PSARA Oral Histories Project:
Lou Truskoff Interview
PSARA Advocate Archives
April 2022 Page 3
Interview With Lou Truskoff
By Angie Bartels
Lou Truskoff cannot remember a time in his life when he wasn’t singing. Some people believe that babies in their mothers’ wombs can hear their mothers singing, and thus the learning and love of music begins from the very start of life.
Lou’s mother loved the popular music of the 40’s and sang throughout theday while she was pregnant. And music is most definitely in Lou’s blood. When he was a toddler, his mother played the radio constantly and Lou continued to absorb popular music. One of his earliest songs was I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, by the Ink Spots, as his mother related to him in later years. “I couldn’t remember myself singing it, but the fact that I was singing it gives some indication that it was cool, at least to me.”
Lou was born and raised in Clifton, New Jersey, only 15 miles away from New York City. His family lived in an apartment just a few blocks from his grandfather’s tailor shop. Everyone in the extended family was leftist. That’s in his blood too.
When Lou’s mother, Anne, was 12 years old, she joined the Young Communist League with her best friend Ruth. Anne told Ruth that someday she would marry Ruth’s brother, Lou, and indeed she did. As Lou the second grew into a teenager and young adult, Aunt Ruth loved to spend time with him. .During visits to their home, she would discuss politics and made sure that “I knew this or I knew that, and so forth.”
His Uncle Bill, from the time of early teenage years, would pull Lou aside and say, “This is a really good book," or “Here’s a really good magazine.” “Uncle Bill was a little different because he followed a different line of the various strains of the leftist parties. He believed that China had the real solution, and the rest of my family believed it was the Soviet Union.”
Lou’s grandfather, the tailor, loved to fish, although “he didn’t catch many.” He would go out on the lake by himself while the rest of the family picnicked in a nearby state park. He would return to the family sunburnt and happy.
“On the way home, grandfather would start up a song (they were from Czechoslovakia, it was in Czech). My mother knew it because she grew up speaking Czech, and my grandmother knew it, and pretty soon we were all singing songs that my parents knew from their Paul Robeson records. I would join in where I could. I always enjoyed that family camaraderie around singing.”
Lou attended public schools within walking distance of the apartment. He fondly remembers those years even though “from 4th grade on, geography and things they taught us turned out to be so wrong.” But he did enjoy the exposure to a world that he had not been aware of.
“I was reserved and shy and not willing to speak out with classmates or other kids in the neighborhood. I just didn’t think they would understand my family’s politics or might think that I
was not patriotic.”
Although it was public school, “Every morning we had the reading of a psalm, then bowed our heads and recited the Lord’s Prayer, which I finally learned. (At first I would mumble because I didn’t want the other kids to know that I didn’t know it!) And then we would stand up, face the flag, and recite the pledge of allegiance. Then we would sing, My Country ‘tis of Thee. When we got to the singing part, that was all fine, because I was willing to sing just about anything, even then.”
Lou particularly loved the weekly school assemblies where teachers played the piano and led the singing. He said it didn’t matter what they were singing, whether hymns, patriotic songs, or pop and folk tunes. He loved it all.
In his school, “The eighth graders got the privilege of strolling through the halls as a group and singing Christmas carols.
"From an early grade, I looked forward to the day when I could be in that eighth grade group singing through the halls. And guess what? The teacher didn’t choose me. She was the best teacher I had, grades K-8, but for some reason, she didn’t choose me. I felt so bad. But I had this good friend, Bernie, who was Jewish. He sang Christmas carols too, and he was chosen to sing. He knew how badly I felt. So, he went to the teacher and said ‘Louis feels really bad about not being chosen to sing with us.’ And the teacher didn’t miss a beat. She immediately said, of course Louis can sing with us. So due to my friend’s good deed, I got to sing in the halls.”
Lou studied piano for only 2 1/2 years, and that was the extent of his formal music training. He taught himself to play guitar in his last year of college at Antioch n Yellow Springs, Ohio. (He also met his wife Joan there).
“My parents knew that I liked to sing folk music, so they got me a very nice nylon string guitar.” By then, at college, Lou was associating with people who “really knew their stuff,” one of whom played banjo and guitar very well.
They formed a trio and performed at a couple of campus gigs. “We even made tape recordings of ourselves because we thought we were so great.” Lou would watch guitar players and learn new techniques by observation. “I have a very good ear. That helps a lot. I would listen to recordings and gradually I got pretty good at accompanying myself. I started singing harmonies, and now I can sing harmony to just about any song.”
In the late 1970’s in Seattle, Lou thought that there should be music and singing on the United Farm Worker (UFW) picket lines and demonstrations that he and Joan participated in. He started playing and singing songs that were relevant to why people were standing outside of grocery stores handing out leaflets for the boycotts.
He soon met Peter Costantini and Mark Aalfs, who also became involved with the UFW’s activities. It was natural for the three of them to play and sing for a cause they deeply believed in. They were soon joined by Mara, a blind woman who busked on the Ave. She became interested in the UFW, so she started learning all of the farmworker songs.
“Sometimes we would make up lyrics on the spot:
Sunsweet Raisins, Sunsweet Raisins,
Sunsweet prunes, Sunsweet prunes,
Boycott Sunsweet Raisins, Boycott Sunsweet
Elections soon, elections soon.”
In the late 1990’s, Lou was one of the founding members of the Seattle Labor Chorus. But that is a whole other story for the telling. Although Lou loves the song I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, the fact is, he has done just that. With his music and song, Lou has helped to keep the flame of hope alive as we continue in our fight for peace and justice. It’s a mighty long road, but a good song lightens the burden and brightens the day. I cannot imagine a life and a movement without the likes of Lou Truskoff. Luckily, we don’t have to.
Angie Bartels is PSARA's Membership VP. This interview is part of a continuing oral history project.