Studs Terkel – Chicago Newstips by Community Media Workshop Chicago Community Stories Mon, 08 Jan 2018 18:45:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Studs Terkel and Woody Guthrie at 100 Tue, 15 May 2012 20:05:19 +0000 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.

Studs and Chicago Tue, 17 Feb 2009 03:32:00 +0000 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 Fri, 14 Nov 2008 17:54:03 +0000 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.”

In his essay, Rothstein employs a basic technique of red baiting — a sleight of hand whereby anybody holding any position that is held by communists is therefore a communist.  Sid Lens, the late Chicago labor leader and peace activist who had been a Trotskyist, tells in “Unrepentant Radical” how he used to satirize this during the red scare of the 1950s.  When union members asked whether he was a communist, he’d say, “Yes, I’m a communist — and I killed my mother, too — and I tell you, two plus two equals four.”

The McCain campaign used this technique when they accused candidate Obama of being a socialist after he spoke of spreading the wealth.  Sure, socialists support this, but so do progressives and, indeed, Republicans. (James Madison called for measures to “reduce extreme wealth toward a state of mediocrity and raise extreme indigence toward a state of comfort.” Abraham Lincoln established the first progressive income tax, and William Howard Taft proposed the Sixteenth Amendment when the income tax was ruled unconstitutional.  The modern income tax, established in 1916, initially applied only to incomes over $3,000 — at the time, about the top 1 percent of the population.  As the House Ways and Means Committee reported back then: “The tax upon income is levied according to ability to pay, and it would be difficult to devise a fairer tax.”  Red flags, anyone?)  Since he’s never backed a flat tax, or called for abolishing food stamps or the earned income tax credit, John McCain also supports spreading the wealth.

Rothstein takes the same intellectually dishonest approach with Studs in discussing his book “Working”: “his vision of work…is an obvious translation of a traditional Marxist view of the alienation of labor.”  But in fact the Marxist theory (which is pretty technical and abstract, focused on the decreasing economic status and power of workers as a class as their productivity increases — and not at all on how folks feel about their jobs) is one part of a much larger tradition.  According to Erich Fromm, writing on Marx’s theory, “The whole concept of alienation found its first expression in  Western thought in the Old Testament concept of idolatry.”  Studs would like that.  And his view of work was closer to the more moral and visceral critiques of Henry David Thoreau and Johnny Paycheck.

Of course, tying Studs to Johnny Paycheck or the Old Testament wouldn’t suit Rothstein’s purpose, which is to discredit him.

Rothstein uses the term “Marxist” again, near the end of his essay, with Studs’ wardrobe as the indisputable evidence.  “Nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seems to fit models shaped by Marxist theory; he even wore something red every day to affirm his attachment to the working class.”  Navasky comments on this, noting that Studs “appreciated the various honors bestowed on him over the years, but of none was he prouder than having been blacklisted”  —  “We can imagine Studs riffing, ‘to be blacklisted when alive and redbaited after death — too good to be true.'”

Rothstein closes his piece with his clincher, the ultimate proof that Studs should be dismissed as beyond the pale of acceptable discourse — a 2001 blurb for Bill Ayers’ memoir.  (He neglects to mention Studs’ fellow blurbers — Scott Turow, Hunter S. Thompson, Rosellen Brown, Tom Franks, Edward Said.)   Schiffrin comments: “This borrowing from the McCain-Palin playbook, just as their tawdry political campaign was drawing to a close, was a reminder that McCarthyism has not disappeared from the American scene. Even after his death, Studs had to suffer the kind of attack that came close to ruining his life in the 1950s, not on some Internet Drudge Report but in the pages of the establishment’s leading paper.”

The other part of Rothstein’s complaint is that Studs manipulated his interviews to impose his own views over those of his subjects. “The difficulty is for readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective, just a series of oral histories.”  (Let’s just posit that “history without perspective” is a contradiction in terms.)  Schiffrin points to the Chicago Historical Society’s online archive of interviews from Studs’ 25 years on WFMT and tapes from the books.  You can hear Studs’ interview technique, always pushing subjects to clarify; actually, you can hear him listening.  You can sit there with book in hand and follow along as you listen to the raw material; you can see how Studs shaped it in the editing process (recently described in Michael Lenehan’s fascinating interview with Studs, published earlier this year in the Chicago Reader) and how true the published versions are to the source.

Studs always stood up to bullies; Rothstein takes on the odious task of smearing a dead man.  Brave fellow.


We previously linked to Amy Goodman’s wonderful 2007 interview with Studs; the Progressive has posted a 2004 interview with Studs by another of his descendants, David Barsamian.

“I’m called an oral historian. I have no idea what that means. It means I’m a nonacademic, really. In my books, you can find the astonishing wisdom and eloquence of people who have never spoken of their lives before.”

He complains that he was never listed in Red Channels, the blacklisting bible of the broadcasting industry. “All sorts of people were on it: Arthur Miller, Zero Mostel, Lillian Hellman. Where is me? I don’t find my name on it. And I felt like a blue-haired dowager who didn’t make the Social Register. You know what I attribute that to? New York parochialism.”

Barsamian asks who Studs would interview, if he could go back in time.  Now, he probably wouldn’t turn down Karl Marx, given a chance, or Eugene Debs, his father’s hero.  But who does he list?  George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, and Tom Paine.  Perhaps Rothstein had better get to work on them.

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Studs Terkel – Our ‘Patron Saint’ Sat, 01 Nov 2008 06:00:00 +0000 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