A talker and listener, actor-dj-writer-oral historian, good humored realist and pragmatic idealist, Studs Terkel (1912 – 2008) stands as an American cultural patriot, who enjoyed as rich if not untroubled a life as genuinely democratic artist might hope for over the course of the 20th century — earning Roger Ebert’s thumbs up as greatest Chicagoan. Studs was hugely enthusiastic about music, loving blues as well as jazz, gospel, rootsy folk, the Great American Songbook, the soundtrack of the labor and Civil Rights movement, classical stuff too — taste way above and beyond genre. May we sometime soon see his like again.
Living fully to age 96, Terkel was a youth of the ’20s Jazz Age and survivor of the ’30s Depression who studied law at University of Chicago but who flourished post WWII as a radio actor and program host, then starred as a bar proprietor in a sitcom producing during the early days of tv, ’til his liberal (then radical) views got him blacklisted. In the late ’60s, though, at 55 Studs launched a series of as-told-to books profiling diverse yet universally engaged U.S. citizens, respecting the nation’s vastly diverse grass roots rather than exploiting its celebrity class or nativist weeds. Like a very select handful of authors, Terkel expressed his lively, communitarian point of view clearly by being invisible in his prose, posing questions but submerging his distinctive personal voice in the narrative history and self-revelations of his fellow citizens.