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Studs Terkel

By Calvin Trillin

Studs Terkel’s accomplishments as America’s pre-eminent listener were all the more remarkable when you consider the fact that he happened to have been a prodigious talker. He was, in other words, a monument to restraint. A couple of times, I reversed roles with Studs—I interviewed him for an hour on stage—and each time I was tempted to ask him the first question, take off my lapel-microphone, and quietly join the audience. He could have easily held forth for an hour, segueing smoothly from some thoughts on jazz to his soap-opera career playing gangsters to the dinner-table conversations at the men’s hotel his mother ran to his encounters with some Keystone Kops enforcing the blacklist to happy times in his favorite Chicago saloon, Ricardo’s, where one of the waiters was cued to stroll over to the table and join him in the Spanish Civil War song “Los Cuatros Generales.”

One of those stage interviews was in San Francisco and one in New York, but wherever Studs was he brought Chicago with him. Chicagoans were the people he interviewed for the book that began his transformation of oral history, Division Street: America—the first in a series of volumes that included Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression and Working and The Good War, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985. It was in Chicago that, for forty-five years on station WFMT, he interviewed a remarkable array of musicians and writers and academics—often introducing an interview with some piece of music he considered relevant to his guest, even if the guest, lacking Studs’s encyclopedic knowledge of music and his gift for spinning out connective tissue, had never heard of it. In the early days of cable television, Studs and I did a talk show in which we chatted with a panel of people who were distinguished in a particular art form—three divas, say, or three architects—and what amazed me was that Studs seemed to know nearly all of them.  It became clear that illustrious visitors to Chicago were taken to see Studs in the way that in a past era illustrious visitors to Chicago had been given a tour of the stockyards. Once, somebody on the show mentioned Jane Austen, and I said, “If she ever went through Chicago, Studs knew her.”

If an author showed up at WFMT toward the end of a book tour, he was likely to have repeated phrases from his book so often that they were beginning to have a depressing similarity to the flight attendant’s announcement about seat backs and tray tables. Then, after the introductory piece of music, Studs would open up his copy of the book, which had been heavily underlined with a broad black pen, and read a few passages in that gravelly voice that somehow made the words sound fresh again. The author would find himself thinking, “Hey, that’s not half bad!” Foundations that wanted to buck up American writers didn’t really have to send them to villas in Italy; they could have simply had the writers interviewed by Studs. You wouldn’t even have had to air the results.

When Studs got into a Chicago taxi cabwhich he often did, since he’d never learned to drive a carthe cabbie almost invariably realized that he had one of the city’s iconic figures in the back seat.  There usually followed a conversation in which Studs, through his questions, displayed a remarkable familiarity with the driver’s old neighborhood, whether the neighborhood was Back of the Yards or Nigeria. The almost instantaneous connection Studs made with the driver was a reminder that this man, who had interviewed Leonard Bernstein and Bertrand Russell and Ralph Ellison and Zero Mostel and Margaret Meade, created his most enduring work by gathering the thoughts of ordinary Americansthe people he sometimes referred to as “the uncelebrated”on their struggles and their daily labor and even their deaths. They shared those thoughts with him, I think, partly because, like the writers who were lifted out of book-tour torpor on WFMT, they sensed that his curiosity and his generosity of spirit embraced everyone, without regard to rank or station.

Not long after Studs died, the New York Times published in the Arts section what was labeled an appraisal of his work. The writer, after acknowledging some of Studs’s accomplishments, said that, upon close reading, a book such as Working revealed Studs to be someone who had molded his interviews to “fit models shaped by Marxist theory.” The article ended with a fact that seemed meant as the clincher for this interpretation of Studs Terkel as essentially a propagandistthe revelation that he had once given a blurb to a book by William Ayers, the Chicago education professor who in the sixties had been a founder of the violent Weatherman faction of SDS.

The article incensed some of us who loved and admired Studs, but I cooled down a bit after I realized how Studs would have reacted. I could picture him at Ricardo’s. He’s wearing a blazer and his trademark red-checked shirt, with the top button unbuttoned and a red tie pulled down to half mast. He’s gesturing with a half-smoked cigar. He’s telling a story about how in the ’50s he was informed by a network flunky that he couldn’t work on Mahalia Jackson’s show if he refused to sign a loyalty oath, and Mahalia Jackson ended the conversation by saying, “If Studs don’t write, Mahalia don’t sing.” Pausing for a quick pull on his cigar, Studs says, “So fifty years later, there’s this guy in New York who reveals me to be a dangerous blurbist.” That, in turn, reminds Studs of the attempts to paint Barack Obama as a disloyal radical because of his acquaintanceship with Ayers, and that leads to an arcane analysis of how politics on the South Side differ from politics in certain other Chicago neighborhoods. During that exegesis a waiter on his way to another table suddenly swerves and comes over to stand next to Studs. Then they treat us to a verse or two of “Los Cuatros Generales.”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2009.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters