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Legendary Broadcaster and Author Studs Terkel on President Bush, Mahalia Jackson, James Baldwin, Louis Armstrong, the Rebuilding of New Orleans and What Gives Him Hope

StoryOctober 05, 2005
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He’s one of the great social historians of our time. He prefers to call himself a “guerrilla journalist with a tape recorder.” We’re talking about legendary radio broadcaster and author, Studs Terkel.

Born in 1912 in New York City, Studs Terkel moved with his family to Chicago at the age of ten where he spent most of his life. Over the years he has worked as an activist, a civil servant, a labor organizer, a radio DJ and a television actor. But he is best known as a Chicago radio personality and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

For 45 years, Studs Terkel spent an hour each weekday on his nationally syndicated radio show interviewing the famous and the not-so-famous. With his unique style, he created portraits of everyday life in America and chronicled the changing times of the 20th century. [includes rush transcript]

The Chicago Historical Society is now creating The Studs Terkel Center for Oral History where people will be able to listen to over 5,000 hours of taped interviews.

In 1956, Studs Terkel published his first book, “The Giants of Jazz.” Since then he has written many more, including his famed “Working” and “The Good War” which one the Pulitzer prize for nonfiction.

His latest book, just published, is titled “And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey.” It is a collection of interviews with a wide range of legendary American musicians. From Leonard Bernstein to Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan to Louis Armstrong.

Studs Terkel recently underwent open heart surgery and at 93 years-old, his surgeon says he is the oldest person he knows to have successfully undergone the risky procedure. Studs Terkel last joined us in our firehouse studio two years ago. He joins us again today for the hour.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel will spend the hour with us today in our Firehouse studio, as he did two years ago, and we are thrilled to have you back.

STUDS TERKEL: Well, I’m so delighted, Amy, just to be with you in an old firehouse. You know, as you were reading the news, I thought of one thing: a burlesque house. Burlesque. The hotel in which I was raised during my young manhood in Chicago had several burlesque houses around, first and second bananas. And George Bush is a perfect second banana. The second banana is the one who was fed this stuff and was a natural foil for the first banana, who would be Karl Rove. But they’re not as funny as the burlesque shows I saw.

I think people who were considered idols in our society — Ronald Reagan, for example, was voted the greatest leader this country has ever had by four-and-a-half million people, Discovery Channel. You start thinking, and where did Lincoln figure? And where did FDR, Franklin Roosevelt, figure? Lagging tenth. You start thinking of something. There’s no past. We’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease. So if there’s no remembrance of yesterday, as will be the case, how can they remember something happened seventy years ago?

For example, the disaster, the catastrophe, Katrina in New Orleans, we know now that the government was unprepared for it. We could see a movie right now, a documentary that was filmed during the New Deal — it’s called The River — and it was the government stepping in to prevent floods, and Tennessee Valley Authority came out of it. The music was Virgil Thompson. One other thing, before I let you go, say a word in.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m not letting you go. So you can keep talking.

STUDS TERKEL: You said 1912. That year, the Titanic went down, and the same as I came up. But also—

AMY GOODMAN: This is the year you were born.

STUDS TERKEL: — 1912, and I was reminded of this by Leonard Bernstein in the recent book, why he’s so generous — was so generous-hearted, as well as so multi-gifted. He said New York City wanted to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday with a gigantic ceremony. He says, “No, I’ll be in Lawrence, Massachusetts, my hometown.” In 1912, immigrant women, mostly Italian and Portuguese, went on strike against the Boston Brahmins who exploited them in the textile mills. Out of it came that song “Bread and Roses.” And so, Bernstein spent the celebration of his life in his hometown. Gives you an idea of the kind of guy he was.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs, speaking about the kind of guy you are, just physically, your doctors saying you’re the oldest person to successfully undergo this heart operation. First of all, you’re looking very good in your red-and-white checked shirt —

STUDS TERKEL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: — and your red socks.

STUDS TERKEL: Now, the story behind that, you see, I had broken my neck earlier. And before that, about nine years ago, I had — when I was much younger, eighty-five or so, I had a quintuple bypass. But there’s a moral to this whole thing. I had a quintuple bypass, and passed, and I have no longer used the nitro sublingual pill. Now, my two brothers and my father all died in their fifties, and I was due, because I had angina. So I overcame that, and it was my stubbornness. But then came this book called — subtitled The Adventures of a Dyslexic Disc Jockey [sic.].

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, right.

STUDS TERKEL: Of an Eclectic Disc Jockey, And They All Sang. That’s a Bernstein phrase, by the way. People sang more, as well as talked more, before technology took over. He’s not condemning technology; he’s merely saying something has happened to vox humana. And so, they’re celebrating. This was a year ago, July 4th. My neighbors are going to have a cocktail party for me, because the book is due out. But I slipped down a stairway, and I do a tour jeté, but I don’t land on point. It was something not choreographed by Balanchine, but by Bob Fosse, because it was jazzy, except that my head hit the thing, and I was in the hospital with a broken neck.

Now things are going along OK. I’m getting along, when five weeks ago — no, what is this? October 5th? About six weeks ago, I was told by the cardiologist, my family doctor, who, by the way, is a leading advocate of national health, and the surgeon that unless I had a new valve put in, I’m gone in about three, four months. And I said, “To hell with it. OK, I might as well. I’m ninety-three.” But then curiosity got the best of it. And my curiosity is what saw me through. What would the world be like, or will there be a world? And so, that’s my epitaph. I have it all set. Curiosity did not kill this cat. And it’s curiosity, I think, that has saved me thus far.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how are you feeling?

STUDS TERKEL: Not bad, considering everything. Not bad at all. Nurses would say, as well as it could be expected. No, not half bad, really. I can talk, obviously.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’re looking great, and it’s great —

STUDS TERKEL: By the way, do you know — remember the Seven — you said I’m looking great? You know the Seven Ages of Man, of course. Melancholy Jacques with the seven ages. There are three ages today. There’s youth, old age and “you’re looking great.” Yes, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel is our guest. I wanted to read the first few lines of your book, And They All Sang. “1945, early autumn, a month before World War II had ended with a flash and a bang, four Sundays later, I began as host of a one-hour weekly radio program of recorded music called The Wax Museum. The phrase ‘disc jockey’ had not yet entered our working vocabulary. In effect, though, that is what I was,” you write. “Wax Museum,” because…?

STUDS TERKEL: Well, the records were shellac, and there was a waxen base. You drop it, and they crack. I still have a lot of 78s at home.

And who was the figure who really created the record industry? There was one artist: Enrico Caruso. See, every immigrant family, not just Italian, of course, or Jewish families, but every immigrant family of Eastern Europe all would buy a Caruso record. It was two bucks a piece, the equivalent of about fifty bucks today. And they’d listen. And his voice, John Ciardi, the poet, says something about his voice really accentuated the possibilities that are in all people in society. We can go one step higher, and that’s what he would do. Caruso, singing the aria from “O Paradis!,” the opera, Vasco da Gama and his discoveries. And he’s reached the top, when suddenly he goes further.

So, some of those interviews are fifty, sixty years old, and a couple of the divas in the book sang with Caruso. And they spoke of that experience with him. And so, in a way, I’d go from Caruso — the word is “eclectic” disc jockey — Caruso, say, to Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” my favorite jazz record with Earl Hines playing a trumpet-style piano. And from there I’d go to Woody Guthrie doing “Tom Joad.” In six minutes, two sides of a ten-inch record, he covered The Grapes of Wrath. I mean, he covered the novel of John Steinbeck, didn’t miss a bit, when it came to the highlights, when he says goodbye to his mother at the end: “She’ll know where I am. You’ll know where I am. Wherever kids are hungry, I’ll be there. Wherever guys are beaten up, I’ll be there.” And Woody did that. Then I go into another recording, opera it might be, or something else.

And one of the reasons I did that — I didn’t realize it ’til now — is because classical music, for a lot of working people, is considered beyond them. See, they read the tabloid, or they maybe see first night women with tiaras and guys with gloves and cane, and so they thought maybe it’s for them. Maybe Mahler and Bach are for them. But there’s one guy in a book called Akenfield, a wonderful novel — not a novel, it’s sort of a oral history of a small town near London. And this working man says, “It’s not for me, really. It’s beyond me.” One day, to get out of the rain, he wanders into this hall. It could be in Manchester. And he hears music. And it’s Mozart. And he listens. And he listens. He said, “I like this. I like this. It is — I am good enough for it.”

And so, in a sense, that’s what it’s about, too. The possibilities that we have for the better angels to take over. And we do have those. You know, you call it the Pollyanna, because you still have hope. That’s one of the books said, isn’t it? What was it called? Hope Dies Last. That’s a book earlier. Hope Dies Last is about—

AMY GOODMAN: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times.

STUDS TERKEL: — people such as yourself. I call them part of the prescient minority, the prophetic minority. They were there during the Jefferson-Adams fight, Alien Sedition Acts. Eleven years after the French Revolution, they were called Jacobins. And during slavery days, they were called abolitionists. And they paid their dues, and they got their lumps. And during World War I, Eugene V. Debs went to prison, because he was against the war. It was a Democratic president put him in, Woodrow Wilson. Do you know who pardoned him? Warren Gamaliel Harding. Would you believe it? Sometimes it’s the individual himself, herself, who might be it. And you were talking — well, I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs, we have to break, but when we come back, I want to ask you about Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. I want to ask you about Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson, maybe a little bit about James Baldwin.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning author, broadcaster, legendary social historian, Studs Terkel. We’re just listening to Mahalia Jackson. How did you meet her?

STUDS TERKEL: I was in a music shop one day, and I heard this Apollo label record, break of a record, two sides, “Move On Up a Little Higher,” and then I heard it in many black communities, not white. I was the white — see, to this day, it’s a sad commentary. I’m considered, among whites, the guy who discovered Mahalia Jackson, because I was the white disc jockey who played her, having heard her sing this very song, “Move On Up a Little Higher.” And that voice, you know, it’s something — the Welsh would say, “something speciale.” It was. And so, that’s — the irony is the African American community knew who she was. The whites didn’t. I happened to be a white disc jockey, and so I’ve been associated with her name. I did — I was the host of her radio show later. That’s a funny story.


STUDS TERKEL: Well, I was kicked off TV. Chicago is the home of early pioneer TV back in 1949, 1950. It was on 6:10 at night. There were three programs: Dave Garroway, and he’s the first host of the show called Today, a revolutionary program that was daytime, never was a morning show, ever. He was the most famous face in the world at one time. Dave Garroway was a fellow disc jockey of mine, and it’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie, a puppet show, and the genius of TV, Chicago TV’s Burr Tillstrom, little rags in his hand, a one-tooth dragon, little Kukla, which is Russian for “doll,” and a woman, an actual woman, Fran Allison. And he was so remarkable. He would create with little rags in his hand a whole community of tenderness. The third program was Studs’ Place.

And all of us had something in common: We improvised. There was no soundtrack. The dialogue was part of the cast. And I had three colleagues. And now and then another person would be the catalyst for the plot, which was a very simple one. And then I got in trouble. Then Joe McCarthy comes along and John Edgar Hoover, and I sign — my name was on all these Attorney General’s lists, organizations, Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. Following the Spanish Civil War, there were refugees, went to South America, to France, and it’s backing them. And there was my name.

And in the meantime, I’m a hot property, I should point out, that I was courted by New York agents and others. Mike Wallace was an announcer in Chicago, and he came there, and I was courted very much. And then they come in from New York. The guy says, “We’re in trouble.” I’m quoting — I just thought of the Lone Ranger, “Where do you get that ‘we’ stuff,” says Tonto to him. And he said, “Don’t you know that these are commie organizations?” And that’s when I get kind of cute, and I said, “Suppose communists come out against cancer. Do we have to automatically come out for cancer?” He says, “That’s not very funny.” And I says, “You got to stand up and be counted.” Well, I love Charlie Chaplin, so I stood up as Charlie Chaplin would do. He says, “That’s not funny, either. So either you recant, or we can you.” So they canned me.

And so, I’m not working for a while. Meantime, the Legionnaires are after me, but Chicago is a city I love, because every women’s club that hired me, say, for a hundred bucks, to talk about folk music, to talk about jazz, not one canceled. But one elderly, elegant woman, who was the head of the hiring of this ladies’ club was so furious at this Legionnaire who wrote them this frightening letter that I was dangerous and they’d be under the gun if they hired me. She said, “I’m going to double your fee to $200 from $100.” And so I sent this guy, now gone to the great legion post beyond the sky — so I said to him — I didn’t say anything. I sent a letter to him with a $10 check. I said, “I owe you commissions, ten bucks for the extra hundred.” He never acknowledged my check.

Now, here’s where Mahalia comes in. Meantime, Mahalia gets to be world renowned, and CBS offers her a radio contract for the whole network. She’ll do it on one condition, that Studs Terkel, as she put it, is the host of the show. And they jumbled a bit, but said, “Fine.” It’s done in a theater, Wrigley Building Theater, CBS. And I warm up the audience, and I work closely with Mahalia. Well, sure enough, a guy comes in — another guy from New York, this time in CBS, during a dress rehearsal before the audience comes in. It’s on the network, you know. During the dress rehearsal, he comes in and says, “Would you mind signing this?” It’s pro forma. It’s “I am not, nor have I ever been… and I’m loyal…” I said, “I don’t believe in that stuff. My yea is my yea, and my nay is my nay, as the bredren would put it. I’m not” — He says, “Oh, you’ve got to.”

Mahalia hears that, as she’s going toward the piano. Because I remember, we were getting a new theme song. What’s the one that Ethel Waters used to sing in that play? I’ll think of it. “His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He Watches Me.” She hears this argument, and she says, “Is that what I think it is?” She knows about me. She says, “Studs, you know, you got such a big mouth, you should have been a preacher.” And so, she says, “Let’s rehearse.” He says, “But Miss Jackson, this is from New York, and Mr. Terkel has to sign this.” And she says, “Look, if you fire Studs, find another Mahalia Jackson.” You know what happened? Nothing! Nothing happened. We went through as per schedule. The emperor has no clothes. Somebody said “No.” Mahalia said “No.” And that’s the story. Simple as that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play an excerpt of an interview you did with Mahalia Jackson, but it starts with a little of Mahalia’s voice.

    MAHALIA JACKSON: [singing] Gonna move on up a little higher // Meet ol’ man Daniel // Move on up a little higher // Meet the Hebrew children // Move on up a little higher, Lord // Meet my friends and loved ones // Move on up a little higher.

    STUDS TERKEL: Mahalia Jackson, our guest this morning. Mahalia, I’m thinking about you and this song. I have known you since about 1946. That would be about seventeen years we’ve known one another, Mahalia.

    MAHALIA JACKSON: That’s right.

    STUDS TERKEL: I’m thinking about this song, you, your recognition as an internationally known artist, a black woman, a singer of gospel songs, spirituals. What does this song — what meaning does this song have for you today?

    MAHALIA JACKSON: Well, you’ve got to keep moving, and you’ve got to have heart, and you’ve got to just suffer, but you’ve got to keep on moving, because the world is — there’s so many people — is trying to move. They’ve got to just keep pushing their way, and then there’s so many people is ready to move, they’re ready to come up out of poverty, come up out of oppression. And that’s the meaning of it. You’re trying to tell the world you’ve got to have a real heart, a real soul, a real feeling of love in your heart, and only love can do this. It’s when you keep trying to move. You’ve got to move on to success and to love each other.

    STUDS TERKEL: This is, in a way, I suppose, what Reverend Martin Luther King’s feeling is all about, because the nonviolent movement that — it’s pretty difficult though, isn’t it, Mahalia?


    STUDS TERKEL: I mean, isn’t this difficult?

    MAHALIA JACKSON: It’s so sad. It’s so sad.

    STUDS TERKEL: Difficult to — you can’t turn — it’s rough to turn a cheek, isn’t it?

    MAHALIA JACKSON: Oh, well, that’s his teaching, you know, and I have gone along with it pretty much and following his leadership. But, you know, it’s pretty hard, Studs, for somebody to keep on knocking you down, and you — he keeps saying to stick to it. I know he’s right, but you kind of get a little angry there, you know? And especially when they put the little children in the jail, and putting dogs on people. Only thing we are interested in is equal rights, where we can make a living to survive. You understand? And to have an education.

    Only the grace of God that has brought me thus far, being an unlearned woman, not able — what was I going to try to learn for down there? Wasn’t no work for me. If I had got a chance to go to college, there wasn’t nothing for me to do but still push the white people’s buggy, their babies, and clean their babies and clean their house. It’s just — since I been up north, a little bit of opportunities opened. That’s another thing that pluses me. I don’t know, this thing — it’s peculiar.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve been listening to Mahalia Jackson, your interview, 1963.

STUDS TERKEL: Oh, God. Yeah. That was it. But, you know, you mentioned spirituals and gospel. Now, there’s a difference, you see. I interviewed — in that book, interviewed Professor Thomas Dorsey — not Tommy Dorsey, Thomas Dorsey — who was the father of gospel music. He was once known as Georgia Tom. And he accompanied Ma Rainey, who was the teacher of Bessie Smith, and when his wife died, he was saved. He found salvation. And gospel songs are post-emancipation. Gospel songs began early in the twentieth century, really. They’re Northern songs, whereas spirituals are songs of slavery days. And most of the lyrics are from the Bible, Old and New Testament. “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel? And Why Not Every Man?” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” And the chariot, of course, is the euphemism for the underground railway. And so, they were double meanings, the spirituals. Many gospel songs are commercial, quite frankly. But many are quite marvelous, but they represent two different aspects of African American life, historical aspects. And so, that’s around and about in that book.

AMY GOODMAN: Your relationship with Mahalia, so she really saved you from these —

STUDS TERKEL: Well, and how! I mean, when she said, “No,” that ended the conversation. “Then find another Mahalia.” Well, we went on; the program went on as usual. We finished our run.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you compare the times of then and times of today?

STUDS TERKEL: Well, times of today are probably a little worse than then. Then, you knew. After all, finally Ed Morrow got at Joe McCarthy. There’s an excellent movie coming out, by the way, about Ed Morrow, with Edward Strathairn — David Strathairn, a wonderful actor, and I acted in something called Eight Men Out, about the Black Sox, who, you know, won last night, the White Sox did, which is quite remarkable.

But today, ever since Ronald Reagan’s day, quite frankly, the change took place. We have a burlesque of Reagan in George Bush, but as soon as the phrase “Reagan Democrats” came into being, you knew that race was the base with one of them. And people — this is ironic — that “middle class” became the word for everything. The word “working class” became an alien word, almost subversive word. No one is working class. We’re all middle class. Gore versus Bush did that, as well as Kerry versus Bush. And so, it makes it a little more difficult now than it was then.

At the same time, we do know — there’s a paradox here. We do know a contradiction in itself, that his popularity has gone down, down, down, with the war and with the economy itself. So, that’s a sign, just as toward the end of the Vietnam War. Remember, kids were beaten up by the jocks, and the jocks finally joined them, too. And that’s when LBJ said, “I do not choose to run anymore.” And so, we have that going on at the same time. And that’s why those people I call “the prescient minority” — of which, by the way, you as a broadcaster are one, if you don’t mind my saying so — have always been there, have always been a minority. The majority — I’m not going to romanticize the majority. There are certain people in the community who are able to speak articulately. They’re the same economic stratum, the same religious, the same beliefs, but that woman or that guy is able to articulate what the others may feel.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you make of people like Bill O’Reilly of Fox, Pat Robertson calling for the assassination of these leaders?

STUDS TERKEL: Well, what can I say about that? It’s burlesque, but no longer funny. It isn’t funny. Can you imagine someone calling for the assassination of the President, someone foreign? Why, we would have troops there immediately, bombing the hell out of whatever town it is that harbored those people. So, it’s twice now. I didn’t know the recent one. I knew the one about Pat Robertson, man of God. Man of God, a man who represents Jesus Christ. If ever there were an agitator, a labor agitator, it was Jesus Christ, who spoke of — well, we know what he spoke about, rich men and going — you know, having as much chance to get to heaven as a camel through a needle’s eye.

And here is a guy I’ll never forget. There’s a preacher I once knew named Claude Williams in the South. He was a marvelous circuit rider, meaning he’s a preacher who would go from church to church. And he was organizing a tobacco workers’ union. This was a white union. And this woman, who had a raggedy blanket around her, started — his word was “touched cadence.” She touched cadence. She swung, and with Jesus as a labor organizer.

And so, you have Pat Robertson, who is very un-Christian, by the way, in the true sense of the word, to speak of that. So what has to be said, that we accept it. I mean, instead of saying, “Let’s dump this guy, and dump the reverend thing immediately,” we go on. So, we live in a strange moment. At the same time, we know the popularity of Reagan is gone — when I said Reagan, that’s interesting. That’s a Freudian slip, but nonetheless, this guy is a takeoff on Reagan. He makes Reagan sound like Abraham Lincoln, you know? So, the times are — I’m not going to be a Pollyanna. It’s this prescient minority that always must speak out, no matter what the dues may be.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, we’re going to break again and then come back with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, with the legendary broadcaster, Studs Terkel, in our studio, at the age of 93, just back from heart surgery.


AMY GOODMAN: As you listen to Louis Armstrong and write about him in And They All Sang, talk about Louis Armstrong.

STUDS TERKEL: Well, if ever there were a favorite jazz recording of mine, it’s “West End Blues” with the Hot Seven. He did several versions of it, one including his first wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong. It’s quite marvelous. In the book, she speaks of making Louis proud of himself. He came from the orphanage in New Orleans to Chicago. His mentor was King Oliver, whom he worshipped. And she said, “Worship yourself.” But in any event, “West End Blues,” the version you just played, has Earl Hines at the piano, and he was as much of a pioneer. See, in the case of Louis Armstrong, the horn and the voice were one. You didn’t know where one left off and the other began, because the horn was part of his very being. In the case of Earl Hines, he’s a trumpet-style piano. So, that particular jazz record. Of course, they went on from that period of bop, and you’ve got Dizzy Gillespie talking about work with Charlie Parker and a new form, inventing new forms, instrument, and then even a Chicago freeform guy named Henry Threadgill. So it was jazz — and Billie, of course, part of it.

And then you — then I might go to spirituals and blues and folk, and a twenty-two-year-old kid named Bob Dylan, in what may have been one of his earliest radio interviews. And there was a song he wrote, and it was called “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” And he said, every line could be the subject of a song. But there’s one line that knocked me for a loop. “The executioner’s face is always well hidden.” And you start thinking about that. The hangman and the mask around his face; the guillotine, of course, and the executioner’s face. We have today executioners whose faces are not hidden, but they’re distant from it. They may be high officials of a civilized society. And so, that line, as event, at first I thought he meant atomic rain, hard rain. He said, “No, no. I mean just rain’s a-gonna fall.” And it was an interesting interview with his twenty-two-year-old kid, at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: In your interview with Louis Armstrong, you talk about how it was around midnight. You said, “We were in the dressing room of a Chicago nightclub that wasn’t one attended by jazz aficionados. Its patrons were usually visiting firemen, merchants gathered at a convention. They were more accustomed to another sort of entertainment: exotic dancers and go-go girls. Armstrong would do. He had become an international icon, but mostly it was that interpretation of ‘Blueberry Hill,’ and his grin and his white teeth were much to their liking.” Why did he agree to an interview with you?

STUDS TERKEL: Well, that’s the whole point. He was so loyal to this agent of his, who was not too loyal to him. There was no need for him. He was tired. In fact, I suggested we postpone the interview, because I was worried. You know, his upper lip had blistered the size of a dime. That’s from pressing the embouchure of the trumpet so. And he had just come from Ghana, and he spoke of the music of West Africa as being where his stuff came from. It was great, but then you realize how tired he is, how worn he is.

And behind that smile, that grin — it’s the case of Ernie Banks, the shortstop of the Cubs. The Cubs were one of the last teams to hire black players, and Wrigley, P.K. Wrigley, was the one who’s guilty of it. He would say, “Ernie Banks and his grin.” Well, Ernie Banks didn’t quite have that grin, and neither did Louis Armstrong. He said, “They all knew me. I was never invited to the house, but they knew me.” So, behind that grin was something else. And that’s that deep feeling. I remember, I was so self-conscious as he took that handkerchief out and had the towel around him. He was so tired. I said let’s — I was suggesting we cut the interview. He says, “No, let’s keep on.” So, that’s part of — sometimes you have to understand also what’s happening to the other person.

AMY GOODMAN: Moving from Louis Armstrong to James Baldwin, I want to take a listen for a moment to your — the collection that you have, Voices of Our Time.

    BESSIE SMITH: [singing] Then trouble’s takin’ place in the lowlands at night // I woke up this mornin’, can’t even get out of my door.

    STUDS TERKEL: Bessie Smith, of course, the Empress of the Blues, singing of a disaster, of a flood. Sitting with me, hearing Bessie Smith on this recording, is James Baldwin, brilliant young American writer, but perhaps a more specific description of Mr. Baldwin, since he is one of the rare men in the world who seems to know who he is today, James Baldwin, brilliant young Negro American writer. And as you listen to this, Jim, to this record of Bessie Smith, what’s your feeling?

    JAMES BALDWIN: It’s very hard to describe that feeling. The first time I ever heard this record was in Europe and under very different circumstances. And I never listened to Bessie in New York. And what struck me was the fact that she was singing, as you say, about a disaster, which had almost killed her, and she had accepted it and was going beyond it. It’s a fantastic kind of understatement in it. It’s a way I want to write. You know, when she says, “My house fell down, and I can’t live there no more,” it’s a great sentence. It’s a great achievement.

    STUDS TERKEL: The way you want to write, you say?


    STUDS TERKEL: I’m looking now at page five of your new book, and it’s a remarkable one, Nobody Knows My Name. It’s a series of essays, articles, opinions of James Baldwin, More Notes of a Native Son, the subtitle. And on page five — the reason I had chosen the Bessie Smith record, because on page five, you write of your being in Europe. You were in Switzerland.


    STUDS TERKEL: And you said you “came armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter. And I began to try to recreate the life that I had first known as a child, from which I had spent so many years in flight, and it was Bessie Smith who, through her tone and her cadence, helped me dig back to the way I myself must have spoke when I was little. And I remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I buried them deep. I had” — and here’s the part — “I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America, in the same way, for years, I had never touched watermelon. But in Europe, [inaudible] reconcile myself.”

    JAMES BALDWIN: Yes. Well, and I put that — that winter in Switzerland, I was working on my first novel, which I thought I would never be able to finish. And I finally realized in Europe that one of the reasons that I couldn’t finish this novel was because I was ashamed of where I had come from and where I had been, and ashamed of life in the church and ashamed of my father, ashamed of the blues and ashamed of jazz, and, of course, ashamed of watermelon, because it was, you know, all these stereotypes that the country inflicts on Negroes, you know, that we all eat watermelon or we all do nothing but sing the blues, and all that. Well, I was afraid of all that, and I ran from it.

    And when I say I was trying to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was little, I realized that I had acquired so many affectations, I had told myself so many lies, that I really had buried myself beneath a whole fantastic image of myself, which wasn’t mine, but white people’s image of me. And I realized that I had not always talked — obviously, hadn’t always talked the way I had forced myself to learn how to talk. And I had to find out what I had been like in the beginning. In order, just technically then to recreate Negro speech, I realized there was a cadence, there was a beat, much more than — it was not a question of dropping S’s or N’s or G’s, but a question of the beat, really. And Bessie had the beat, you know? And in that —- this icy wilderness, you know, as far removed from Harlem as anything you can imagine, Bessie Smith and me. I began -—

    STUDS TERKEL: And white snow.

    JAMES BALDWIN: And white snow and white mountains and white faces, who really thought I was — I had been sent by the devil. It was a very strange. They had never seen a Negro before.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s James Baldwin, an interview you did with the great writer in 1961.

STUDS TERKEL: That was ’61. You could tell it was long ago. We said “Negro” instead of “African American.” ’61. He had just returned from self-imposed exile in Switzerland, and that was one of the early return interviews he gave at the time. And that’s a great title, Nobody Knows My Name. And, of course, that is the servant for years and years and years.

By the way, there’s a marvelous new novel by E.L. Doctorow, about Sherman’s march through Georgia. It’s great. It touches this very theme of the slave being free, and the young mistress, who’s an enlightened Southerner, sees her face for the first time, as she’s now free with a carpetbag in her hand. And she suddenly sees a face she hadn’t recognized before, enlightened who she was. So, hearing Baldwin, you hear this voice. By the way, I hadn’t heard of him until Lorraine Hansberry, who’s a Chicagoan, who was my friend, who wrote Raisin in the Sun, brought up the name of this young black writer, who will succeed probably Richard Wright, and his name was James Baldwin.

AMY GOODMAN: Lorraine Hansberry died very young.

STUDS TERKEL: Yeah. Well, Wright, of course, went to Paris to die, and he lost his roots. Richard Wright wrote Native Son, which was the first probably great American novel. Ellison later on wrote Invisible Man.

But all sorts of memories are evoked. You talk about the floods, Bessie Smith recalling the floods. And naturally, we think of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and the lack of preparation of this government, in contrast to the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who already had plans to stop the floods. And there’s a movie, a documentary — I’m surprised no one has picked that up — that was produced by the government. It’s called The River. And Virgil Thompson wrote the music, and Tennessee Valley Authority is what it’s about. And it was preparation for a disaster that might happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Jazz was a lot of — fed you a great deal. As you look at New Orleans now, you know, your first book, The Giants of Jazz, and so many from New Orleans, what do you think about who will get to rebuild New Orleans? The French Quarter certainly will be there, but what about the communities that feed it?

STUDS TERKEL: Who knows? That’s just the point. There was no preparation at all. We know that now. A guy named Brownie. “You’re doing a heck of a job,” says the clown to him, the second banana says to — this guy is the third banana. It’s a burlesque show, really, but it’s not funny. I don’t know what — I mean, there has to be a government — has to be a benign one in this case, to step in fully. You think of all of the dough that goes into the wreckage that is Iraq today, the immediate billions and billions, how much of that could be used, just a portion of that, could be used — could have been used to prevent it.

Of course, it’s — all disasters are preventable, provided there is governmental activity that calls the shot. In the case of the New Deal, Henry Wallace, who was the heart and soul, was Secretary of Agriculture during two terms of Roosevelt and then he was the Vice President, was a remarkable figure. One of the most attacked and assaulted figures in our history. It was during the Cold War. And I’d say the three great Americans of our century are Martin Luther King, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Henry Wallace. I put him up there.

When Tom Joad says to Ma Joad — remember at the end of Grapes of Wrath? And they’re bullied by the vigilantes and the big growers and the Legionnaires, they come to a government camp, and it says Farm Security Administration, a subsidiary of the Department of Agriculture. And the director of that camp, who is made up to look like FDR, by the way, wears pince-nez glasses. I remember that small things. The actor’s name was Grant Mitchell. Isn’t that funny? I remember the little things. He says, “This camp is yours,” to the Joad family and to others, to the emigres. “This camp is yours, your decision to be made. You do it. We’ll help you find jobs.” So that was the government that is being dismantled, every aspect of the New Deal.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what gives you hope today?

STUDS TERKEL: What is my hope today?

AMY GOODMAN: What gives you hope?

STUDS TERKEL: Well, just hope itself. See, without hope —- remember the book called Hope Dies Last, the book previous to this one about music, it was Jessie De La Cruz, who was retired as a farm worker in a mobile home in Fresno, and she worked with Cesar Chavez. She would have a saying in Spanish, when things go bleak: “La esperanza muere al ultimo.” Hope dies last. Without hope, you become just a cynic, and that’s a dime a dozen. There has to be that. And I’m not going to be a Pollyanna now. If I don’t have that -—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds —

STUDS TERKEL: Five seconds are, I have faith in the innate decency and the innate intelligence of the American people that is under unprecedented assault today. That’s the biggest assault I know.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, I want to thank you very much for being with us today.

STUDS TERKEL: Thank you. It’s gone too fast, but thank you, Amy, very much for doing what you are doing.

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