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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.

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Studs and Chicago

Harper’s publisher John MacArthur praises Studs Terkel’s erudition but manages to comes off sounding snobbish in the attempt.  First, during Studs’ memorial gathering, he spies a quotation by Joseph Addison in the dome of the Cultural Center, and comments that “in Chicago, Addison signifies only one thing: a street where the Cubs play baseball.”

MacArthur seems to imply that in other American cities, Addison the essayist is widely celebrated.  But actually it’s worth asking whether MacArthur himself has read much more of Addison than that quote in the dome.

Then there’s this:

“Chicago was Studs’s stage, his inspiration and his beloved home, but the Second City was never really hospitable to his left-wing dissent and often hostile to his deeply intellectual nature.”

Again, the implication is that other American cities welcome and honor dissenters.  Anyway, it was a pretty good home for Studs, he chose to stay, he worked through the blacklist, he read at a mayor’s inauguration, and he had an awful lot of friends and fans.

What would Studs say?  Often he’d quote Nelson Algren on Chicago: “‘Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

MacArthur confesses that reading Studs, he “didn’t really appreciate the subtlety of his intelligence and writing” — until he encountered him at a dinner party at his publisher’s apartment in New York City and learned, to his astonishment, Studs could recite great poetry at great length.

So this may be a guy who can appreciate Studs’ intellectual heft but not the purposes to which he put it.  Or, perhaps, the value of voices from the neighborhood, and of roots. Or, perhaps, love.

New York Times smears Studs

Studs Terkel’s longtime publisher Andre Schiffrin joins comments by Victor Navasky and Howard Zinn, weighing in on “a particularly nasty attack” on Studs in the New York Times by Edward Rothstein.  As Shiffrin summarizes: “Rothstein depicted Studs as a covert Marxist, twisting his interviews to claim that he invented an alienated populace.”

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Studs Terkel – Our ‘Patron Saint’

Community Media Workshop mourns the loss of Studs Terkel, who died at home on October 31 at the age of 96.

“My dad led a long, full, eventful—sometimes tempestuous—satisfying life,” said his son, Dan Terkell. Details of how the family and friends will celebrate his life will be published at a future date.

Studs had grown more frail since the publication by the New Press just a year ago of his memoir, Touch and Go. “I’m still in touch but I’m ready to go” he said at a reading from the work then, his last public appearance with Community Media Workshop, the nonprofit that recognizes Chicago reporters who take risks in providing outstanding coverage of the city’s neighborhoods.

“The last time I saw him he was up, about, and mad as hell about the Cubs,” says Workshop President Thom Clark.

Studs Terkel, one of the world’s most effective communicators, was multi-talented as a writer, an actor, a journalist, an orator. His was a unique voice, both a rascal and a statesman; he brought dignity and hope to the hopeless and powerless and had a raw, respectful and honest insight about those who succeeded in life. Winner or loser, celebrity or nobody, saint or sinner—Studs reached out to us all.

At his best, he was much more than an entertainer, a journalist, a communicator. He was an organizer, a community organizer if you will. He talked to and, more importantly, listened to all of us. Not just Americans, but all of us citizens of the world.

His work was empowering. It turned losers into winners, and helped recognize and thereby transform and include the forgotten, ordinary folks into a vibrant community of the human spirit.

Terkel was the patron saint of the Workshop’s Studs Terkel Community Media Awards for journalists who take risks in covering Chicago neighborhoods, such as recent honorees Tribune’s Rick Kogan, Mark Brown of the Sun-Times, radio stations WVON and RadioArte, and many others over twenty years.

— Gordon Mayer

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