Fifty Years After Studs Terkel Published 'Hard Times' ... Here We Are Again | WYPR

Fifty Years After Studs Terkel Published 'Hard Times' ... Here We Are Again

Aug 11, 2020
Originally published on August 13, 2020 1:38 pm

The timing feels terribly apt.

Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression turned 50 this year. A bestseller in 1970, the book was one of nearly two dozen written by the cheerfully empathetic historian and journalist Studs Terkel.

The New Press

In Chicago, Terkel was a radio legend. Before his death in 2008, Terkel brought both working class boosterism and intellectual rigor to his shows, broadcast on local stations for more than half a century. But Terkel's stature was national; his book The Good War: An Oral History of World War II won a 1985 Pulitzer Prize and his 1974 bestseller Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do was adapted into a popular Broadway musical.

Hard Times was Terkel's second bestseller (preceded by another oral history, Division Street: America) and he'd already begun using a portable tape recorder to capture interviews with everyday people beyond his Chicago studio.

"I say to you, the Great American Depression, what's the first thought [that] comes to your mind?" Terkel inquired of Iowa farmer Harry Terrell for Hard Times. It's one of many interviews archived online by WFMT, the station where Terkel held the job title "Free Spirit" for more than 45 years.

"Well, I think of the bank failures," Terrell replies quietly. "The first time I became conscious of it was when our bank closed and I lost everything in it."

Terkel spent years researching Hard Times. He spoke with college dropouts, hoboes, erotic dancers, teachers, activists and more. Robin Langston was an African-American social worker and jazz musician who was born during the Depression. He told Terkel about his father, a restaurant owner in Arkansas, who fed hungry families and lent money to the town's White sheriff — even in their brutally segregated southern community.

"You think a Depression of that intensity could come again?" Terkel wondered. "I think it could," Langston answered mildly. "But it would behoove the federal government not to let it come."

Studs Terkel stands outside his home in Chicago on July, 8, 1997.
Michael S. Green / AP

Many of the voices in Hard Times feel oddly prescient. "All kind of propaganda has been going on, making people hate each other," observed Peggy Terry, a migrant farm worker during the Depression. The wife of a World War I veteran, Mary Owlsey, remembered street protests in the 1930s by WW I veterans. Schoolteacher Elsa Ponsell discussed how the threat of communism and socialism was used to generate fear. Hauntingly, she added, "Then of course, the war came." She pauses. "And the Depression was cured by a war."

"Hard Times is a monument," Michael H. Frisch tells NPR. The professor emeritus of history at University at Buffalo has written about the book, and sees it now as a powerful reminder of how Americans in the past confronted their country crumbling. "People living on the edge of history and trying to figure it out as they go along. I think that's what we're going through right now, because we are all over the edge."

Studs Terkel signed off of his radio programs about the Great Depression like this: "The old Depression phrase still holds," he'd say. "Take it easy ... but take it."

Fifty years later, the expression still holds up just fine.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Evictions, lines for food, unrest and riots - headlines from today sound a lot like stories from a book about the Great Depression that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. "Hard Times" was a bestseller when it came out in 1970. Its author, Studs Terkel, had no idea how relevant it would feel right now. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Studs Terkel was a legend for his ability to talk and listen to people like Iowa farmer Harry Terrel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STUDS TERKEL: I say to you the great American Depression - what's the first thought comes to your mind?

HARRY TERRELL: Well, I think of the bank failures that came home close to me. The first time I became conscious of it was when our bank closed, and I lost everything in it.

ULABY: Studs Terkel, who died in 2008, spent years researching "Hard Times." From his home base in Chicago, he traveled the country, interviewing people for his popular oral history books and radio program. You can find edited versions of his interviews online in his archives. Here's Robin Langston, who was born during the Depression.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBIN LANGSTON: My father had a restaurant.

TERKEL: This was where?

LANGSTON: This was in Arkansas. And when I knew the Depression had really hit with full impact, the electric lights went off.

ULABY: Langston remembered how his dad lent money to the town's white sheriff and how it felt to watch his father feeding hungry families. Studs Terkel knew how to keep him talking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: You think a depression of that intensity could come again?

LANGSTON: I think it could come again. But it - I think it would behoove the federal government not to let it come because you're dealing with a different breed of cattle now.

ULABY: Some of these voices recorded more than 50 years ago who survived the Great Depression sound creepily prescient, including a migrant worker named Peggy Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEGGY TERRY: All kind of propaganda has been going on, making people hate each other, not just hate Russians and Chinese - make us hate each other, I think.

ULABY: And they tell Studs Terkel about the protests raging in the 1930s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: Do you remember people taking part in demonstrations of any sort?

MARY OWLSEY: My husband went to Washington.

TERKEL: Your husband did?

OWLSEY: Why, indeed he did. We marched with that group that went to Washington. What year was that thing?

TERKEL: The bonus marchers?

OWLSEY: Oh, yes, sir.

TERKEL: Oh, your husband was a bonus marcher.

OWLSEY: Oh, yes, sir.

ULABY: Mary Owlsey's husband was among the thousands of World War I veterans trying to get the bonuses they were owed paid early in 1932. Terkel talked to college dropouts, hobos, erotic dancers, teachers and activists.

Michael Frisch is a professor at the University of Buffalo who studies oral histories.

MICHAEL FRISCH: "Hard Times" is a monument.

ULABY: A reminder, he says, of how Americans in the past confronted their country crumbling.

FRISCH: People living on the edge of history and trying to figure it out as they go along - I think that's what we're going through right now because we are all over the edge, and they were over the edge in the Depression. And we're living it right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELSA PONSELL: The Depression was a way of life to me.

ULABY: Schoolteacher Elsa Ponsell was in her 20s throughout the Great Depression. The rich, she told Terkel, were afraid of exactly the same things bandied about today - communism and socialism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PONSELL: Were they scared? What's more scared than a million dollars...

TERKEL: (Laughter).

PONSELL: ...Which you can send over to the Swiss banks, and they're still sending it over to the Swiss banks.

TERKEL: Well, this leads to several questions. Then, the question of status did not make itself felt then because your neighbor - everybody you knew was like you.

PONSELL: That's right. Your neighbor was losing his house. Somebody else was having their furniture taken away. And everybody was in the same boat. And then, of course, the war came, and the Depression was cured by a war.

ULABY: A warning from Studs Terkel's oral history of the Great Depression "Hard Times." In his radio series of the same name, Terkel signed off this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: Until then, the old Depression phrase still holds. Take it easy, but take it.

ULABY: The expression holds up just fine. Take it easy, but take it.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.