In a standard-sized room at the San Francisco Marriott Hotel, Studs Terkel and I sit across a small round table from each other. The room is filled with a large cast of characters-unionists, artists, environmentalists, the disenfranchised-interjecting their voices every chance they can get, telling their stories and sharing piquant moments in their lives. Where Studs goes, they follow; his voice is theirs. And an interview with Studs Terkel-one of the greatest oral historians of this century-means an interview with the thousands of people whose lives Studs has recorded. Nine thousand interviews, or ten books worth, to be exact.
Terkel's books include such best-sellers as Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), Race (1992), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War (1985). Chronicling lives is Terkel's life's work. For over 40 years he has honed his skill as an interviewer on his daily one-hour radio show broadcast from WFMT in Chicago. There within his sound booth, between spinning his favorite jazz tunes, he introduces the so-called "ordinary people."
Studs has a great affection for jazz. In 1945 he worked as a disc jockey, introducing urbane Chicagoans to "hillbilly" folk music-Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers-and jazz or "race music"-Mahalia Jackson and Bill Broonzy. The first book he authored, Giants of Jazz (1957), celebrates black music and musicians previously ignored by mainstream audiences.
Terkel has come to the Bay Area to "talk" his latest book, Coming of Age (The New Press, 1995). In it, he features 70 "graying contemporaries," each immortalizing a time and place in history, each a model of candidness, wit, strong will, (frequently liberal politics), and survivor's strength. His book title is a twist on Margaret Mead's use of the term for adolescent boys and girls in Samoa. Studs believes Coming of Age is reaching 70, "when you are rich to take part. When you may be free at last-that is assuming you have a little pension of some sort."
Studs points to the subtitle, The Story of the Century by Those Who've Lived It. These are the people who have lived out this century-one which is concomitantly remarkable and barbaric-who can tell us about the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the '60s, firsthand. "It's history from the bottom up rather than history written by generals," explains Terkel.