FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Studs Terkel–Interpreter of America

by

When I was in Junior High, I had a job delivering the Washington Post newspaper to about sixty houses in and near my neighborhood. I would often end my Saturday route by riding my bike to the local shopping center where I would eat breakfast at the drugstore counter with a couple other newsboys. This was where I had my first cup of coffee, although I preferred the vanilla cream soda. Usually, after paying the dollar or so for the eggs, bacon and toast, I would make my way over the newsstand in the drugstore and read as much of as many magazines as I could until the clerk would tell me to pay or leave. My standard reading material was sports magazines, teen music magazines, science fiction magazines and the police crime pulp magazines. Occasionally, I would begin reading a paperback that caught my eye. Indeed, it was at that newsstand that I first began reading Tom Wolfe’s tale of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It was also where I first heard of the great oral historian and commentator on many things, Studs Terkel. It was his book on 1960s United States titled Division Street that first caught my eye. I liked what I read so much in the few minutes before I was shooed away by the drugstore clerk, that I bought the book and took it home. As I read more and more, I found myself fascinated by the realness of the dialogue and the format of the book. I honestly felt like I learned more about the various issues facing the nation in reading Division Street than I had in every social studies course I was in at my school. A couple years later, Terkel’s book titled Working was the primary text in one of my college classes.41ndjcdjgml-_sx331_bo1204203200_

In the world of the word, Studs Terkel was a multi-talented man. He was an actor, a playwright, an organizer, a deejay, and an interviewer, among other things. Mostly, however, as Alan Wieder makes clear in his newly-published biography of Terkel, Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation, he was an “interpreter of America.” His ability to not only listen, but to also ask the right questions of an interviewee, made his radio shows and books of oral history not only informative and enjoyable; those interviews became the standard to which others strived to achieve. It was as if Terkel had a certain magic once the tape recorder was turned on. According to Wieder and his research, that magic was in the manner Terkel listened and his ability to become the interviewee’s confidante in a matter of minutes.

Wieder narrates Terkel’s life in the way which a life is lived. In other words, he tells Studs’ story in a relatively linear manner. The reader is introduced to Terkel in his childhood, meeting his family and following him into the world of work and political action. Wieder, an oral historian in his own right and the author most recently of an excellent biography of anti-apartheid fighters Ruth First and Joe Slovo (Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid), leans leftward in his politics. So did Studs Terkel. It is my opinion that this was part of the reason his interviews/conversations with so-called regular folks come off as genuine; Terkel considered every person’s story had the same potential to be something important, no matter what their social position. Wieder emphasizes Terkel’s politics in this biography, understanding their essential place in Terkel’s work.

Studs Terkel had a favorite kind of biographical story. He called it the “transformational story.” In other words, it was a personal biography of an individual whose life had changed 180 degrees because of an experience that individual went through. One of Terkel’s favorite such stories was one which appeared in his book American Dreams: Lost and Found. C. Ellis was a poor white male who joined the Ku Klux Klan in his youth who eventually became both a union organizer and an anti-racist fighter in the US South. It was Terkel’s experience that people can change and it was his hope that he himself had inspired a few such metamorphoses.

Terkel understood part of his work to be “lancing the boil” of US political and cultural complacency. In doing so, he hoped not only for a broader conversation but also a better world. He lived in a time when that hope was shared by millions and fought for by millions. His multiple interests and his ability to discuss them all combined with an apparent belief that most folks had something he could learn from them made his radio shows a thrill to listen to and his books engrossing reading. In writing Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation Alan Wieder provides the reading public with a comprehensive and quite readable companion to the material Studs Terkel produced over his long life. Its accessibility, like that found in the works of Studs, makes it rewarding for almost every audience.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
April 28, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Slandering Populism: a Chilling Media Habit
Andrew Levine
Why I Fear and Loathe Trump Even More Now Than On Election Day
Jeffrey St. Clair
Mountain of Tears: the Vanishing Glaciers of the Pacific Northwest
Philippe Marlière
The Neoliberal or the Fascist? What Should French Progressives Do?
Conn Hallinan
America’s New Nuclear Missile Endangers the World
Peter Linebaugh
Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017
Vijay Prashad
Reckless in the White House
Brian Cloughley
Who Benefits From Prolonged Warfare?
Kathy Kelly
The Shame of Killing Innocent People
Ron Jacobs
Hate Speech as Free Speech: How Does That Work, Exactly?
Andre Vltchek
Middle Eastern Surgeon Speaks About “Ecology of War”
Matt Rubenstein
Which Witch Hunt? Liberal Disanalogies
Sami Awad - Yoav Litvin - Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Never Give Up: Nonviolent Civilian Resistance, Healing and Active Hope in the Holyland
Pete Dolack
Tribunal Finds Monsanto an Abuser of Human Rights and Environment
Christopher Ketcham
The Coyote Hunt
Mike Whitney
Putin’s New World Order
Ramzy Baroud
Palestinian, Jewish Voices Must Jointly Challenge Israel’s Past
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 100 Days of Rage and Rapacity
Harvey Wasserman
Marine Le Pen Is a Fascist—Not a ‘Right-Wing Populist,’ Which Is a Contradiction in Terms
William Hawes
World War Whatever
John Stanton
War With North Korea: No Joke
Jim Goodman
NAFTA Needs to be Replaced, Not Renegotiated
Murray Dobbin
What is the Antidote to Trumpism?
Louis Proyect
Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay
Medea Benjamin
Women Beware: Saudi Arabia Charged with Shaping Global Standards for Women’s Equality
Rev. William Alberts
Selling Spiritual Care
Peter Lee
Invasion of the Pretty People, Kamala Harris Edition
Cal Winslow
A Special Obscenity: “Guernica” Today
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey’s Kurdish Agenda
Guillermo R. Gil
The Senator Visits Río Piedras
Jeff Mackler
Mumia Abu-Jamal Fights for a New Trial and Freedom 
Cesar Chelala
The Responsibility of Rich Countries in Yemen’s Crisis
Leslie Watson Malachi
Women’s Health is on the Chopping Block, Again
Basav Sen
The Coal Industry is a Job Killer
Judith Bello
Rojava, a Popular Imperial Project
Robert Koehler
A Public Plan for Peace
Sam Pizzigati
The Insider Who Blew the Whistle on Corporate Greed
Nyla Ali Khan
There Has to be a Way Out of the Labyrinth
Michael J. Sainato
Trump Scales Back Antiquities Act, Which Helped to Create National Parks
Stu Harrison
Under Duterte, Filipino Youth Struggle for Real Change
Martin Billheimer
Balm for Goat’s Milk
Stephen Martin
Spooky Cookies and Algorithmic Steps Dystopian
Michael Doliner
Thank You Note
Charles R. Larson
Review: Gregor Hens’ “Nicotine”
David Yearsley
Handel’s Executioner
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail