I discovered Studs Terkel in the early 70s. I believe the first book I read was, “Hard Times: an oral history of the Great Depression.” Followed by “Division Street: America.” Studs was a strong voice in Chicago, a TV personality, radio commentator, writer, and oral historian. He was a man of the Left, outspoken, a Roosevelt liberal. During the 1930s, he wrote for the Federal Writer’s Project.
I remember when “Working” was published in 1974. It’s subtitle, “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” said a lot about Terkel. He interviewed people, listening and listening to the common person. He gave average Americans a voice. I became fascinated with oral history and would eventually find it dovetailed with my interest in local history.
Eventually I used the label, “New Social History” thanks to the University of Pennsylvania’s Walter Licht who introduced me to the term during a National Endowment program. Studs Terkel, was an Oral Historian but he was also a New Social Historian, interested in the common person and everyday life (social history). The “New” referred to common people. History was more than the story of Kings and Presidents, explorers and inventors. History was inclusive and included the stories of women, African American slaves, and ethnic immigrants. An academic dissertation might be about the Italian butchers of South Philadelphia.
Bertol Brecht in “A Worker Reads History” wrote:
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.
Earlier this week, Diane and I went to the Bristol Riverside Theatre to see “Working: a musical.” Not what you expect as typical material for a musical — maybe it could be compared to the personal stories in “Chorus Line.” Stephen Swartz (Wicked) and Nina Faso (Godspell) adapted “Working” for the stage in the late 1970s. It had a short run on Broadway; some revival in recent years.
Based on my interest in Studs Terkel, I was excited to see the show. I wasn’t disappointed. Overall I felt Terkel’s themes/message was communicated. From a production standpoint, this was a preview night. The cast was strong and will probably get stronger as they get into characters night after night. The director, Keith Baker, in an after performance discussion commented, “they are, the entire crew, all “working.”
The first number was, “All the Livelong day.” Swartz recognizes a homage to Walt Whitman as I did in the title of this blog. Whitman’s America singing was not the voice of an elite but the voice of the people. All people. There are quite a few musicians who wrote the score. I particularly liked James Taylor’s “Brother Trucker” and “Millwork.”
We listen to dozens of workers who tell their stories. I believe most or all of their lines are directly from “Working.” The voice of the people. One of the first is a construction, ironworker, laying beams for a multi-story building. The image of worker and building will be repeated.
During the first act I was surprised at how many workers didn’t like their work. A flight attendant, worried about crashes; a teacher tired of her students. A non-appreciated housewife. A trucker so tired that even if close to home, he will just call and continue on the road. And then there was the factory, mill worker, assembly line, toxic chemical exposured, worker. “Who wants it? But we need to work. I’m happy to have a job.” More positive, the fast food, first job, delivery boy, is excited when he’s told “keep the the change.”
Workers lament, “Nobody tells me how,” and “If I could have been.” At intermission, I wondered were Terkel’s interviews so bleak? Do we hate “working?”
In Act two, working is saved by a mason. He builds in stone. The rock is solid. His work will last, if not forever; a long time. And isn’t that what we want? Some recognition, some appreciation, if not forever, at least, a long time. Others share their positive work experience. A waitress dances and sings her delight at “serving.” A cleaning lady endures with mop and song, so her children will have it better. A father works for his son. My favorite was, Joe, retired, looking to fill each day with some activity. Not a lot, just enough to say, I did it.
Work and life may not be perfect. But for these workers, there is satisfaction. Pride. They make a contribution to society. They leave a legacy for family. They have something to point to.
“It’s not just the work. Somebody built the pyramids. Somebody’s going to build something. Pyramids, Empire State Building-these things just don’t happen. There’s hard work behind it. I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor. I put the steel beam in.” Picasso can point to a painting. What can I point to? A writer can point to a book. Everybody should have something to point to.”
At least that’s how “working” should be.
The Riverside production is worth seeing. I need to reread “Working” and other books by Studs Terkel.