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.
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