ALISON STEWART, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart. Coming up, writing other people's love songs.
But first, Studs Terkel died yesterday in his beloved Chicago at the age of 96. For decades and decades the Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian traveled the country interviewing ordinary people, allowing them to tell their stories to a larger world. Back in 1995 he shared one of his interviewing techniques with his friend, Scott Simon - forgetting to hit the record button on the tape machine.
(Soundbite of 1995 interview)
Mr. STUDS TERKEL (Oral Historian): These are the not celebrated people. Not authors or musicians. This is, say, someone in a housing project, and I forgot to press the button. She said, you didn't press that. And I said, oh, thank you. At that moment she feels not only my equal, my superior. See, at that moment, I'm not this guy with a mike from Mount Olympus coming down to earth to do it, but this goofball with this machine, and she helps me. Some people accuse me of deliberately goofing it up so I can make that other person feel better. It's not so. I'm just inept, simple as that.
STEWART: Weekend Edition's Scott Simon joins us now from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. And Scott, I'm sorry for the loss of your good friend. He was a true original. Can you tell us what made Studs unique?
SCOTT SIMON: Well, you know, as you suggested, he perfected, if not outright invented, oral history as a form, beginning with his book, "Division Street America" in the mid-'60s, which I read as a kid. I guess "The Good War," which won the Pulitzer in 1985, is still the best known. And you know, he used the technique in "Division Street" that just sounds so deceptively simple, to tell the life stories of people who lived along a single street that ran the breadth of Chicago from east to west.
If I might speak as a Chicagoan, he made our city sing. You know, he took the stories of the men and women who ride the red line from north to south and work the overnight shift, and he really turned them into the music of living. And though Chicago was obviously his base, he used the city just as much as Algren or James T. Farrell or Richard Wright or Saul Bellow, to show places all over the world that there were stories hidden in the lives of people there that were treasures to be excavated, and they glittered as literature.
STEWART: Why do you believe he was good at what he did?
SIMON: You know, I was laughing so much at that clip that you played because it absolutely - it's not as if Studs was some great technological wizard who had to feign ineptitude. He didn't have a driver's license, as I don't, and I'm prepared to say that a world - the world has been a safer place because neither of us had a driver's license. But he put himself in a position where because people had to help him out, it changed the whole identity of the interview. Suddenly he had to call on their better nature, and it made them more confident in an interview. You know, rather than be deferential or defensive, he was someone that they were trying to help out, and you can hear that confidence in the interviews he did because people are expressing themselves from a position of confidence, and it's what made a lot of his interviews not just different, but extraordinary.
STEWART: Scott, are there any special Studs stories you can share with us?
SIMON: There are about a hundred I can't. I'm here at the Texas Book Festival, and people have been asking me Studs stories, and they all have punchlines I can't repeat (Laughing), I just can't repeat. He was famously and creatively profane. But I do recall a number of years ago we were in a hotel bar. He was having his scotch, and there were a couple of people who came over to him - he's very identifiable - and they essentially wanted to tell him his life story. He was the repository of life stories of the last resort.
And there was a woman. She seemed to have some problem of - I forget what it was, but let's just say that she thought that she had had sex with space aliens. And I said to him something like, well, you could never interview her. And he said, but you know, that's not true because in another dimension of her life there might be a very compelling story going on. In fact, I'd be interested what was going on in her life that makes her think that she's had sex with space aliens.
And he said, you know, pallie(ph), lots of people say, you must have to be, you must have to go through like a hundred, you know, ha, ha, ha, ha, hundreds of interviews to get the two or three that work. And he said, no, you don't. You don't. You can make almost anyone work as an interview. You just have to talk to them enough. You just have to give them the chance. Everybody has got their story. Just let them sing, pallie, let them sing.
STEWART: That's good for all of us to remember, isn't it?
SIMON: Yeah, it is.
STEWART: Scott Simon, thanks for checking in, and again, we're sorry for your loss.
SIMON: Thank you, Alison.
STEWART: We're going to go out now with Studs Terkel reading the Carl Sandburg poem "Chicago."
Mr. TERKEL: (Reading): Chicago, hog butcher for the world, toolmaker, stacker of wheat, player with railroads and the nation's freight handler, stormy, husky, brawling, city of the big shoulders. They tell me you are wicked, and I believe them for I have seen your painted women under the gaslamps luring the farm boys. And they tell me you are crooked, and I answer, yes, it's true. I have seen the gunmen kill and go free and kill again. And they tell me you are brutal. My reply is, on the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so, I turn once more to those who sneer at this, my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them, come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning. Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job. Here is a tall, bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities. Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness, bareheaded, shoveling, wrecking, planning, building, breaking, rebuilding, under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth under the terrible burden of destiny, laughing as a young man laughs, laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle.
Bragging and laughing, but under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs, the heart of the people. Laughing. Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be hog butcher, toolmaker, stacker of wheat, player with railroads, and freight handler to the nation.
STEWART: Studs Terkel, reading Carl Sandburg's "Chicago." Mr. Terkel died yesterday in Chicago. He was 96.