Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Take it easy, but take it Studs
I learnt this afternoon that one of my heroes passed away on 31 October. Studs Terkel, oral historian of America par excellence, and proud Chicago resident. He was 96. Only a few weeks ago, I was reading about him on the net and came across a broadcast interview with him. When I visited the USA in 1992, I was keen to go over to Chicago to meet him and pay my respects. That did not happen. But on my flight out of New York, I read that it had been his 80th birthday the previous day and that a bridge in Chicago was named after him, because, as the mayor of Chicago said, he had spent his life building bridges between people. That gave me some consolation. I felt that news story had been made specially for me, and that it was a tribute after my own heart.
Studs Terkel had a radio programme in Chicago for many years. A friend told me that he used to sign off with "Take it easy, but take it!".
I am reproducing below an obituary of Terkel that appeared in The Economist. And after that a radio interview, broadcast on 13 November 2007.
Louis “Studs” Terkel, recorder of America’s voices, died on October 31st, aged 96.
THEY fetched up together almost five years ago, the lanky young politician striving for the Senate and the short, puckish, pot-bellied 91-year-old, one in a suit and the other in a red-and-white check shirt with a dry Martini in his fist. The setting was Studs Terkel’s version of paradise, the basement of a pub in ice-cold Chicago, full of student Democrats and weary working folk, where the air was thick with smoke and the floor was sticky with beer; and Mr Terkel introduced Barack Obama to the crowd as an intellectual, wondering aloud whether Americans deserved that sort of person in high office.
In a life spent talking and, above all, listening to the voices of his fellow Americans, he rarely made time for intellectuals. Their eloquence, he said, came too easy. He preferred the “inchoate thought” of people who were never heard. Billy Joe Gatewood, for example, fresh out of eastern Kentucky, a 19-year-old shipping clerk: “The biggest thing on my mind is I work nine hours a day and I come home and the tensions build up and I don’t know how to get it out sometimes.” The black farmer near Tchula, Mississippi: “The Negroes in the South done got to the height of their growthin’. They ain’t getting’ further.” The marine, thinking of Hiroshima, who remembered: “We were sitting on the pier, sharpening our bayonets, when Harry dropped that beautiful bomb. The greatest thing that ever happened.” Or Dolores Dante, a waitress, talking about her work:
Some don’t care. When the plate is down you can hear the sound. I try not to have that sound. I want my hands to be right when I serve. I pick up a glass, I want it to be just right…To be a waitress, it’s an art.
Mr Terkel was asked about immortality once. He said he believed in it, but not in the form of the 9,000 chat shows he had recorded for WFMT in Chicago over 45 years of working for them. It lay in the fact that a man had stopped him on the Michigan Avenue bridge and told him that, after reading the words of Dolores, he was never going to be rude to a waitress again. Whether Studs was immortal or not, Dolores was.
It happened all the time: writers attempted to anatomise Mr Terkel and, instead, got a deluge of other lives, recorded either in books (“Division Street”, “Race”, “American Dreams”, “Hard Times”) or in that gentle, raspy, baddie’s voice of the radio shows. He wrote memoirs but, like a jazzman improvising on a theme, wandered off inveterately after other people: “An accidental shove on a crowded Loop corner, while awaiting the change in traffic lights; an apology; a phrase that holds my attention; we go for coffee; a life unfolded at the restaurant table.”
His childhood too was recounted in terms of voices, crackling faintly out of the crystal set or booming from the radio as he sat inside listening, even in summer. Mastoiditis made his bandaged ears ache, but still he tuned in to the hubbub of the streets. His youth revolved round stories heard at his parents’ lodging house at Wells and Grand in Chicago; tales from dishwashers (“pearl-divers”), strike-breakers (“scissorbills”), clerks and sanitation workers, the toothless radical Ed Sprague with his diet of bread and milk and Big Ole, his lobby nemesis, who banged the drum for J.P. Morgan. “Theirs was the American yawp,” he wrote. “Every man a king. Every man a Demosthenes.” Not far away, in Bughouse Square, men who were barely articulate stood on soapboxes to describe their lives and dreams to anyone who would listen. He always would.
Catching the light
Mr Terkel was a man on a mission. First, he meant to fix memories before they faded, especially memories of the fight for the eight-hour day, for union representation and civil rights. Second, he meant to establish the dignity of Everyman. He was alert to all the degrees of humiliation, from his own in 1934, passed on by a professor to the FBI (“Slovenly, a low-class Jew. He is not one of our type of boys”), to the loss of face suffered by a man who lost a nickel in a pinochle game. But he redressed the balance by treating everyone he interviewed as precious and unique, and their words as poetry. Hobart Foote, who had to cross multiple railway lines to get to work: “Catch this light at a certain time, and then you’ve got the next light. But if there’s a train there, I take off down Cicero Avenue.” The retired baseball player: “The hardest ball I ever hit, and I felt the zest of it, the ball was caught.” Or the Boston cab-driver:
Since I was a kid I tried to become an eagle. …Finally, thank God, after so long a time and so many tries and so much money spent, my sun came up and the snow started melting. My wings start drying, maybe to fly again.
“Astonishing” was how Mr Terkel often described his work. The words were elicited in the course of rambling conversations, with a kick or a cuss at the clumsy recorder he found so hard to operate, and then played back to people who could sometimes scarcely believe their own voice or their own thoughts. Talking to Mr Terkel, the copyboy or the short-order clerk or the welfare mother felt, at last, like somebody. They counted; they had possibilities. And no one more than that lanky young politician, not even yet his party’s nominee, who talked to him on that cold Chicago evening in 2004, a new voice.
Studs Terkel, legendary radio broadcaster, oral historian and author. He is the author of more than a dozen books. His long-awaited memoir, Touch and Go, has just been published. He is 95 years old.
AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from Chicago, the hometown of our special guest today for the hour: broadcaster, author, social historian, American legend, Studs Terkel. Born in 1912 in New York City, Studs Terkel moved with his family to Chicago at the age of ten, where he spent most of his life. Over the years he has worked as an activist, a civil servant, a labor organizer, a radio DJ and a television actor. But he is best known as a Chicago radio personality, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
For forty-five years, Studs Terkel spent an hour each weekday on his nationally syndicated radio show interviewing the famous and the not-so-famous. With his unique style, he created portraits of everyday life in America. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the George Polk Career Award and the presidential National Humanities Medal.
Today, at the age of ninety-five, Studs Terkel is still speaking out. Two weeks ago, Studs wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times criticizing the Bush administration’s warrantless spy program and congressional efforts to immunize the large telecom companies that took part. And he has just come out with his long-awaited memoir. It’s called Touch and Go.
Studs Terkel joins me for the hour here from Chicago. Welcome to Democracy now!, Studs.
STUDS TERKEL: Thank you, Amy. It’s great to be with you. When you speak to me as legendary, there’s a joke to the whole thing. I am very inept with mechanical things. I’m of another millennium, the books of the nineteenth century. From the Depression on—the Depression, the war, the Cold War—the greatest generation being the ‘60s and not World War II. It was in the ’60s, there was the Civil Rights Movement, flourished, at least for a time, and [inaudible]; the rise, resurgence of feminism; the gays and lesbians coming out as free people. So that’s the generation, I think the greatest.
The important thing about that article was: they are un-American. We never called people with tapped phones with the opinion of the government on their side. People disagree with them. Thomas Paine, the most eloquent visionary of the American Revolution, speak of this country in which a commoner can look at a king and say “Bugger off!” And I was telling them to bugger off. I’ve known this before, because my phone was tapped in the days when the keyword was “Commie.” Today, the word is “liberal.” Our language is being perverted, as well as our thoughts. “Say, I’m not a liberal,” says John Kerry, who was on—he was a guest on our program with [inaudible] officers against the Vietnam War. He was wonderful! He has denied he’s a liberal. A liberal means what? The right to speak your opinion and to defend even those who disagree with you. We’ve made that—what’s the next word?—“terrorist.” We misuse the word, going to the center. What does moving to the center mean? It means moving to the right. You never hear anybody moving to the left called going to the center. You see, that’s how we’ve gone, to pervert our language.
But the big thing that bothers me—I’m glad if I wrote that piece, but the big thing that bothers me is our own lack of background. “Not our fault.” Do we know about the twentieth century? Do you know about the Depression, how it came about and how it was stemmed by the New Deal by government?
We just heard that Greenspan retired. Greenspan, a Federal Reserve man and wise man, his idol was Ayn Rand. It even embarrasses me to say this. Ayn Rand’s biographer, whom I got to interview for perverse reasons—I have an imp of the perverse in me—and she said, “Oh, I believe every man on the top deserves to be there who has the guts. And if you’re there with your hat in your hand, you deserve to be down there.” And she used the word “collective others.” So this is the guy we’re honoring as he’s disappearing.
I remember his opposite number, when I was working on the Great Depression book—that was the Great Depression, and the crash took place October 1929. And a guy like Greenspan—only didn’t read Ayn Rand—he said, “I didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know what to do. Things went down, stocks went down.” The World War I guys were tear-gassed, went to Washington for the bonus, and they pleaded with the government—they, members of the new religion we have: the free market. I thought of my alma mater, University of Chicago. Most of the free marketers have won the Nobel Prize, didn’t know what to do.Variety, the trade paper, said, “Wall Street lays an egg.”
So, finally, the government came through with agencies to help those who have, as well as the have-nots. And so, their kids, of their granddaddies, who were saved by a benign federal government, are saying, “Too much government,” as Molly Ivins—we miss so badly—used to do it in kidding him. So we have an insult to our intelligence.
I know we’ve been barbarically assaulted, 9/11. There’s another insult. That’s to our common sense of decency, to our common sense of intelligence. This is there, I know it, and it changes. It must be from “them,” the anonymous people, who form more and more groups, as the government and others like those grow more and more insane. A good case in point—may I go on?
AMY GOODMAN: You may.
STUDS TERKEL: A good case in point, I said I’m a nut mechanically. So I’m interviewing this woman. I hear about people. A friend of mine tells me about somebody. I run into somebody by accident, whom I find interesting. And she lives in a housing project with three, four kids. Now, I suppose someone from on high, Olympus, 60 Minutes, or Barbara Walters, or whoever it is might come and see them, you behave differently. When someone, a guy like me, who goofed up—I got my tape recorder, and I’m pressing a wrong button—and she, this woman in the housing project, says, “Look, you pressed the wrong button.” I said, “Oh, I did.” And that moment is a key moment. She feels needed. To feel needed is an attribute necessary for all human beings. She counts. That word, “counts.” And so, we have a great many people who are unaware of their own strength, provided they join these groups. And so, she’s listening. Finally, we go on. And toward the end of the interview, she hears herself for the first time. She says, “I didn’t know I felt that way before.” That’s a sensational moment. And those are the moments I admire very much.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Studs Terkel. We’re going to break, and we’ll be back with him. We’re here in Chicago for the hour.
AMY GOODMAN: “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Pete Seeger singing, that American legend, as well. We’re joined in studio here in Chicago in the home town of Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, journalist, raconteur. He has just written his own biography, his autobiography, called Touch and Go. Studs, talk a little about Pete Seeger.
STUDS TERKEL: Pete Seeger, I’ve known ever since the ‘40s, when he was with a group called the Almanac Singers: Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Woody Guthrie, and a guy named Millard Lampell. And they traveled by jalopy across the country helping the CIO, Congress of Industrial Organizations, come into being. You know, they’re the CIO and the AFL. AFL are craft unions. So in a factory, the tool and dye makers can go on strike, but the others are there. But with the CIO, the whole factory goes on strike. So Pete’s been in all that.
He was in the South, and he was tomatoed and egged in the Henry Wallace campaign, which is a marvelous story, a tragic story, a great story. And Peter has been in every one of these interviews, these programs, and he’s the greatest choral director ever. He can lead an audience into music, and you know, as he sings to Woody Guthrie’s song, he and Arlo, Woody’s kid, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” And Pete’s an example of what Thomas Paine had in mind when he spoke of the thoughtful American feeling free—and never want such a government. Pete represents what is the very best in us.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back, Studs, in your life. You came here to Chicago when you were ten years old.
STUDS TERKEL: Eight years old.
AMY GOODMAN: Eight years old. Tell us about this city we’re in. Tell us about Chicago.
STUDS TERKEL: Chicago can only be described by Chicagoans. We had a columnist, Mike Royko, who was wonderful. We have the writer whom Hemingway said is the best young one. I realize that our friend Norman Mailer, who died recently, was a great talent, tremendous talent, very colorful. But Hemingway said, “The man who succeeds me is Nelson Algren,” who became a [inaudible] friend of mine. Nelson described the life behind the billboards, but he gave it a lyric quality.
In Chicago, you had a mayor named Big Bill Thompson and had millions in his safe. He’s the one who said, “Take away your hammer. Blow your horn.” And, of course, there was politics and crookedness in Chicago. In fact, the election of Abe Lincoln, nomination, first Republican Party, was in Chicago, 1860, at a place called the Wigwam. And there were deals worked out, because Abe was a good politician, too. And they beat the New York guy, Stuart, who didn’t know what hit him. He’s in Chicago.
So Chicago was built. Carl Sandburg, Louis Sullivan—Frank Lloyd Wright described Louis Sullivan as the “Lieber Meister.” The skyscraper came out of Chicago. Chicago—every architect in the world pictures Chicago as the Athens of architecture, so that in everything Chicago is a two-headed god, Janus: Jane Addams on one side, Al Capone on the other, let’s say, or someone worse than Al Capone, crooked politician.
The city was so exciting to me. The rooming house my father was too sick to run, and we used to listen to crystal sets. In 1925, we heard part of the “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Ohio, young professor of biology. John Scopes was on trial. He violated Tennessee law about not teaching Darwin. That’s a remarkable tale. And even among the people, the creationists, are hard-working people whose life is one of woe, and therefore there’s the other world, there’s the Armageddon, there’s the Second Coming, because their own life is so miserable. Every—every part of our society is affected by the ersatz president and his toadies down through these last several years.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, what do you make of, at one Republican debate, the candidates were asked how many did not believe in evolution. Three of them raised their hands.
STUDS TERKEL: Well, there it is. See, you have this problem, and then, put together, deeper than that, because Jim Wallace has a magazine, Sojourner. Jim is a thoughtful guy, because we have to understand what makes them come into being. I have the experience. The book Working, my most popular book, Working, was banned in a city called Girard, Pennsylvania, a working-class town, much poverty. The teacher I suggested for class, and they said no. And there was a big gathering. I went down there. It’s impossible to lose, author defending book.
And here come the enemy. The enemy were about a half a dozen people. And I saw that woman, and her hands were gnarled. Her husband was studying his knuckles, hard, calloused. And they had this crazy kid who was just throwing biblical quotes at me that were non-sequiturs, nothing to do. And she says to the kid, “Shhh, be quiet! Listen to what this man says,” said this woman who was leader of opposition to the book. And I felt, in her, there’s a tremendous possibility.
And there was another guy, a guy I knew who was a circuit rider. A circuit rider are guys who are preachers who go to churches, black or white, where there’s nobody there. And this guy used the Bible as a working man’s book: Jesus the carpenter, the poor, the rich. And this old woman, who’s leading these tobacco workers who are on strike, says, “First time I had the Bible talk about three squares a day.” And so, that woman, Sister Blake, is in this woman who was attacking me but wasn’t. There are possibilities.
How could it be at the end of World War II, we were the most honored powerful nation in the world? “Honored” is the key word. Today we’re the most despised and feared. How come? Because the American public itself has no memory of past. You know, Gore Vidal used a phrase, “the United States of Amnesia.” I say the United States of Alzheimer’s. We forgot what happened yesterday. We know all about Paris Hilton. We know about that. But what do we know about—why are we there in Iraq? And they say, when you attack our policy, you’re attacking the boys. On the contrary, we’re defending those boys. We want them back home with their families, doing their work and not a war that we know is built upon an obscene lie. We know that now. And so, it’s this lack of history that’s been denied us, just as the case of this guy who was told the government saved them during the Great Depression.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, I wanted to talk about some of the interviews you have done over time.
STUDS TERKEL: Alright.
AMY GOODMAN: This, on your one-hour daily broadcast on WFMT here in Chicago. Several dozen are compiled in a six-CD set calledVoices of Our Time. This is from your 1963 interview that you did with the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
MAHALIA JACKSON: I don’t know. This thing, it’s peculiar. When I’m on the stage and on television and working with white people, they just hug me and love me and say I’m so wonderful and I’m so great. And then, when I’m walking down the street like an ordinary citizen, they don’t recognize me. And when I go into the department store in the South, I can’t get a sandwich, I can’t get a bottle of pop. I gotta stay—I can’t even get a cab. And I’m just the Mahalia Jackson that they got through saying how wonderful I am. What I don’t understand is what makes people act like that?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, this is the big question, Mahalia, this split in people.
MAHALIA JACKSON: I do want to—I want to see my people be respected. You know, it’s the most distasteful thing to hear a white man call your man, your husband or your brother a “boy,” like he’s—he’s no boy; he’s a man like anybody. That’s disrespect. That’s the height of ignorance, complete ignorance, for people to treat people like that. It’s awful. It just hurts me. And I’m so hurt about it, it keeps me praying, you know, for the Lord not to let hate get in my heart. This world will make you think—I tell ya—it’ll make you think, because if you don’t, you’ll go down the drain in despair, and I don’t believe in letting nothing get down in my soul. I speak it out so I can be free, because if it stay inside, well, my god, I’ll become a hateful woman. And I don’t want to hate. I want to love.
AMY GOODMAN: Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer. That, an excerpt of an interview that Studs Terkel did with her in 1963. Studs, you had a long relationship with Mahalia Jackson.
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, my god! I was the first white disc jockey to play her. And to this day, I’m stopped by elderly black people who say, “Studs , you made Mahalia come alive.” It’s untrue. She was known to the black population, but the whites didn’t. I’ve played her a lot. And her songs were so powerful.
We’d have comment sessions, when she’d say—I hear you. Mahalia—I was the emcee of her program later on, after I was blacklisted from a very popular show called Studs’ Place, which along with Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which is a puppet show that was marvelous, with a genius named Burr Tillstrom and with Dave Garroway, who was the first face ever seen in the daytime. And so, Mahalia would say—I’d say, “Mahalia, you almost got me going, singing that song.” “Studs, if I can move you, that would be it.”
One day she calls up and says, “Ralph Abernathy, right-hand man of Dr. King, started the bus boycott in Montgomery, and they asked me to come down and sing.” She was Dr. King’s favorite singer. And they say, “How much will you charge?” She said, “I don’t charge the working people,” because the people worked, they bussed. But Mahalia always affected me.
She defended me after I was blacklisted from that show Studs’ Place. I came on her program as her host over at CBS, on the network. And one day a guy comes in from New York and says, “Will you sign this?” I look at it; it says, “I am not and never have been…” I throw that away. I know I’m an American. I don’t need my flag. I like Obama for that, by the way, for saying—“Why aren’t you wearing the flag?” It’s like a [inaudible] saying, “My name is Barbara.” I know your name is Barbara. I know you’re an American. You don’t have to tell me, “I’m an American.” So, no, we don’t need that.
So, in any event, Mahalia heard this guy coming to me in the middle of a rehearsal, and he said, “Would you”—I said no. And he said, well, the big one’s name, the big shot at CBS. It’s on the network. And he says, “Is that what it’s about, baby?” She knows about me and my troubles. She says, “You’ve got such a big mouth, Studs. You should have been a preacher.” Anyway, she says, “If you fire Studs, find another Mahalia.” And you know what happened? Nothing! You’ve got to face them down.
You mentioned James Baldwin. I got to remark here that I was the first one to interview Baldwin on the radio when he returned from an exile in the Swiss Alps. He wrote Nobody Knows My Name. And here’s what the book—my book—is all about. This is Baldwin. I got my googs on for this. “History does not refer merely […] to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it,” the past, with us. And we’re “unconsciously controlled” in so many ways, that history, the past, is present now in all we do. And that’s the key to the book.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, I wanted to play an excerpt of James Baldwin. We played Mahalia Jackson. That tape, by the way, was from 1963. Well, James Baldwin, the great novelist, great playwright, great civil rights activist, you interviewed him in 1961.
JAMES BALDWIN: Every Negro in this country is really just, as [inaudible] has said it very well, really never to be looked at. And what white people see when they look at you is not you.
STUDS TERKEL: Invisible.
JAMES BALDWIN: You’re invisible. What they do see when they look at you is what they’ve invested you with. And what they’ve invested you with is all the agony and the pain and the danger and the passion and the torment, you know, sin, death and hell, at which everyone in this country is terrified. You represent a level of experience which Americans deny. And I think you can see in the life of the country, not only in the South, what a terrible price the country has paid for this effort to keep a distance between themselves and black people. And what Americans today don’t know about the rest of the world, like Cuba or Africa, is what they don’t know about me. An incoherent, totally incoherent foreign policy of this country is a reflection of the incoherence of the private lives here.
STUDS TERKEL: So we don’t even know our own names.
JAMES BALDWIN: No, we don’t. That’s the whole point. And I suggest this, I suggest this, that in order to learn your name, you’re going to have to learn mine. You know, in a way, the key to this country—the American Negro is the key figure in this country. And if we don’t face him, we will never face anything.
AMY GOODMAN: James Baldwin, 1961, interviewed by Studs Terkel. We’re going to break, and then we’ll be back with the legendary American journalist, raconteur, Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Mahalia Jackson, singing “Precious Lord.” This is Democracy Now! democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Studs Terkel’s hometown of Chicago. “Precious Lord,” Studs, Mahalia Jackson.
STUDS TERKEL: “Precious Lord” was written by Jimmy Dorsey, James Dorsey, who was a famous writer of gospel songs, especially with Mahalia. It was Martin Luther King’s favorite song. That’s when she sang it down in Montgomery, and she sang at the great 1963 gathering.
I was on the train when Martin Luther King made his “I Have a Dream” speech on the Lincoln Memorial. And on that train, there was Tim Black, who says he was the Quartermaster Corps in World War I, World War II, and they were the first American troops in Paris after the liberation. And he says this is like that, a liberation day.
And there was this guy Lawrence Landry saying his father was a Pullman car porter. Pullman car porters, with their blue pants and white stripes, would bring the news of the North to the South for the Chicago Defender. And they came into the barber shop, whoever it was, and they were the messengers. And they were key figures. And that march was fantastic.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about E.D. Nixon in your book, in Touch and Go.
STUDS TERKEL: E.D. Nixon was an ex-Pullman car porter, who was head of the NAACP in Montgomery. Working for him was Rosa Parks, and let’s—let me say this—I hope I’m not going to get in trouble: Rosa Parks did not come out of a vacuum, this straight wonderful woman who did what she was—and she was a great wonderful woman—there were other people behind. And one was E.D. Nixon, and the other’s a white couple, Virginia and—
AMY GOODMAN: Clifford Durr
STUDS TERKEL:—and her husband Clifford Durr. Virginia was a white Southerner, and her seamstress was Rosa Parks. She urged her to go to a school called Highlander Folk School. It was the only integrated school in the country. A man named Myles Horton was the teacher. And it was burned down by the Klan. But she went there. All this played a role in her one day refusing to stand up and do it. So it was never one person; remember that. It’s a combination of many people, many forces.
You mentioned John Henry Faulk. He was a great Texas storyteller, was getting a bigger and bigger audience on CBS, and then he was fired as a Red. That could be anything. And later on—he interviewed like Mark Twain. And later on, he sued, and he won this suit against CBS. And he’s, they call, the man who broke the blacklist. At the same time, CBS had the nerve to play the story of John Henry Faulk, by that actor who always plays Bobby Kennedy, doing the role. And they said—and the ads do not mention John Henry Faulk’s name. He was great.
AMY GOODMAN: You write about—in Touch and Go, you write about meeting a kind of yuppy couple, before there was the word “yuppy.”
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, yeah. But before the yuppy couple, I—you mentioned notable people. I won—me and my buddy, the engineer, announcer, Jimmy Unrath—the Prix Italia award. This is very special. Very few Americans win it. The Italy of Rome, the Italy of Italy, they have this Prix Italia in radio and TV. It’s what the Nobel is to written literature. And so, I get to see Bertrand Russell up in North Wales. And things are going great.
Here’s my ineptitude. And he says, “You know my friend. I understand you saw him, Mr. Neal.” Neal was an old progressive educator, as Russell was. And I played the tape for him. He said, “That’s great.” Now I’m putting on the tape recorder. The new tape is on. And if I did it without stopping, I would have destroyed them both, and I would have put my head in the oven. I’m that inept. But this couple—
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, wait. Before you go to the couple, I want to play a little bit of the tape, that—the interview that you did with Bertrand Russell. It was 1962. You interviewed the British philosopher at his home in North Wales. This is an excerpt.
STUDS TERKEL: Why do people, the great majority of people the world over, feel as helpless as they do, they feel as impotent as they do? This seems to be in the air, I’m sure, all over the world, feeling that the individual, I, John Smith, John Doe, says, “I can’t do anything about it.”
BERTRAND RUSSELL: That’s just [inaudible]. They can. I mean, an individual, if he has the pluck and the independence of mind, can do a very great deal. Actually, here we sit, no organization, none whatever, and simply by expressing an opinion which is known to be unbiased, an individual can effect a very great deal. And this powerlessness of the individual is a form of cowardice; it’s a pretense, an alibi for doing nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher. Studs Terkel, it was in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
STUDS TERKEL: Right there. I’ll never forget that. He was very strong. He said he sent cablegrams to Khrushchev, to Nehru and to Kennedy. He said, “I heard from two of them: Khrushchev and Nehru. Didn’t hear from your president.” I said, “Well, I think you proved a boner.”
But after Russell, you’ve named several notable people. I run into people at the bus stop. 1:46 every morning, when I worked for this radio station, when I became an eclectic disc jockey. “Eclectic” means played everything—Caruso records, Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” Woody Guthrie, and that’s it. So I’m the gregarious old guy. I got a case of logorrhea. I’m always talking, getting into—
But this one couple ignores me. Very handsome, he’s—and this is before the word “yuppy” came into being. Brooks Brothers, Gucci shoes, Wall Street Journal under his arm. And she is a looker, she’s a stunner. Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Vanity Fair under her arm. And I want to make conversation. The bus is late in coming, so I say to them, “Labor Day is coming up.” That’s the worst thing I could say. He turns toward me. He’s no coward. Flicking a bug off his cup, he says, “We despise unions.” I say, “Oh. I got a pigeon here.”
The bus is late, so I walk up to them, and I say—I’m now the ancient mariner. I’m fixing him with my glittering eye. I say, “How many hours a day do you work?” He says, “Eight.” “How come you don’t work eighteen hours a day, like your great-great-grandparents did? You know why you work eight hours a day? Because in Chicago, four guys got hanged fighting for the eight-hour day for you.”
I’m talking about the Haymarket case back in 1886, of which they know nothing. It was a time of a gathering, fighting for the eight-hour day. There were speakers there, anarchists and Americans. And then there was a rain, and the speakers went home, and that’s when somebody threw a bomb—nobody knows who—and several cops were killed, as well as civilians. And the papers were hysterical: “Get ’em!” But in the meantime, they have this trial, and four guys, including someone named Albert Parsons, an old American Civil War soldier, were about to be hanged.
And there was a group of Chicago industrialists who were very enlightened—Lyman Gage, others—listened to the cries of the world: Bernard Shaw, John Ruskin, Tolstoy, all these people. And so, they said, “Commute the sentence.” But it was Marshall Field I, with that mustache turned upward, who said, “Hang the bastards!” And they did.
And so, “They did it for you, these guys!” I got them pinned against the mailbox now. This old nut. The train is—the bus is still late. When Christmas time comes around, I thought remember that guy. And so, I say, “How many days a week do you work?” And they say, “Forty,” and they want to get away from me now, and they hop on the bus. “You know why you work forty? Because the New Deal days, of which you know nothing, and you should.” The workers for the forty-hour day [sic].
And to this day, I’m sure, they live in a condominium, way upscale, that faces the bus stop. And from the fifteenth floor, or whatever floor it is, she’s looking out every morning, and he says, “Is that old nut still down there?” I’m not blaming him. What do we know about our history? We don’t. It’s been denied, and that’s what James Baldwin meant, too, when he spoke of our past is with us. And “with us” means, as it was during the American Revolution, bottom—never spokesmen, of course, because it was bottom-up, because half the country was Tory anyway.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, as we come to the end of this program—you are a man of history, also a visionary, but tell us about being ninety-five.
STUDS TERKEL: About what?
AMY GOODMAN: About being ninety-five years old.
STUDS TERKEL: Well, it’s there, as you probably see. From the cover, you see a cover of a guy that looks like George Clooney. That’s me! And now, look at me now, and not aging too much, Paris Hilton. Now, it’s—as you grow older, death, a few other things, [inaudible]. Robert Browning said, “Come and grow old with me, the best is yet to be.” Lying through his teeth! But the one thing you can retain is memory. And my book, I hope, is a memory of the events of the last millennium—not the last century—the last millennium. And that’s what it’s about.
The hero of the book is also the villain of the book: Albert Einstein. I call him villain, because a guy described him as a man of the future who came to us too soon. We weren’t ready for him. Out of Einstein’s mind came all these thoughts that led eventually to some of the advances in medicine, but also led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because he convinced Roosevelt to do it, the only one. And so, Einstein, to me, is the hero of the last millennium. And now we’re faced with what he said. He didn’t know what the weapons of World War III will be, but the weapons of World War IV are going to be sticks and stones. And we can end with this.
And this is a question to ask the audience: which road American people should take? Einstein—you know, I lived fifty years more than my two brothers and my father. They died in their fifties. I have the same genetic difficulty. I lived fifty years longer because advances in the heart. At the same time—
AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.
STUDS TERKEL: The same, the human being—the same time, the human being—Mark Twain wrote the damn human race, he meant something that’s a knock-off, 75,000—
AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, I want to thank you for being with us. I look forward to our interview next year, as well.
STUDS TERKEL: Thank you very much.