Studs Terkel: Listening to America

I believe the internet may have an even stronger influence than people have realised. Albert Einstein said that when you join an organisation -– and that could be anti-war, anti-pollution, or pro the rights of lesbians and homosexuals -– Einstein said that, once you join, you have more individuality, not less. Because you are another person who wants to count.

— Studs Terkel, “Studs Terkel: The World’s Greatest Interviewer,” 21 October 2007

“I’m amazed that anybody could care what happened to me… who I am, who I was, and my relationship to anybody else in this country.” Peggy Terry sits on a worn cloth couch, her face ruddy and her hair pulled back with a black band. She’s reflecting on her conversation with Studs Terkel, transcribed in Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. As she recounts what happened to her, Terry’s voice breaks. “Some of the times during the Depression,” she says, “when we were all starving, black women fed us. And at the same time, we’re taught in church and in school that just because you’re a lighter skin tone, that you’re better.”

Terry pauses to catch her breath, and her story, so simply told and so brief, seems almost to hang in the air. And as it is surely moving in itself, it is also striking for its context and connotations, for what it says about her “relationship to anybody else in this country.” And this was Terkel’s great gift and mission, to seek out and reveal such stories and contexts, the strands of experience that link and divide individuals, the assumptions, fears, and faiths that define communities.

Terkel’s career is recounted in Eric Simonson’s short documentary Studs Terkel: Listening to America, premiering 15 May on HBO2. Terkel’s work was, as he said repeatedly, a function of his own interests (when he died in 2008, he asked that his epigraph read, “Curiosity did not kill this cat”). It was also an excavation project that extended far beyond his own conversations with countless people. And while his interviews with James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gore Vidal, Eudora Welty, Mahalia Jackson, and Pete Seeger are legendary in themselves, it’s his talks with less famous people that resonate most profoundly.

“One reason these books are important,” Terkel explains, “Is that history has been denied the young. We’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease, [we have] no memory of yesterday.” Terkel’s work keeps the past close, so that we might understand how it resembles or diverges from the present, and shapes the future. In one interview here, he calls what he does a kind of “guerrilla journalism,” an apt description of his method, at least initially, as he made his way from interview to interview with rudimentary recording equipment, inviting people to share their memories and opinions. They are, as Sydney Lewis puts it, instances of his ability to “find the well in somebody, get them to reveal themselves to themselves.”

But the recordings and transcripts reveal more than that too. As Terry’s memory indicates, they are also slivers of history that reflect cultures, eras, and systems of belief. Andre Schiffrin, publisher of the New Press, explains, “History is so often told from the top down, but what Studs has done is tell history from the bottom up, through the voices and hearts and stories of us, of regular people, of everyday people.” It’s a romantic phrasing, but useful too. Terkel’s work, much like the work of his subjects — the work that so fundamentally fascinated him — was just that, a labor that identifies him.

Terkel’s own work, the film asserts, is premised on idealism and resistance, efforts to counter or at least complicate “official” versions. Repeatedly, he “prods” his subjects to speak out, to explain and refine what they’ve just said, to think through their viewpoints. “You think freely,” he pronounces, “You’re an American. I don’t care what your politics are, if you are enclosed by fear, that’s un-American.” His own experiences shapes this idea, of course, as he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. “I guess it’s fair to say that my childhood was strongly affected by the Red Scare,” understates his son Dan: NBC canceled his TV show, Studs’ Place, and the “Chicago Sun Times pulled his column, leaving him out of work for “a couple of years.” Schiffrin adds, “When the FBI came to his home, he made fun of then,” rather than succumb to threats. Instead, he found a calling, realizing that his work going forward would necessarily be set against the “mainstream,” a pursuit of other stories.

The documentary offers testimonies to Terkel’s own insights and methods, from colleagues and artists whom he’s plainly influenced, like John Sayles and Anna Deveare Smith. “We are more and more less and less aware of the pain of the other,” Smith asserts, “And he talks about how we are losing touch.” To that point, the film includes one of Terkel’s many observations on the current state of media, the constructions of history and news: “In all my books,” he says, “This is the postulate, that people are basically decent, people do have a native intelligence. But day after day, you call upon malevolence, day after day, you call upon smallness, day after day, you call upon trivia, and you make that the headline. Something must happen to people.”

Terkel worked to make something else happen to people, to show them to each other as well as to themselves. As he shared himself, he found others, and founding them something like himself. This sameness, that he called “decency,” is one facet of his legacy.

RATING 7 / 10