hail Studs Terkel, Jazz Age Chicagoan

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.

Giants of Jazz was Studs’ easily readable first book, which told the basic stories of his heroes (Oliver, Armstrong, Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane among them) through his own interviews with them and from-the-scene anecdotes. And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey was Studs’ penultimate volume (from 2006), recounting his post-WWII daily radio show and encounters with musicians ranging from Mahalia Jackson to Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein to Betty Carter. To music lovers, they are invaluable eye-and-ear-witness accounts.
Just as valuably, Studs was an unpretentious model of the fun-loving activist-citizen. Back in the ’70s when I was in Chicago, Studs was a ubiquitous character in the city, a notorious friend of columnist Mike Royko, novelist Nelson Algren and folk singer Win Strake, an enthusiastic speaker at every local union meeting, neighborhood event and community organizing benefit that would have him. He was garrulous and generous, sharp and funny, warm but given to speaking truth to power. It’s a shame he won’t get to see the outcome of a political race that might have given him enormous satisfaction. But to shore up one’s belief in the values that sustained progressive society during all the tumult of seven decades past, dip into Studs Terkel’s masterpieces like Working, Division Street: America, Hard Times and The Great War — you’ll find America speaking.

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  1. says

    When I was a young journalist in Chicago in the 1970s, I greatly admired Studs. I remember reading Working and thinking, “This guy knows how to interview!” I spent 28 years in newspapers and still count Studs as among my inspirations. He could take the most ordinary theme, or the most ordinary person, and make it interesting.
    I admit, I eventually grew tired of his books after about 1990. But still, what a body of work! What a legacy.