November 13, 2008

Studs Turkel and the Voices of the Great Depression

Studs Terkel's final book, P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening, is a collection of pages he uncovered from the "old junk" in his workroom while doing research for a memoir; "…torn sheets of wrinkled paper under the desk, behind the bookcases, beneath the couch, tossed in boxes, everywhere." That old junk includes transcripts, interviews, and other writings from his lifetime of conversations. In the book's preface, Terkel explains how he compiled transcript excerpts from his 1971-1972 conversations with people about the Great Depression:

From the fifteen hours of tape collected for use in my book Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, I condensed the words into one tape: A Gathering of Survivors. (The situation then was not too removed from the one we face today in the matter of joblessness and need. Today, we use euphemisms: instead of depression, we say recession. But to the man and woman designated out of work, one is a synonym for the other.)

In 1973, Terkel broadcast several interviews from Hard Times on his Chicago radio program. The Chicago Historical Society has an online gallery of those interviews. We chose a few from P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening that you can read here and/or listen to the full audio from the Chicago Historical Society's site.

Virginia Durr

» Listen to the Interview with Virginia Durr (RealAudio, 4:43)

In Jefferson County about four-fifths of the people were on relief. And there was no government relief. So this meant that they had this-just this two dollars and a half a week that the Red Cross provided them, and that they could beg, borrow, or steal.

But the thing that also struck me as being so terrible was that, just the way my mother and father had this terrible feeling of shame and guilt, and it was their failure they'd lost all their property, these people had the same feeling of shame and guilt who had lost their jobs. They didn't blame the United States still; they'd didn't blame the capitalist system; they just blamed themselves. And they thought … Well, you know, they would say in the most apologetic way, "Well, you know, if we hadn't bought that radio … or if we hadn't bought that old secondhand car … or if we'd saved our money and …" You know, they really blamed themselves. And it was just this terrible feeling they had of shame because they were on relief.

The Depression affected people in two different
ways. One was-and I think this is the overwhelming majority-and that was that having faced the terror of the lack of a job, and the shame of having lived on relief, and the panic of not knowing whether you were going to be able to get work or not… I think the great majority of the people reacted by, you know, thinking that money was the most important thing in the world. And that the most important thing to do was to get-get yours … and get it for your children … and be sure that you had it and your children had it. And nothing else mattered but getting you some money and some property, and not having this terror ever come on you again of not being able to feed your family.

On the other hand, I think there were a small number of people who felt like the whole system was lousy, and that you had to change the system. Well, now, I'm not so sure that I know what kind of a system to put in its place. I do think you've got to have a system of government that's responsive to the needs of the people.

Robin Langston

» Listen to the Interview with Robin Langston (RealAudio, 9:24)

My father had a restaurant. This was in Arkansas. And when I kne\v the Depression had really hit with full impact … the electric lights went off. My parents could no longer pay the one-dollar electric bill, which it amounted to maybe for a month or two months. A dollar-eighty at the most. And kerosene lamps went up in the home and in the business. Over each individual table in the restaurant there was a kerosene lamp. This did something to me. Because it let me know that my father wasn't the greatest cat in the world, and I had always thought he was, you know. But it also let me know that he could adjust to any situation, and he taught us how to adjust to situations.

Now, we were fortunate compared to the situations of other people. We always had food. There was never any money, but who needed money then? The restaurant went right through the Depression; we were selling hamburgers for a nickel. :My father would sell a meal ticket. You could get a full-course meal-that is meat and three vegetables-for twenty-five cents. I remember clistinctly feeding little snottynosed white kids. My father and mother just did this out of the goodness of their hearts. There were … I guess there must have been ten white families within fifty feet of us. I remember feeding them. I remember my parents feeding little black kids. I remember when the times got so hard the sheriff pawned a radio to my father for ten dollars. This was a white sheriff, a white official, who had to come to a black man to get ten dollars. The reason he needed the ten dollars, he had some people out of town, he wanted to bring them there to eat some chicken. And this was during the time when a lot of the black young people wanted to venture out and go places, and they were afraid to hobo then, because they didn't want to be caught up in a Scottsboro thing. They knew about the Scottsboro
case and about the lynching. They knew they had a lynching in Mississippi and the lynchings in Alabama. We also knew in school that Tuskegee Institute or Fisk Library — one used to keep a report on all lynchings. One year there were about two thousand lynchings, and they documented each lynching. Yeah, we knew all about that.

I think a Depression could come again, but I think it would behoove the federal government not to let it come, because you're dealing with a different breed of cattle now See, now, if they really want anarchy, let a Depression come now. My sixteen-year-old son is not the person I was when I was sixteen. He's an adult at sixteen. He's working in a department store and going to school, too. And he has manly responsibilities and he doesn't want any shit. These kids now do not want it. When I was sixteen, I wasn't afraid to die, but the kid sixteen now is not afraid to kill.

Peggy Terry

» Listen to the Interview with Peggy Terry — Part 1 (RealAudio, 7:50), Part 2 (10:07)

When we'd come home from school in the evening, my mother would send us to the soup line … and we were never allowed to cut. But after we'd been going to the soup line for about a month, we'd go down there, and if you happened to be one of the first ones in line, you didn't get anything but the water that was on top. So we'd ask the guy that was ladling our the soup into the bucket everybody had to bring their own bucket to get the soup and he'd dip the greasy watery stuff off the top, and so we'd ask him to please dip down so we could get some meat and potatoes from the bottom of the kettle. And he wouldn't do it. So then we learned to cuss and we'd say, "Dip down, God damn itl" And then we'd go across the street, and one place had bread, large loaves of bread, and then down the road just a little piece was a big shed, and they gave milk. And my sister and me would take two buckets each, and we'd bring one back full of soup and one back full of milk and two loaves of bread each … and that's what we lived on for the longest time.

I remember it was fun. It was fun going to the soup line because we all went down the road and we laughed and we played. And the only thing that we felt was we were hungry and we were going to get food. And nobody made us feel ashamed … there just wasn't any of that back then. I'm not sure how the rich felt. I think the rich were as contemptuous of the poor then as they are now. But at least among the people that I knew and came in contact with, we all had a sense of understanding that it wasn't our fault … that it was something that had happened to the machinery. And in fact most people blamed Hoover. I mean they cussed him up one side and down get in the car. I want to take you and show you something." And on the way over there, he talked about how rough life had been for us. And he said, "If you think it's been rough for us," he said, "I want you to see people that really had it rough." This was in Oklahoma City. And he took us to one of the Hoovervilles … and that was the most incredible thing. Here were all these people living in old rusted-out car bodies. I mean, that was their home. There were people living in shacks made Out of orange crates. One family, with a whole lot of kids, were living in a piano box. And here this-this wasn't just a little section; this was an area maybe ten miles wide and ten miles long. People living in whatever they could, jammed together.

And when I read Grapes of Wrath, that was like reliving my life. And particularly the part in there about where they lived in this government camp. Because when we were picking fruit in Texas, we lived in a government place like that, a governmentowned
place, in Robstown, Texas. And they came around and they helped the women make mattresses. See, we didn't have anything. And they showed us how to sew and make dresses. And every Saturday night we'd have a dance. And when I was reading Grapes of Wrath, this was just like my life. And … and I never was so proud of poor people before as I was after I read that book.

I don't think people were put on earth to suffer. I think that's a lot of nonsense. I think we are the highest development on the earth, and I think we were put here to live and be happy and enjoy everything that's here. I don't think it's right for a handful of people to get ahold of all the things that make living a joy instead of a sorrow. When you wake up in the morning and the minute consciousness hits you, it's just like a big hand takes ahold of your heart and squeezes it, because you don't know what that day's gonna bring. A hunger, or … you just don't knOw. It's really-it's really hard to … to talk about the Depression because what can you say except you
were hungry.

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was a radio personality and author who published 20 books on central themes and events in American life. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1984 oral history of World War II, The Good War. He died on October 31, 2008.