Born to Live
Produced by Studs Terkel
* Audio courtesy of Studs Terkel, distinguished scholar-in-residence at The Chicago Historical Society
What’s old is new.
“Born to Live” was produced in 1961 and is premiering now on the Internet 40 years later. We think it’s worth making an exception to our “not previously broadcast” rule. Do we have a rule like that? I’ll go check.
In the meantime, we’ll let Studs do the introduction, taken from the Studs Terkel Topic.
With Born To Live I had the help – more than the help, the collaboration – of Jim Unrath, who was an announcer at the station. He and I worked together on all the documentaries, and all on his own time. As I told you earlier, I’m inept mechanically. Jimmy gathered all the stuff. He knew the way I was thinking. Born to Live is a collage montage of voices.
How to explain this? There was a contest called the Prix Italia. It’s the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, you might say, for radio and TV documentaries and features. And Dennis Mitchell had won it for Morning In The Streets. So Rita Jacobs said, “Let’s submit it.” Well, very few American stations ever win. It’s won by BBC or Stockholm or wherever.
So I thought of all the interviews that I had, and there’s this one that was sponsored by UNESCO as a special interview. It was 1961, I think, that we started doing it. The Cold War was going on pretty hot. And UNESCO says, “Can’t there be one program of East/West values to lower the temperature of heated discussion?”
What came into my mind when we decided to enter the contest – with the odds about a thousand to one – was interviewing a hibakisha, one of the Hiroshima maidens, they were called, who survived the August 9th atomic bombing. She was talking through an interpreter. She’d been brought by the wife of a Quaker who ran that ship The Golden Rule, challenging the nuclear stuff. As she talked, I thought, “I’m going to open with that.”
And then I thought of other tapes I’d done. One of a street worker talking to a kid, a tough kid who’s got a tattoo that says “Born To Die”. There are tattoos on his fingers: die, death, D-E-A-T-H. The street worker says, “What about the time between you’re born and the time you die? What about that?”
“I don’t know. What is it?”
And then I say, “Time to live.” See? And then snip. [snaps]
Little thoughts. And music. Pete Seeger doodling on a banjo, but he’s doodling the chorale from Beethoven’s Ninth. Then it cuts to someone else – two couples in a suburb talking about their kids: “And so she says to me, ‘Well, might as well live today, tomorrow you’re gonna die. I don’t know how long I’ll live.’” “How old is she?” “Nine.” And in between and interspersed are children’s songs, American children’s songs and Japanese children’s songs. And then finally I say, “Born to live. What about the time between you’re born and the time you die?” Then all the voices start. Some dealing with humor and laughter and some dealing with myth and legend, and the voice of Jimmy Baldwin and the voice of Miriam Makeba, the voice of Einstein. And John Ciardi says, “Sometimes you can tell the difference between a large decision and a small decision. Sometimes it’s the sound of it. When I was a kid I used to hear Caruso records. I heard them in these Italian households in Providence, Rhode Island, I’d hear these Caruso records. And you think, ‘That’s as far as a human voice can go.’ And there he’d go one step further.” Then I slip in the voice of Caruso singing “Oh, paradisio,” as he goes one step higher. And then Charlie saying, “…tell the difference between a small decision and a giant decision.” Then it cuts to the voice of Sean O’Casey, and Einstein, and Bertrand Russell. And then it cuts to the voice of a child.
In any event, it had everything. But I was influenced by Dennis Mitchell as well as by Norman Corwin. Sounds need not have a narrator. I got that from Mitchell. Just let the ideas flow from one to the other.
Studs Terkel on Transom
- Check out Stud Terkel’s Topic in our Special Guest section.