Friday, October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel was many things to many people. He was an oral historian, cultural chronicler, and journalist.

For me, he was a model of listening, and a reminder that all people, big and small, from all walks of life, have stories worth telling and worth hearing.

In high school, one of my fonder memories was being in a production based on the musical Working, which contained many of the interviews from Terkel's work, as well as others, presented as monologues or set to music. Together, they wove a tapestry that expressed the variety that was and is America. (I played Joe, the retired guy.) The opening number borrowed from Walt Whitman..."I hear...America singing/I hear.../The varied carols, I hear...America singing." [I remember how excited Mary, our pianist was, when I finally came in on key.]

There were and are other great lines in various numbers, great because they were born from the truth of real interviews with real people.

"Millwork ain't easy/millwork ain't hard/millwork is most often times...a god-damn awful boring job."

"It's an art, it's an art to be a fine waitress, each evening I treasure the test..."

"Un mejor dia vendra/cuando dios de los pobres, un lugar dara"

"All I am is someone's mother/All I am is someone's wife/All of which seems/Unimportant/All it is is just my life."

"If I could've done what I could've done
I could've done big things
With some luck to do what I wanted to.
I would've done big things
Swam a few rivers,
Climbed a few hills,
Paid all my bills..."

There were some of the acting persuasion who, I'm pretty sure didn't like Working as a show because it had no signature show stopper and hence wasn't really a star (nor a star making) piece. But every piece was strong, and real, and poignant, because every piece was grounded in listening and letting the words of real people convey the human drama better than some scripted sentiment.

Studs Terkel was 96. He will be missed.

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