Roundtable offers perspectives on Studs Terkel as oral historian

Louis “Studs” Terkel was 96 years old when he died in 2008. And in his nearly century-spanning lifetime, he confounded biographers seeking to identify him variously as an author, radio talk show host, political activist and black-listed actor, among other professional pursuits.

But to oral historians, he popularized what it means to ask ordinary people questions about their lives and to listen carefully and respectfully to what they say.

In a roundtable session moderated by OHA past president Donald A. Ritchie, people who knew Terkel recalled his contributions to oral history, which increasingly are being recognized as recordings of his interviews are becoming available through the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, featuring nearly five decades worth of radio programs on Chicago’s station WFMT.  Access to the archive will make it possible for historians to reexamine Terkel’s interviews, Ritchie noted.

Alan Wieder, author of “Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation,” described his interviews with people in their 90s who knew Terkel well. “In Chicago, there was groups who believed they owned Studs Terkel,” Wieder said.

He said the legendary Chicagoan had a lifelong commitment to both fighting and documenting white supremacy and racism. And while Terkel was an inveterate story-teller, he also was a passionate listener.

“He believed that without conversation and debate, you couldn’t have democracy,” Wieder said.

OHA past president Michael Frisch recalled lively discussions among OHA members at the 1995 conference in Milwaukee about whether Terkel should be given an award because of doubts over whether he “really was an oral historian.”

Frisch also had harsh words for the New York Times obituary about Terkel, which criticized the Pulitzer Prize-winning author for having an agenda. “Most historians do,” Frisch noted.

“He was an oral historian, and he was very, very good at it,” Frisch added. Terkel listened to his interviewees without sentimentality, respected them and used probing questions to elicit more information. Then he selected material from the interviews and edited it for a broader audience. “That’s what historians do,” Frisch said.

Rick Ayers of the University of San Francisco, author of a teacher’s guide to Terkel’s book “Working,” called Terkel a “border-crosser.”

“He was in a category of his own,” Ayers said, adding: “We need to embrace him as the rebel he was and the transgressor that he was.”

Ritchie noted that Ron Grele, also a past OHA president and retired director of Columbia University’s oral history program, introduced oral historians to Terkel through “Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History,” in which Grele interviewed Terkel and other scholars in which they delved into theories and methods of interviewing.

Grele, who was in the audience, recalled that interviewing Terkel “was like you were at a jazz concert,” a musical genre Terkel loved. “He talked like a jazz orchestra.”

Wieder noted that while Terkel was often described as a journalist or oral historian, he never used those labels himself.  Until Terkel died, Wieder said, “He called himself a disc jockey.”


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