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  • Published in Book Reviews

Studs Terkel’s life was spent documenting working-class life and struggle in the US. Alan Wieder’s biography captures him splendidly, says Graham Kirkwood

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Alan Wieder, Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation (Monthly Review 2016), 240pp.

On the side of ordinary working women and men throughout his life, Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Turkel was an influential figure not only on the American left but throughout mainstream American society. He consistently took the side of the exploited and oppressed, in the 1960s and 1970s supporting Blacks fighting for civil rights and Vietnamese fighting back against US imperial power, as well as always supporting workers on strike for better conditions and wages. Every time and over every issue Studs was on the right side including taking a critical stance on the Soviet Union and supporting the Solidarnosc workers’ movement in 1980s Poland.

Alan Weider has written a biography of Studs Terkel, but in keeping with the man himself, it is not a study of a lone individual, but of the environment and society in which he lived and acted. Studs was what is termed in the US a third-party guy, neither a Democrat nor Republican supporter, an important stand given the current debacle in the US with the election of Trump after Clinton’s lacklustre campaign. He supported all the main third-party candidates from Henry Wallace in 1948 running on a ticket advocating universal healthcare and an end to segregation, to Ralph Nader in his various campaigns.

Studs was born in New York in 1912, his parents having emigrated to the US from Bialystok in North Eastern Poland. When he was nine the family moved to Chicago and his parents opened a hotel or rooming house where Studs appears to have developed his life-long love of conversation. His political allegiances were expressed firmly from early on. In 1933 Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini donated to the city of Chicago a two thousand-year-old Roman pillar known as the Balbo column or monument. Studs was furious, “The goddamn fascist! Goddamn fascist” (p.36).

One of the incidents which affected him profoundly was the Memorial Day massacre of May 30th1937. During a strike in the steel industry for union recognition, Chicago police opened fire on an unarmed demonstration of workers and their families, killing ten people most of whom were shot in the back as they tried to run. At least another 28 were injured by police clubs, nine were permanently disabled.

Studs, who was an actor at the time, performed with his fellow actors at the Chicago Reparatory Theatre for the steelworkers and describes in detail the atmosphere at a massive rally at the Chicago Opera House, “more highly charged than any I had ever experienced … you could taste the wrath of the audience” (p.32). After a long struggle the police were found guilty.

Throughout his life his key collaborator and comrade in arms was his partner Ida, Studs would always point out that it was Ida who was the political activist. After the police murder of Fred Hampton, the Chicago leader of the Black Panther Party, Ida and her comrades in the Women for Peace organisation organised a 24-hour vigil to protect the offices of the Black Panthers.

Above all else, Studs Terkel is remembered as America’s pre-eminent oral historian. He spent most of his life from the 1970s onwards interviewing and recording the voices of ordinary Americans up and down the country. He was regarded as being an expert in interview technique, putting interviewees at ease and getting to the root of what people thought about their lives in America. He left a library of books documenting these interviews.

Many of the interviewees were strikers. One amazing story comes from interviews he carried out during a cigar making workers’ strike in Florida in 1931. Many of the Cuban, Puerto Rican and Hispanic workers were illiterate, and so they hired someone to come into the factory, paying 25 cents each a week, to read the novels of Zola, Dickens, Cervantes and Tolstoy to them while they worked. They were also read left-wing newspapers, such as the DailyWorkerand SocialistCall. Eventually the boss took offence to this, but the workers went on strike when they arrived one day to find the lecture platform torn down. Sadly, the strike was lost, but not the brilliant example they set.

One of Stud’s best friends and someone he collaborated with over many years was Pete Seeger, the legendary folk musician and activist. The long relationship started when Seeger and his band, the Almanac singers with Woody Guthrie, Millard Lampell and Lee Hayes, arrived at 2am at Ida’s door with a note from Studs to give then a bed for the night. Other musicians he championed included Big Bill Broonzy and Paul Robeson.

Out of all of his activities that led to him being blacklisted in 1951, one was his friendship with Paul Robeson, something of which Studs was very proud (he remained under FBI surveillance from 1940 to 1990). Being blacklisted meant he found it increasingly difficult to find work anywhere in the media. Blacklisting on a local level worked through individuals such as Chicago’s Ed Clammage, who took it upon himself to ensure that people like Studs would not find work anywhere, for example, by writing to individual venues pressuring them to cancel any engagements. Clammage was the ‘Joe McCarthy of Chicago’ and was the chair of the Chicago American Legion Anti-Subversive Subcommittee of the American Commission.

As an introduction to the life of Studs Terkel, Alan Wieder has written an enjoyable book full of facts and extracts from some of Terkel’s fascinating interviews. He manages to convey the unbroken thread running through a life of solidarity with the ordinary American. Studs Terkel died in Chicago in 2008 aged 96. He will be remembered as someone who always took the side of the ordinary working woman or man and worked tirelessly for their voices to be heard. We could do with some like him in the media today.

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