Studs on Studs

He is beloved “Uncle Studs” to many who grew up listening to WFMT, the Chicago radio station that broadcast his eclectic daily mix of music and interviews from 1952 to 1997. To anyone who has ever heard his raspy, empathetic voice, there is only one Studs: Studs Terkel, singer of the unsung American. Louis Terkel acquired his nickname in the 1930s while performing in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. He was carrying around books by fellow Chicagoan James T. Farrell, and to differentiate Terkel from two others in the cast also named Louis, members of the Chicago Repertory Group began calling him by the name of Farrell’s scrappy protagonist. Today Studs Terkel is more famous than Studs Lonigan, and he begins his new memoir by modestly characterizing himself as “celebrated for having celebrated the lives of the uncelebrated among us; for lending voice to the face in the crowd.” He concludes with reflections on the fickleness of fame.

Studs Terkel: Touch and Go cover

By 1942, when he was called up for military service, Studs (it seems priggish to call him anything else) was familiar enough to federal investigators to warrant surveillance, primarily because the dangerous Billie Holiday sang at a farewell party in his honor. In the early 1950s, unrepentant about his leftist beliefs and his association with Henry Wallace, Paul Robeson, and other suspicious characters, he was blacklisted. He credits living in Chicago rather than New York or California for the fact that he escaped a summons to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. However, Studs recounts a visit from a pair of FBI agents who seemed impervious to his droll gestures of hospitality. Generous offers of Scotch, bourbon, and vodka could not divert them from their duty to grill the suspect about his political convictions and activities. Studs parried them with garrulity: “I read Thoreau to them; his sermon on John Brown. Passages out of Walden. Paine. I told them these are times that try men’s souls. And so on. We hold these truths. I even tried that out on them. Nothing doing.”

A powerful congressman once assured Studs that he had the talent to succeed in politics. “I coulda been in Chicago politics,” he muses. “God, I coulda been a contender.” He woulda been a virtuoso of the filibuster. In Touch and Go, a prolific interviewer’s belated attempt at interviewing himself, Studs is as evasive, digressive, and gumptious as he was when trying to transform the G-men into civil libertarians. Readers seeking a coherent chronology of the life and times of Louis Terkel will be exasperated by omissions, diversions, and repetitions. The book is symptomatic of the chronic “logorrhea” that Studs diagnoses in himself and that has earned him a place, alongside Will Rogers, John Henry Faulk, and Molly Ivins, in the pantheon of populist raconteurs. “Ever since my mid-sixties,” he writes, “I have had a habit of talking to myself. On the subject of Cubs, Sox, local corruption, international madness, and pampered dogs, any dogs, any subject.” Thirty years later, he is still tête-à-tête with a master interlocutor. Who touches Touch and Go touches a man who, at 95, continues to produce exuberant palaver.

Born in 1912 (“As the Titanic went down, I came up.”) to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Studs spent his first nine years in an Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. He found his true home when the family moved to Chicago, the city with shoulders broad enough to embrace both Jane Addams and Al Capone. So enamored of what he calls “the archetypal American city” that he uses the epithet twice, Studs presents himself as the Windy City’s gusty bard. Yet from the clogged heart of the heartland, he would speak for-and listen to-all. “Chicago is America’s dream, writ large,” he writes, though Texans and others obsessed by size might disagree. Working as a reception clerk at the Wells-Grand Hotel his family ran in Chicago’s near North Side, Studs received his most fundamental education-in the diversity of the human species. The varieties included a fugitive bank robber and a lusty, lonely woman. And he reveled in the radical soapbox oratory available at nearby Bughouse Square.

Despite a degree from the University of Chicago Law School, Studs was drawn to every occupation but the law. He catalogs a few: “I have been an eclectic disk jockey; a radio soap-opera gangster; a sports and political commentator; a jazz critic; a pioneer in TV Chicago style; an oral historian and a gadfly.” He even worked briefly as a fingerprint classifier for the FBI. But he found community and commitment in theater, which led to work in radio, as well as a live TV show called “Studs’ Place” during the infancy of the electronic medium. By 1951, when opposition to Communism was metastasizing into hysteria, his unabashed support for progressive political causes meant that Studs’ place could no longer be in a television studio. Working at first without pay at the fledgling radio station WFMT, he attracted a devoted following and created a rich broadcasting oeuvre during the next 45 years. In oral histories Division Street (1967), Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), “The Good War” (1984), and Coming of Age (1995), the former Wells-Grand Hotel’s clerk continued to exercise his curiosity and conviviality.

Though Studs dedicates his book to his son, Dan, and praises his late wife Ida, a social worker who nudged him into political activism, Touch and Go touches only lightly on its author’s personal relationships. This is a book about the working life of a man who has defined his long life by his success at getting other people to tell their stories. Early on, Studs likens himself to Richard Nixon, but only in that each affirms a neo-Cartesian view of existence: “I tape, therefore I am.” The difference is that Nixon taped to record his own voice, Studs to discover other voices. While ascribing his identity to a tape recorder, he confesses to ineptitude. “I’m technologically impaired, wholly undeveloped when it comes to equipment,” he says, admitting his incompetence not only with recording equipment but also automobiles, bicycles, and computers. Yet Studs acknowledges that his very clumsiness has often been an asset to his interviews. He is self-aware enough to realize that interrogation by an amiable klutz arouses sympathy and dispels anxiety. However, he finds no redeeming benefit in having bungled the chance to interview Mike Nichols, Oprah Winfrey, and Bruce Springsteen.

Though reflective, Studs is not quite valedictory, not even at 95. The durable radio host can no longer hear well enough to use the telephone, and he recently received a new heart valve. But his hardy mind still draws up fresh memories of the Depression and the 1963 March on Washington, along with secondhand versions of the Haymarket Riot and William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech. Yet even Studs nods; he recalls being drafted into the Air Force five years before it existed as an independent military branch, and he apparently means Cezanne’s The Card Players when he refers to “The Poker Players by Monet.” The man who maintains that he would not have named names to the inquisitors of HUAC is a shameless dropper of names in his memoir-illustrious ones like Buckminster Fuller, Pete Seeger, James Baldwin, John Kenneth Galbraith, David Dellinger, and William Sloane Coffin, but also Florence Scala, Nancy Dickerson, Peggy Terry, Rose Rigsby, and Pearl Hart, all of whom he retrieves from obscurity to celebrate as champions of social justice. Studs offers pungent portraits of people he has known and admired for their willingness to speak truth to power. They include Nelson Algren and Mike Royko, as well as less familiar figures like British journalist James Cameron and Chicago restaurateur Ric Riccardo.

Studs sums up his own life in a deprecating phrase: “I’m a disc jockey who happens to have written some books.” Those books and that life are not likely to be forgotten soon. “Oh, to be remembered-isn’t that what this is all about?” asks Studs, who will be remembered longer and more widely and fondly than most of the rest of us. His own powers of recall have not yet evaporated, but he does not dwell entirely in the past. He is sufficiently invested in the future to worry about the consequences awaiting a culture that has erased its collective memory. “We have a language perverted, a mind low-rated, and of course, the inevitable end result forgetfulness,” he complains. Though some others who survive to his advanced age are plagued by amnesia, nonagenarian Studs has not lost the ability or desire to remember. He uses history to accentuate a present that has been severed from its antecedents. “What I’m talking about,” he writes, “is what I call a national Alzheimer’s-a whole country has lost its memory.” Touch and Go is not a cure, but it is at least one old disc jockey’s wise diagnosis.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, and The Translingual Imagination.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

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