.”

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