Remembering Studs

editorial notebook

November 08, 2008

Studs Terkel, who died on the last day of October at his home in Chicago, made an art of oral history. He was a character and a treasure and, in his own words, a uniquely American voice.

What has happened to the human voice? Vox Humana. Hollering, shouting, quiet talking, buzz.

I was leaving the airport, this is in Atlanta. You know, you leave the gate, you take a train that took you to concourse of your choice. And I get into this train. Dead silence. Few people seated or standing. Up above you hear a voice. That once was a human voice, but no longer. Now it talks like a machine. 'Concourse 1: Fort Worth, Dallas, Lubbock.' That kind of voice.

Just then the doors are about to close, the pneumatic doors, when a young couple rush in and push open the doors and get in. Without missing a beat that voice above says: 'Because of late entry, we're delayed 30 seconds.' The people looked at that couple, like that couple just committed mass murder, you know. And the couple is shrinking like this, you know.

And I'm known for my talking, I'm gabby. And so I say, 'George Orwell, your time has come and gone.' I expect a laugh. Dead silence. And now they look at me, and I'm with the couple. The three of us are at the Hill of Calvary on Good Friday.

And then I say, 'My God, where's the human voice?' And just then there's a little baby, maybe the baby's about a year old, or something. And I say, 'Sir or madam,' to the baby, 'what is your opinion of the human species?' Well, what does a baby do? Baby starts giggling. I say, 'Thank God; the sound of a human voice.'

This is an excerpt from a 2005 interview with Mr. Terkel by StoryCorps.

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