Saturday, November 1, 2008

Homage to Studs Terkel

By Norman Markowitz

What a remarkable life. What a survivor. And what a legacy. A man who lived in and for the people for over seventy years of his life, who worked in New Deal agencies, acted in plays like Clifford Odets Waiting for Lefty, fought in World War Two, helped bring Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and other peoples singers to Chicago radio, always looked and listened and recorded the reflections and insights of working class people, mixing them with those of corporate executives and powerful politicians as if they were at least worth the same thing.

A man who beat the blacklist and returned to Chicago radio and stayed there for 50 years. A man who brought serious issues and people to the attention of working class people, always talking and thinking himself in working-class terms without ever being a phony like so many other entertainers and politicians.

I use two of Studs Terkels great compilations of American life, Hard Times and The Good War in my classes at Rutgers, have used them for years and will continue to use them. There is a large body of other works, compilations of interviews with both famous and unknown people that represent a real expression of the American people in all of their diversity. And there is the magnificent documentary, The Good Fight, on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, which Studs narrated.

The best tribute that we can make to Studs is to read his work and listen to his voice as it appeared in documentaries and on radio. There should be a Studs Terkel archive on the Internet which would help people who don't know him get acquainted with him.

In a very unassuming way, Studs really represented the best of the American left, listening rather than preaching to working people, rooted in his Chicago community and at the same time reflecting a larger national and international perspective.

It's too bad Studs didn't live another week to see his fellow Chicagoan, Barack Obama, elected President of the United States. Studs knew and fought to change an America where Barack Obama would be the last hired and the first fired at best, a non person with no civil rights including the right to vote at worst. On Tuesday, when I pull the lever for Barack I will be thinking of Studs.