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Studs Terkel and Woody Guthrie at 100

With world attention growing on Chicago protests against this weekend’s NATO summit, the centennials of two cultural icons of American progressive protest are being celebrated here this week.

A series of events is commemorating what would have been Studs Terkel’s 100th birthday, including two events Wednesday, and a concert on Saturday marks Woody Guthrie’s centennial.

Studs and Woody had a lot in common.  Both were products of the Great Depression, Studs first finding his voice writing and acting for the WPA; Woody, having hitchhiked and ridden the rails to California, hosting and performing on a radio show for fellow Okie refugees from the Dust Bowl.

Both were prolific, Studs hosting a daily radio show on WFMT for 45 years and writing 18 books, many of them bestsellers, the final one at age 96; Woody writing thousands of songs.  Each created a body of work reflecting their close identification with ordinary people.  And both lent their talents to countless progressive causes, speaking and performing at innumerable protest rallies.

As a disc jockey in the 1940s, Studs was “one of the first to promote artists like Mahalia Jackson, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy,” according to his New York Times obituary.

And a Woody Guthrie song helped catalyze Studs’ career as an interviewer.  According to the Times, Studs contacted WFMT and began working there after hearing the station broadcast Woody Guthrie in 1952 and wondering, “Who plays Guthrie records besides me?”

Fittingly, Terkel’s signature sign-off on his radio show came from “Talking Union Blues,” by Guthrie’s Almanac Singers: “Take it easy, but take it.”

The Studs Terkel Centennial Committee holds a 100th birthday party at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 16, at the Newberry Library (60 W. Walton), blocks from the Grand-Wells Hotel where Studs grew up, and across the street from Bughouse Square, where he was schooled by soap-box oraters.  Writers, activists, journalists and historians will share Terkel stories.  It’s free, and there’s cake.

Also Wednesday, at 6:30 p.m., the Chicago History Museum (1601 N. Clark) hosts WFMT critic-at-large Andrew Patner exploring Terkel’s life and legacy through radio and TV clips from his 75-year broadcasting career (from the Terkel tapes archived at CHM, now being digitized by the Library of Congress).  It’s $15, $10 for members.  (Patner’s interview with Terkel is available here.)

There’s more, too: Steppenwolf Theater features a free reading form Terkel’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” Monday, May 21, 7 p.m. (1650 N. Halsted), and a Studs Terkel Film Festival will feature clips from “Studs’ Place,” his early-1950s live TV show set in a Chicago diner, at CHM on June 2 and the Cultural Center on June 17.

To honor the pioneer oral historian, the Jane Addams Hull House Museum  has set up a hotline where you can call and record your own Studs Terkel story.  WFMT (98.7 FM), which broadcasts “The Best of Studs Terkel” every Friday at 10 p.m., will feature highlights from his shows on Wednesday from 1 to 7 p.m.

Portoluz is presenting a centennial celebration of Woody Guthrie on Saturday, May 18 at 7 p.m. at Metro, 3730 N. Clark; tickets are $25-$55.  It’s headlined by Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine fame, who has often performed to support progressive causes (his appearance Thursday Friday at the National Nurses Union rally in Daley Plaza has already caused some stir).

He’ll be joined by Holly Near, a major figure in the women’s music movement that emerged in the 1970s, whose anthemic songs include “No More Genocide in my Name,” “Hoy Una Mujera Desaparecida,” and “Singing for our Lives,” written after Harvey Milk was assassinated; the Klezmatics, who recorded Guthrie’s little-known Hanukkah songs and songs about Jewish tradition, written while he lived in Coney Island in the 1940s; and Toshi Reagon, who continues and updates the civil rights Freedom Singers music of her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Also Jon Langford of the Waco Brothers and the Mekons, which performed to support the 1984 UK miners’ strike; Son del Viento, which performs jarocho music, often appearing in support of progressive causes; Bucky Halter, songwriter and historian who performs labor and working-class protest music, including programs of Guthrie’s music; and Kevin Coval, local hip-hop spoken word artist and founder of Louder Than A Bomb, Chicago’s youth poetry festival.

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Category: arts, history

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