US mourns Studs Terkel, who gave a voice to ordinary folk

Writer and oral historian who teased out the often extraordinary stories of 'uncelebrated lives', dies at the age of 96. David Randall reports

Studs Terkel, the resolutely liberal broadcaster and writer whose work gave voice to the experiences of ordinary Americans, has died aged 96.

Terkel had suffered from ill-health for a number of years, but perked up in 2005 after open heart surgery – the oldest person to undergo such a procedure. Yet two weeks ago he suffered a fall at home. He had survived previous tumbles, joking after one: "I was walking downstairs carrying a drink in one hand and a book in the other. Don't try that after 90." This time, however, there was to be no revival, and he died peacefully at home on Friday. By his bedside was a copy of his latest book – PS: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening, due out next month – at least the fourth he had produced in his nineties.

Senator Barack Obama, a fellow Chicagoan whom Terkel hoped to live to see elected president, said Terkel was a "national treasure", and added: "His writings, broadcasts and interviews shed light on what it meant to be an American in the 20th century." Through his daily radio show, produced by WFMT Chicago but widely syndicated, he teased from the kind of folk he called "the uncelebrated" stories of their experiences through the Depression, war, civil rights battles, and everything from involvement with the Ku Klux Klan to the heyday of New Orleans jazz.

At the age of 45 he began collecting such material in book form, writing more than a dozen bestsellers and winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for his volume of Second World War memories, The Good War. Other notable Terkel productions were his first book, Giants of Jazz (1957); Working: What People Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974); and an oral history of race relations called Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About The American Obsession (1992). "If I did one thing I'm proud of," Terkel said last year, "it's to make people feel that together, they count." Not surprisingly, he was a lifelong non-driver, preferring to chat to cab drivers or fellow travellers on public transport.

He was born Louis Terkel in May 1912 – "as the Titanic went down, I came up". His father, Samuel, was a tailor; his mother, Anna, a seamstress. In 1922 the family moved to Chicago and ran a rooming house where he met workers, activists and itinerants. It was while studying philosophy and law at the University of Chicago that he got his nickname, from the character Studs Lonigan in James T Farrell's trilogy of novels about an Irish-American youth from the city's South Side.

He worked briefly in the civil service, then moved to radio where he acted, was a disc jockey, and, in the 1940s, began interviewing. From 1949 he was the star of a national TV show called Studs' Place, set in a fictional bar – which some viewers would go looking for in Chicago. His TV career came to a halt in 1952 when his liberal views and support for labour unions meant he was blacklisted by McCarthyites. But his Chicago radio station remained loyal and The Studs Terkel Program went out every weekday for 45 years, until he was 85. Besides the inhabitants of Main St, USA, he also interviewed such celebrities as Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, the reformed Ku Klux Klansman CP Ellis, Bertrand Russell and the bluesman Big Bill Broonzy.

In 1939, he married Ida Goldberg, a social worker, a partnership that lasted until her death 60 years later. Her lifelong regret was that she'd never got the old so-and-so to dance. He said of her, "Ida was a far better person than I, that's the reality of it", and in an interview with Mother Jones magazine in 1995 he told a story that illustrated this, and the journalistic instincts that prised so much information from his subjects. It concerned his research for Hard Times, his book on the Depression.

"I had to get a caseworker, a social worker. Well, my wife was a social worker during the Depression. And I thought, hmm, she'd be good. I'll change her name... She was telling about this one white guy, an old-time railroad worker. She remembers him as a distinguished-looking guy, grey hair, he's on relief, and she was given orders to look into the closets of these people. As she's telling me this, of course she starts to choke up. She says she looks in his closet and it was empty. And she says, 'He was so humiliated, and I was too.' It was a horrible moment – but I call it a marvellous moment for me, to capture what it was like being humiliated. And as she is choking up, I'm saying, 'This is great! This is great!' And she says, 'You bastard!'"

Yeah, but what a bastard.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Manchester United team walk out ahead of the pre-season friendly between Manchester United and Inter Milan at FedExField
News
i100
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
News
media
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
News
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Manager, London

£18000 - £22000 per annum, Benefits: Excellent Uncapped Commission Structure: ...

Sales Executive, London

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Charter Selection: This exciting entertainment comp...

Javascript Developer

£55000 - £75000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: FRONT-END D...

Opportunities for SEN Teachers and Support Staff

£50 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you looking for a new a...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz