StoryCorps 501: Studs Terkel Day
[MUSIC “Sofista” by Hana]
Michael Garofalo (MG): Each Year, at the beginning of May, StoryCorps closes its doors for one day to mark the birthday of one of our heroes, the late great oral historian Studs Terkel.
We actually call this StoryCorps holiday Studs Terkel Day. This year it was observed on a Friday, although the day I’m recording this is the date of his actual birth, May 16.
And in this episode of the StoryCorps podcast from NPR we’re going to remember Studs by listening to a StoryCorps interview he recorded back in 2005 when he was 93 years old.
Studs Terkel (ST): How’s my voice sound to you? Sound strange? No? My hearing aid’s on the blink.
MG: This is the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Michael Garofalo, and we’ll be back with more from Studs Terkel after this short break.
MG: Welcome back. In this episode we’re celebrating the birthday of one of the inspirations and guiding lights of StoryCorps. The oral historian Studs Terkel.
If you’ve read his work, you know Studs was the champion of the everyman, the guy or gal who lived their life quietly, without praise or fanfare. Studs asked people who had never thought of themselves as important to reflect on their lives, their work, their world and he put their words down in his books. He documented people remembering the Great Depression in Hard Times, he collected Americans’ thoughts on their jobs in Working,and much much more.
This way of thinking about history — a bottom up approach — had a huge influence on how we do things at StoryCorps. So much so, that we actually had Studs cut the ribbon when we opened our first recording booth at Grand Central Terminal in 2003. Here’s what he had to say on that occasion.
ST: This is a very exhilarating moment. It’s one of celebration. I should find out that I’m deaf as a post, haven’t heard a word that was said. But I like the way it looks, I like your style. The reason that I am here this morning is that we’re about to celebrate, this is the first day, we shall begin celebrating the lives of the uncelebrated. Of those men and women who have made all the wheels go ‘round. We’re at the Grand Central Station now. We know there’s an architect, but who hung the iron? Who were the brick masons? Who swept the floors? These are the non celebrated people of our country. We have here behind us a kiosk, in which those anonymous people, the non celebrated, will speak of their lives. It might be a grandmother speaking to a grandchild. It might be a kid talking to his uncle, it might be a neighbor talking to a neighbor, and suddenly they will realize their lives have a meaning. [Applause]
MG: Studs is also the reason I’m here, talking to you on this podcast right now. By chance, I happened to be at a bookstore in Manhattan one evening in 2003 when Studs was promoting a new book. His hearing loss was pretty severe at that point, so this younger guy got on stage with him to field questions from the audience, then lean over and yell those questions into Studs’ ear. That younger guy was StoryCorps founder Dave Isay.
They talked a little bit about StoryCorps that night — the project had just launched — and I was hooked. I applied for an internship and, more than 13 years later, I’m still here.
Studs was a devoted Chicagoan, and when our mobile tour passed through that city in September of 2005, we did something that has never been repeated for anyone else, we drove our mobile recording booth right up to a Studs’ house, and recorded in his driveway.
The facilitators working the booth that day were Kayvon Bahramian, Nick Yulman, and Rani Shankar. And they had the pleasure, and challenge, of trying to wrangle one of America’s greatest talkers through a StoryCorps interview.
Usually on the other side of the microphone, almost as soon as the tape started rolling, Studs took over and started doing what he did best, asking questions.
ST: How’d you all get lined up with David Isay in StoryCorps? How many of there are working?
MG: But soon enough the facilitators managed to get things back on track and took over the interviewing.
ST: So here we are, you go ahead. Name your poison.
Facilitator: Mr. Terkel, we ask each participant at the beginning of every interview to introduce themselves with their name, today’s date, where we are. Could you do that?
ST: My name is Studs Terkel. I’m 93 years old, was born in 1912. The year the titanic went down, I came up. I have not accepted the 21st century, I still live in the 20th. I know nothing about website. Internet to me you realize is another language. Hardware, software. Hardware: pots and pans and kettles, coffee pots. Software: pillows, sheets, bedspreads.
MG: So, by this point, Studs was warmed up, and he didn’t need much help to keep going. Let’s listen in.
ST: What has happened to the human voice? Vox humana. Hollering, shouting, quiet talking, buzz. I was leaving the airport, this is in Atlanta, you know you leave the gate, you take a train that took you to the concourse of your choice. And I get in this train, dead silence. Few people seated or standing. Up above you hear a voice that once was a human voice but no longer. Now it talks like a machine. “Concourse one, Forth Worth, Dallas, Lubbock,” that kind of voice. Just when the doors are about to close, automatic doors, a young couple rushes in and push open the doors, and get in. Without missing a beat, that voice above says, “because of late entry, we’re delayed 30 seconds. The people looked at that couple like that couple just committed mass murder, you know? And the couple are shrinking like this, you know? And I’m known for my talking, I’m gabby. And so I say, “George Orwell, your time has come and gone!” I expect a laugh. Dead silence. And now they look at me, and I’m with the couple. The three of us are at the hill of Calvary on Good Friday, and then I say, “My god, where’s the human voice?” And just then there’s a little baby. Maybe the baby is about a year old and I say, “Sir or Madame,” to the baby, “What is your opinion on the human species?” Well what does a baby do? Baby starts giggling. I said, “thank god, the sound of a human voice.”
[MUSIC “Manenberg Revisited” by Abdullah Ibrahim]
MG: Later on in the interview our facilitators, Kayvon, Nick, and Rani, had the chance to talk shop with Studs and he had plenty to say about the meaning of the work they were out there doing on the road talking to ordinary people and he even revealed some of his interview techniques.
Facilitator: Do you consider yourself an ordinary person?
ST: Yeah, I’m just a guy doing my work. By the way I’m very inept with mechanical devices. I can’t drive a car, I can’t ride a bicycle, I fall down. And here I am with a tape recorder. So I goofed up many times, you see I’m very sloppy, and that sometimes is an asset. It helps me with others. Sometimes I press the wrong button. The other person looks and says, “it’s not moving!” I say, “oh I forgot.” That moment, that person, feels just as good as I am, feels better than I am. And at that moment, that person experiences something that is necessary for all human beings. He feels needed by me. And that’s my hidden weapon.
By the way, some say you deliberately goof up to do that. I don’t deliberately do it. You gotta see me at work and you’ll know.
Facilitator: How would you like to be remembered?
ST: [SIGH] I don’t know. You know, they said about me when I had this valve put in at 93, “Jesus Christ. What makes him survive is his curiosity.” And I said, “well curiosity is the key thing.” And I said my epitaph will be, “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”
MG: Louis Studs Terkel died in October of 2008. He was 96.
You can hear thousands of hours of Studs’ radio show, which he hosted on Chicago’s WFMT, at the Studs Terkel radio archive. The address is Studs Terkel dot WFMT dot com. You can spend hours there so, plan accordingly.
And visit our website, StoryCorps dot Org for an animated version of the story that Studs told about the Atlanta airport. It’s called The Human Voice.
Add YOUR voice to our archive by scheduling an interview with somebody you know or by downloading our smartphone recording app.
And let us know what you think of the show. Rate and reviews on apple podcasts, they changed their name it’s no longer iTunes it’s Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get this show.
And as always you can leave a message for someone you hear in a StoryCorps interview by calling 301-744-TALK.
I’m Michael Garofalo for the StoryCorps podcast. Thanks for listening.