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He’s a great listener

By Robert O’Connor


[This is part of a series looking at the complete works of Studs Terkel. The last book was Studs’ most famous work, Working.]

Most of the interviews that appear in Studs Terkel’s books read like they sat down and Studs said “tell me your story,” the person spoke for a certain length of time and that’s the end. In reality, the people talked for much longer. Studs’ process for interviewing would be to interview the subject, and Cathy Zmuda (and later Sydney Lewis) would transcribe it. Then he, André Schiffrin and others would cut things out, clean up clunky sentences, and rigorously edit the interviews down until they looked like the person had just spoken their life story with eloquence in a few breaths.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is written much the same way. It reads like Malcolm sat down, Alex Haley said “tell me your life story,” and Malcolm spoke the book in one sitting. In fact, the book was a product of several interviews Haley had with Malcolm over a period of several months. Talking to Myself, is where Studs takes his own methods and applies it to himself.

Kind of. The chapters are longer than the usual interview in his books and most chapters are a set of stories connected by segways Studs makes. And while the people in his other books speak in general terms, Studs tells very specific stories and anecdotes. Hard Times was a book of memory, and Talking to Myself is a book of Studs’ memories.

Memories like how Studs discovered jazz when his family lived on the west side of Chicago. His brother Ben would go to the Dreamland Cafe, where nurses and secretaries would unwind in the evening and pick up girls. Studs would be back at the hotel they owned and prepare the bed they would sleep on. Sometimes Studs would stick around and listen to the music, which he loved.

Even at the age of twelve Studs was a progressive. He wanted to vote for Bob La Follette, the fiery senator from Wisconsin who ran for President in 1924 under the banner of protecting civil liberties, strengthening America’s unions and ending American imperialism. Studs listened to the radio when it announced that his man had come in third place. Almost 40 years later, at a reunion of the University of Chicago class of ’34, a straw vote over the Presidential candidates in 1960 was held. A slight majority went for John Kennedy, a few less went to Richard Nixon and one vote was cast for the long gone Fighting Bob.

Studs talks about his time as an actor, from being a radio gangster to his television show “Studs’ Place,” which, along with “Garroway at Large” and “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” was the apex of Chicago-style television. NBC dropped the program and blacklisted Studs when he was suspected of being a communist. Afterwards, a florist named Ed Clamage, a member of the American Legion, would call Studs’ employers and warn them of his supposedly subversive leanings. One famous story from this is that Studs was paid $100 to give a talk. Clamage warned the venue and they doubled his speaking fee. Studs learned of this later and sent Clamage a note saying he owned him an agent’s fee and a check for $10. Clamage never endorsed it.

He also tells of the ordeal it was to interview Bertrand Russell in late 1962. Traveling from Chicago to Wales was hard enough, since the Cuban Missile Crisis was happening at the same time. To make things more frustrating, Russell was 90, frail and his hearing was nearly gone, and Studs had to almost shout his questions and struggled with the tape recorder so Sir Bertrand could be heard.

1962 was a notable year for Studs. That year, he presented “Born To Live,” a program of interviews, spoken word, songs and other presentations about the new realities of living in the nuclear age. That program earned him the Prix Italia, one of the highest awards in radio. He lost the scroll given to him by the prize committee, which is the start of a story about how he got his first suit – Studs was a rambler he was.

Kid Pharaoh, a Cuban working for the Chicago outfit who appeared in Division Street, makes another appearance. When asked about Watergate, he says that Nixon had every right to break in, but he hired a bunch of incompetent fools to do the job. “Politics is a warfare game. It happens. So what?”

Some of the stories is compiled from shorter works that appeared in magazines to which Studs was a regular contributor like The Nation. He interviewed Kid Pharaoh for a piece in Rolling Stone about Watergate.

He also tells stories about his good friend, Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, especially how she saved him from permanent exile after his blacklist. One of the few jobs he found after being pegged as a communist was as a scriptwriter for her show on CBS radio. When a producer asked Studs to sign a loyalty oath, Mahalia insisted it be withdrawn. “If Studs don’t write, Mahalia don’t sing,” she said. He also pays tribute to Big Bill Broonzy, whose albums introduced him to “race records,” which he would play frequently on his first radio show, “Wax Museum.” During World War II, Studs played in a band with Broonzy on army camps around the country. It was through playing those records that he discovered Jackson and became the first white DJ to play her for a white audience.

The book is mostly memories, but there is plenty of pondering by Studs, especially about his relationship to the tape recorder. How that piece of technology has become attached to him despite considering himself inept at technology in general.

In Tony Parker’s book on Studs, “Studs Terkel: A Life in Words,” an anonymous contributor tells of how when they were a neighbor of Studs, they would often see him walking along their street loudly talking to himself. When asked why he would do this, he would say “I’m a great listener.”

[Next time: Studs asks “what keeps you going?” in American Dreams, Lost and Found.]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 15th, 2012.