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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £30,000+

£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for individual...

Recruitment Genius: IT Project Coordinator / Manager

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Mortgage Advisor - OTE £95,000

£40000 - £95000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Purchasers

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy