By Marilyn Ferdinand
By now, most people know that Louis “Studs” Terkel died on Halloween at the age of 96. He was known to many as the chronicler of America in his many books that assembled the voices of the mighty, the downtrodden, and everyone in between in their own words. Division Street: America (1967), Studs’ first book of oral history, on urban life in Chicago, took its title from a real Chicago street that in days gone by was a nexus for the poor Poles about whom Studs’ great friend Nelson Algren wrote so movingly in The Man with the Golden Arm and The Neon Wilderness. Division Street became a metaphor for the divisions in American society. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974) was a love letter to the waitresses, factory workers, and other laborers (though he does give executives their due as well) whom Studs championed tirelessly throughout his life; it became a stage musical in 1978 and has been revived regularly ever since.
He was also known as the quintessential Chicagoan, a label I find kind of funny since I always thought of him as the quintessential New York Jew. Yes, he spent only the first 10 years of his life in New York City, but they say those are the formative years. The starry-eyed way he always talked about the common man, the way he never met a progressive cause he didn’t like, his ambition, his hamminess, and his steadfast ignorance about how to drive a car—these all seem so New York to me. Where was the fascination with clout? Where were the stubborn middlebrow tastes and midline ambition so endemic to the working-class Chicagoans he loved so much?
Even so, as a suburban Chicagoan growing up in what was still a very working-class metropolitan area, I could very well have learned and retained the narrower horizons that many of my relatives and neighbors had. Studs gave me the kind of civic, social, and cultural education I probably wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else, and he may be responsible for my highly eclectic and ecumenical tastes. I got that education over nearly four decades listening to The Studs Terkel Show, a talk radio show broadcast live at 10 a.m. (and rebroadcast at 11 p.m. on Thursdays) for an hour or thereabouts (Studs never watched the clock, nor was he made to by station owners Bernie and Rita Jacobs) on WFMT-FM, Chicago’s Classical/Fine Arts station.
I say talk radio for the benefit of younger readers who think this term only refers to the bigots, shock jocks, and fools who pollute our public airwaves these days—the kind of talk that, in pretending to be the voice of the average Joe and Jane, plays to the worst in us and diminishes us. The Studs Terkel Program really was the voice of the average Joe and Jane, and I mean that quite literally. Studs often broadcast interviews with people on the street, in the taverns, on the train—not those who might have hitched a ride on John McCain’s so-called Straight Talk Express, but rather those going to the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, opening his show with the Woody Guthrie song “Bound for Glory.” His interviews could break your heart, such as the one he conducted through an interpreter of a Japanese victim of the nuclear bombing of World War II. They could remind you of why we celebrate certain holidays such as with his annual Memorial Day (always called Armistice Day by Studs) and Labor Day shows. He would read short stories, play music, read scenes with actors and actresses who had come to the WFMT studios to talk about and promote their plays opening in town. If you wanted to know not just what was going on in town among visiting and local performers, but also hear the performers and creators talk about the work, you had to listen to Studs. I remember going to a sparsely attended screening of Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (1984) and finding out that like I, most of the audience had heard about it from Studs.
(L to R) Saul Alinsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, Laurie Anderson, Tito Gobbi
Studs also was renowned for the famous and interesting guests he interviewed. He spoke with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., musician Louis Armstrong, community organizer Saul Alinsky, director James Cameron, actor Buster Keaton, writers James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks, playwright Tennessee Williams, and thousands (yes, thousands) more. Knowing Studs’ age, I was surprised and delighted to hear him interview avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson and rocker Frank Zappa. He also was one of the earliest supporters of Bob Dylan. He loved classical music as well as jazz and folk, and there was always a parade of opera singers, composers, musicians, and conductors through the studios, from Italian baritone Tito Gobbi to Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel and American composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein.
He did a little acting as well. In the 1950s, Studs had his own TV show in Chicago called Studs’ Place that featured among its regulars Win Stracke, a folk musician and cofounder of Chicago’s legendary Old Town School of Folk Music, who, like Mahalia Jackson and Big Bill Broonzy, was a musician he tirelessly promoted, talked about, and generally drilled into the consciousness of anyone who listened to his radio show. The only feature film he ever appeared in was John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (1988), a film about the Chicago Black Sox scandal that starred Chicagoans John Cusack and John Mahoney; in it, Studs played Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton. You couldn’t miss him—he was the consummate ham.
In his later years, he grew increasingly deaf, and I believe that fact more than anything lead to his retirement from the airwaves. He kept busy speaking at rallies for progressive causes, archiving his radio shows for the Chicago History Museum, and writing more books. Every birthday, the local news would run a tribute to his amazing longevity and accomplishments. The last one I remember was a telecast featuring local reporter and columnist Carol Marin. She got out a couple of questions, but not hearing them, Studs simply launched into an extended monologue that was both charming and a bit incoherent. Marin sat quietly, smiling, letting this force of nature blow.
The last couple of years, I listened whenever I was around to rebroadcasts of The Studs Terkel Show at 7 p.m. on Saturdays. Most of these revived shows celebrated struggles of the past and, of course, lacked the spontaneity of his live shows. Every now and then I’d see he was speaking somewhere, perhaps at the nostalgia fests that tried to recreate the Bughouse Square debates that were a lively forum for soapbox politics, or introducing a documentary at Facets.
And now it is over. He has joined the other Chicago transplants he loved so well—Win, Mahalia, and Big Bill—in dying in his adopted hometown. The last new broadcast of The Studs Terkel Show featured one of Illinois’ few real statesmen—U.S. Senator Paul Simon. I remember listening, dreading the moment Studs would utter his famous sign-off for the last time: “Take it easy, but take it.” You, too, Studs. You, too.