My Photo

the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

Follow 1michaelgray1 on Twitter

Saturday, November 01, 2008


I'm sorry to learn from a friend, courtesy of yesterday's New York Times, of the death of the splendid Studs Terkel, aged 96, on Friday. This is what their report by William Grimes said:

Studs Terkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose searching interviews with ordinary Americans helped establish oral history as a serious genre, and who for decades was the voluble host of a popular radio show in Chicago, died Friday at his home there. He was 96. His death was confirmed by Lois Baum, a friend and longtime colleague at the radio station WFMT.

In his oral histories, which he called guerrilla journalism, Mr. Terkel relied on his enthusiastic but gentle interviewing style to elicit, in rich detail, the experiences and thoughts of his fellow citizens. Over the decades, he developed a continuous narrative of great historic moments sounded by an American chorus in the native vernacular.

“Division Street: America” (1966), his first best seller and the first in a triptych of tape-recorded works, explored the urban conflicts of the 1960s. Its success led to “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression" (1970) and “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” (1974). Mr. Terkel’s book “ ‘The Good War’: An Oral History of World War II” won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

In “Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times” (1977), Mr. Terkel turned the microphone on himself to produce an engaging memoir. In “Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession” (1992) and “Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It” (1995), he reached for his ever-present tape recorder for interviews on race relations in the United States and the experience of growing old.

Although detractors derided him as a sentimental populist whose views were simplistic and occasionally maudlin, Mr. Terkel was widely credited with transforming oral history into a popular literary form. In 1985 a reviewer for The Financial Times of London characterized his books as “completely free of sociological claptrap, armchair revisionism and academic moralizing.”

The elfin, amiable Mr. Terkel was a gifted and seemingly tireless interviewer who elicited provocative insights and colorful, detailed personal histories from a broad mix of people. “The thing I’m able to do, I guess, is break down walls,” he once told an interviewer. “If they think you’re listening, they’ll talk. It’s more of a conversation than an interview.”

Mr. Terkel succeeded as an interviewer in part because he believed most people had something to say worth hearing. “The average American has an indigenous intelligence, a native wit,” he said. “It’s only a question of piquing that intelligence.” In “American Dreams: Lost and Found” (1980), he interviewed police officers and convicts, nurses and loggers, former slaves and former Ku Klux Klansmen — a typical crowd for Mr. Terkel.

Readers of his books could only guess at Mr. Terkel’s interview style. Listeners to his daily radio show, which was first broadcast on WFMT in 1958, got the full Terkel flavor as the host, with breathy eagerness and a tough-guy Chicago accent, went after the straight dope from guests like Sir Georg Solti, Toni Morrison and Gloria Steinem. “It isn’t an inquisition; it’s an exploration, usually an exploration into the past,” he once said, explaining his approach. “So I think the gentlest question is the best one, and the gentlest is, ‘And what happened then?’”

Studs Terkel was born in the Bronx on May 16, 1912, the third son of Samuel Terkel, a tailor, and the former Anna Finkel, who had emigrated from Bialystok, Poland. In 1923 the family moved to Chicago. In the late 1930s, while acting in the theater, Mr. Terkel dropped his given name, Louis, and adopted the name Studs, from another colorful Chicagoan, James T. Farrell’s fictional Studs Lonigan.

His childhood was unhappy. His father was an invalid who suffered from heart disease. His mother was volatile and impetuous, given to unpredictable rages that kept the household on edge. “What nobody got from her was warmth and love, or at least not a display of it,” Mr. Terkel said.

After moving to Chicago, the Terkels managed hotels popular with blue-collar workers, and Mr. Terkel often said that the characters he encountered and the disputations he witnessed at the Wells-Grand Hotel on the Near North Side were his real education. Although he read avidly and feasted on Roget’s Thesaurus, he was, by his own reckoning, no scholar. He earned philosophy and law degrees at the University of Chicago, but after failing a bar exam he worked briefly for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Chicago, doing statistical research on unemployment in Omaha. He then found work in Washington counting bonds for the Treasury Department.

When he returned to Chicago in 1938, Mr. Terkel, who once described his life as “an accretion of accidents,” joined the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program. He wrote scripts for WGN radio and, after appearing in “Waiting for Lefty” at the Chicago Repertory Group, found work in soap operas like “Ma Perkins” and “Road of Life.” What he called his “low, husky, menacing” voice made him a natural to play heavies.

“I would always say the same thing and either get killed or sent to Sing Sing,” he later recalled.
It was while performing with the Chicago Repertory Group that he took the name Studs. In 1939 he married Ida Goldberg, a social worker from Wisconsin whom he met while they were both with the Chicago Rep. She died in 1999. The couple had one son, Dan Terkell, who altered the spelling of his surname. Mr. Terkell, who lives in Chicago, is the only immediate survivor.

After a one-year stint writing speeches and shows in the special services of the Army Air Forces in 1942 and 1943, Mr. Terkel was discharged because his perforated eardrums, a condition resulting from childhood operations, made him unfit for overseas duty. He found work doing news, sports and commentary for commercial radio stations in Chicago, and in 1945 he was given his own radio show, “The Wax Museum,” on WENR.

Although “The Wax Museum,” which ran for two years, was primarily a jazz show, Mr. Terkel also followed his other enthusiasms, playing country music, folk, opera and gospel, as the mood seized him. He was one of the first to promote artists like Mahalia Jackson, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy and Burl Ives. On occasion he would invite composers or performers to sit down for an on-air interview. His passion for jazz led to his first book, “Giants of Jazz” (1957), a collection of biographies.

In 1950 Mr. Terkel became the star and host of “Studs’ Place,” a variety show set in a barbecue joint, with Mr. Terkel appearing as the owner, shooting the breeze with his staff and with the guest of the week. Along with “The Dave Garroway Show” and “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” it helped define the relaxed, low-key Chicago school of television.

In January 1952, with McCarthyism in full flower, NBC canceled the show shortly after picking it up for national broadcast, nervous because Mr. Terkel had a habit of signing petitions in support of liberal and left-wing causes. Executives in New York told him that he could clear his record by saying he had been duped into signing the petitions. Mr. Terkel refused. “Duped” made him sound stupid, he said.

Blackballed from commercial radio, Mr. Terkel found work in the theater, appearing in a national tour of “Detective Story” and in other plays. One day, in October 1952, he was surprised to hear Woody Guthrie on the radio. “I wondered, who plays Guthrie records except me?” he later recalled. “So I called WFMT. They were delighted to hear from me.” In a partnership that would endure for 45 years, Mr. Terkel broadcast a daily hour of music, commentary and interviews, helping to build WFMT into a major fine-arts station. Although he shied away from actors and politicians, anyone else was fair game. The guest roster included figures as diverse as John Kenneth Galbraith, Garry Wills, Aaron Copland and Oliver Sacks.

In 1980, Mr. Terkel won a Peabody Award for excellence in journalism. His official title at the station, where he was instantly recognizable by his wayward white hair, red-and-white-checked shirts and well-chewed cigar, was Free Spirit.

In the 1960s, André Schiffrin, the publisher and editor who ran Pantheon Books, was looking for a writer to produce the American equivalent of Jan Myrdal’s “Report From a Chinese Village,” a collection of interviews that shed light on the lives of ordinary Chinese under Mao Zedong. Mr. Schiffrin called Mr. Terkel and suggested Chicago as a subject.

Mr. Terkel went out into the city’s neighborhoods, tape recorder in hand, and produced “Division Street,” an enormous success and the beginning of a lifelong relationship in which Mr. Schiffrin would propose an idea and Mr. Terkel would execute it.

“Division Street” consisted of transcripts of 70 conversations Mr. Terkel had with people of every sort in and around Chicago. Peter Lyon, reviewing it in The New York Times Book Review, said it was “a modern morality play, a drama with as many conflicts as life itself.” In “The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream” (1988), Mr. Terkel returned to an earlier subject and looked at it afresh. When Random House executives forced Mr. Schiffrin out as head of Pantheon in 1990, Mr. Terkel walked out with him and took his work to Mr. Schiffrin’s New Press. New Press published “My American Century” (1997), a “best of” compilation. That book was followed by two more volumes of memoirs, “Touch and Go” (2007), and “P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening,” to be published on Nov. 11. In 1997, Mr. Terkel received the National Book Foundation Medal for contributions to American letters.

In “Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times,” Mr. Terkel took on his toughest interview, and many critics found the book frustrating for its refusal to delve too deeply into its author’s personal life and feelings. Mr. Terkel acknowledged the justice of the complaint. “I’ve met hundreds, no, I’ve met thousands of interesting people, and I’ve been so caught up with them and fascinated by them and intrigued with them, it’s almost like there’s no room inside me to be interested in my own feelings and thoughts,” he told an interviewer.

It may be the one time in his life that Mr. Terkel’s ruling passion failed him. “I don’t have to stay curious, I am curious, about all of it, all the time,” he once said. “‘Curiosity never killed this cat’ — that’s what I’d like as my epitaph.”

His latest book, in the US called And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey (2005), collects interviews with Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, Dizzy Gillespie, Marian Anderson, John Hammond, Thomas A. Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Alan Lomax, Keith Jarrett and others. There are biographical notes by Jonathan Cott at the end of the book. The UK hardback, published by Granta (2006) looks as if it has used the same pages as the US version, but has the rather better sub-title The Great Musicians of the 20th Century Talk About Their Music.

His interview with Dylan, all 58 minutes 5 seconds of it, recorded in 1963, can be heard on that marvellous source of so much to do with music, the NPR website. The page is here. (The photo above, by Nina Subin, is also from this page.)


Post a Comment

<< Home