Just People, Talking
December 11, 2008 9:09 AM   Subscribe

The recent passing of Studs Terkel sparked a renewed interest in his interview projects, like Working, Race, and Hard Times. But Studs was not just a broadcaster who liked people; he was a practitioner of oral history, a method of gathering information about the past through preserving individual recollections. It's a subfield of history, with its own ethics, techniques, professional literature, uses, and limitations. Learn how to collect and share oral histories yourself, from interviewing to recording and getting clearances to preserving and disseminating. Oral histories have been preserved as text transcripts for decades; now digital media isreinvigorating the form, bringing new ease to recording and wider opportunities for the public to see and hear the content. Explore oral history projects on the web with stories of veterans, suffragists, Tibetans, jazz cats, Nevada nuclear test site witnesses, Basque Americans, rodeo cowboys and cowgirls, musicians, Katrina survivors, ACT UP activists, Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge, Native Americans, women whose lives were affected by the Pill, survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire,women in World War II, Hawai'ians, workers in Paterson, NJ....
posted by Miko (20 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
Hm. everything after "limitations" should have been a [more inside]....apologies
posted by Miko at 9:11 AM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was only familiar with Studs because I happened across Race at a book sale, or inherited from a friend, or something like that.

It's a good read.

That's all.
posted by greenie2600 at 9:18 AM on December 11, 2008

Fresh Air replayed a previous interview they did with him today on a local radio station.

are there other, newer populist historians assuming the role?
posted by memnock at 9:22 AM on December 11, 2008

whoops. not Fresh Air. it was Alternative Radio with David Barsamian.
posted by memnock at 9:26 AM on December 11, 2008

Fresh Air re-broadcasted an old interview with Studs the day or day after he passed.
posted by podwarrior at 9:48 AM on December 11, 2008

This American Life (I think) did a bit on Studs Terkel, replaying some interview clips about surviving through the Great Depression. It was amazing.
posted by arcticwoman at 10:14 AM on December 11, 2008

More Studs in this thread.

I'm now listening to Frances Perkins discussing the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. What a great post. Thanks, Miko.
posted by ibmcginty at 10:24 AM on December 11, 2008

This American Life (I think) did a bit on Studs Terkel, replaying some interview clips about surviving through the Great Depression. It was amazing.

Fixed that for you. And yes, it was amazing. It made me realize that, while we might have another depression, it won't be like that. The United States is so much wealthier now, homeless shelters throw away better food than was distributed to the poor back then.
posted by straight at 10:35 AM on December 11, 2008

Anecdote in passing. Had a friend, a college pro colleague, interested in a possible oral history project. I suggested she find out (1) if worth doing, (2) tips for doing, and that she write Studs. Sure enough he quickly answered her with some kind words and some suggestions.
If you read the auto by Terkel you quickly realize how far to the left he was at a time (and it still is) when being radical was not liked or acceptable. He never wavered in his love and belief in the ordinary people.
posted by Postroad at 11:32 AM on December 11, 2008

Great post.
posted by stbalbach at 11:33 AM on December 11, 2008

Also, oral histories of Irish-Americans. No full interviews online, unfortunately, just excerpts.
Kinda-sorta self link – I do some web work for them.
posted by SirNovember at 11:55 AM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I once saw Studs Terkel introduce Stéphane Grappelli (at length) before a concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It's one of my favorite memories.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:13 PM on December 11, 2008

Well...not a bad post Miko, but there just isn’t enough rich, interesting and absorbing information here. Perhaps next time put in a few more links, each of which are more interesting than the next.
*adjusts tongue fully in cheek*

Very nifty, thanks
posted by Smedleyman at 12:44 PM on December 11, 2008

Great work - thanks for collecting.
posted by lottie at 2:38 PM on December 11, 2008

l you quickly realize how far to the left he was

When I was gathering the links it was hard not to notice that so many (though not all) oral history topics and interviewees are the same kinds of topics that people on the left are interested in (ethnic groups, oppressed populations, class issues, labor, traditional communities...). I wondered about oral history as a political act a little bit - on the other hand, this is real history - in many cases, stories of these populations may have just been left to the community historians in museums and the academy to collect and examine, because the individual story is not considered particularly 'historic' by many of the established narrators of national history. The personal is political, as they say.

The interesting thing is that it is often through evidence gathered through many personal stories that an eventual larger narrative (say, from Jim Crow to Civil Rights, to grab a good example) emerges. It's all just one person's story - until someone realizes that there a lot of commonalities between that person's story and many, many others.

And still there's such poetry and humanity in the individual differences.
posted by Miko at 3:49 PM on December 11, 2008

Thanks, Miko, this is great! Last night, while driving, I caught the Alternative Radio interview linked above. I'm not that familiar with Studs, and I didn't recognize who the speaker was for a few minutes. But it was immediately clear that whoever it was, he was the most captivating, interesting storyteller I'd ever heard. What a treasure! I'm sorry I didn't tune into his work more while he was alive, but I'm glad there's so much he left behind.
posted by bepe at 4:59 PM on December 11, 2008

Miko, there's at least one link there for the right wing: the Tibetan oral history consists of people who fled when China ended slavery. Makes me wonder if there's an oral history for the Miami Cubans who had supported Batista's brutal reign. Partisanship is to be expected, of course. I'm sure there are books of interviews out there with former Confederates reminiscing about the good ol' days of Dixie.
posted by shetterly at 7:36 PM on December 11, 2008

Great post. Not everyone was a fan, however.....

Jacob Weisberg responds to a reviewer who compared Terkel to Diogenes:

"That comparison is monumentally inapt.The skepticism about his fellow citizens that characterized the Diogenes of Athens is antithetical to the faith in the average man professed by this Diogenes of the Windy City in a red-checked shirt. Terkel can hardly find a dishonest man for trying. He lives by a Progressive belief in the intrinsic goodness and decency of most people, which doesn't appear to unsettle his dogmatic insistence that American society is bigoted, ignorant, and greedy. Terkel loves Americans and loathes America."

What makes it OK with Terkel is that he wore his biases on his sleeve. He was an old school lefty who found (and urged, one senses) people who would say what he wanted them to say. You knew that Terkel's voice was strongly mixed into his interviews. And it was a charming voice.
posted by LarryC at 7:41 PM on December 11, 2008

I hardly think Terkel could have been the man he was ithout some political bias.
You can't listen as well as he did, have his essential interest in humanity, and come away from that experience with a completely neutral outlook.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:05 AM on December 12, 2008

I've worked on oral histories a bit, was a member of OHA, and transcribed some tapes for the Brown v. Board of Education Museum. Oral histories are a fascinating tool. I'm glad that the web has been able to bring so many voices to the world.
posted by sleepy pete at 7:18 PM on December 12, 2008

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