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Studs Terkel and the Spirits

By Tony Macaluso
Guest Columnist
Director – Studs Terkel Radio Archive
Chicago, IL, USA

Tony Macaluso

I've been quietly communicating with the dead a lot these past years. It is a strange and soul-stirring experience. The ghosts are lined up and waiting for their audience. Thousands of them: the many-decades-gone dead, the just-expired-last-week dead, the famous dead, the uncelebrated working-class dead, the faraway dead (ghosts of South African miners, Italian "dolce vita" cinema stars, wayward Chinese revolutionaries, restless shades of Russian poets who once talked defiantly over vodka in dissident kitchens bugged by the KGB), dead writers, dead musicians, dead scientists, dead political activists, the dead who resist all categories and just want to moan, laugh and assert their presence on this earth despite a lack of body to do it with. And many, many more… all these dead voices, talking with rhythmic urgency about their lives and cares, they have been part of my daily routine these past years. It is a haunting exercise. But a happy one.

The visits with the ghosts mostly take place in the early morning. I wake up at 4:45 or so, step into the dark kitchen, feed the cat, make the coffee, then sit by the window by the tree and summon up some new ghost to speak about how things were in, say, 1965, to tell about the fear of the atom bomb or fighting Chicago machine politics in era of King Daley the First or how a given ghost found the path to blues music on a dead-end Jim Crow farm in Louisiana in the 1910s.

The gaggle of ghosts who have come to offer their beyond-the-grave tales of time past is often overwhelming. The crowd of spirits is on par with the one Dante went to see, only I've been spared the long downward fiery/freezing slog, the three-headed dogs and other nasty beasts, and, most importantly, the stories are, on the whole, upbeat, full of poetry, music, hope and a peculiar thing called the feeling tone. They range from the seemingly anonymous working heroes to people widely celebrated for being at the top of their fields: musicians like Louis Armstrong and Leonard Bernstein; writers like Simone de Beauvoir, Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison; political leaders like Martin Luther King; theater and film people like Buster Keaton, Marlene Dietrich, Federico Fellini, Laurie Anderson and Martin Scorsese. 

Oh, and the guide to this land of the dead is, while not quite as classical as Virgil, an ever-curious, cackling, gigantically theatrical, cigar-smoking, deep listener who always gets his ghosts to astonish with their tales of triumph over the status quo. His name is Studs Terkel.

He is as strange, improbable and wise a guide to the land of ghosts as you could ever hope to conjure and if you don't know him, you'll find his voice and all the others gathered in the evolving Studs Terkel Radio Archive (eventually almost all 5,600 of Studs' programs will live there, fully searchable and reusable).

Studs Terkel

I am hard pressed to imagine a better sidekick to that fuzzy space where living commune with the dead and try to understand this funny old world. As Studs' old pal/hero, the folksinger Woody Guthrie once said: "The human race is a pretty old place." The ghosts that I've been talking with from their mostly beyond-the-grave vantage would seem to agree with that formulation: we are not individuals, we are not even so much "in time," but we do occupy a tiny chunk of "place" and how well we occupy it is work in progress and matters immensely. So the ghosts seem to say. It bears repeating: "The human race is a pretty old place." It's a phrase that warrants meditating on. Fall asleep with it in your mind and discover what it means when you wake up. Experiment with putting the stress on different words in the sentence: "The human race is a pretty old place."

Before we venture too far into the underworld of ghosts and confusing geography, I should explain. The Studs Terkel Radio Archive (we'll call it STRA for short) is a fairly simple if big archive project. In short, Studs (who lived from 1912 to 2008) had a daily radio show on WFMT 98.7 FM in Chicago from 1952 to 1997 and interviewed, deejayed and tape-recorded his way into the pantheon of great artists. The daily radio show captured the human spirit in its strivings to transcend the limitations of the quotidian life and escape to the moon or other larger stages where that spirit is not constrained by small and claustrophobic concepts like "jobs."

It's too long a saga to explain how the STRA came into being (that's another story, for another day, although Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation by Alan Wieder provides lots of background). It involves many dozens of wise and far-thinking people going back decades to save 5,600 reel-to-reel tapes, first at the Chicago History Museum and then the Library of Congress. Even saving a daily radio show back in the 1950s and 60s was an act of attentive people, who understood, amidst the flurry of day-to-day radio life that there was a time capsule in the making here. A few specific people who were critical: Lois Baum, Sydney Lewis, Steve Robinson, Tony Judge and Louise Frank from WFMT (where The Best of Studs continues air on Friday nights); Gary Johnson, Russell Lewis and Peter Alter from the Chicago History Museum; Gene DeAnna from the Library of Congress; and, Adrian Marin archivist of the Studs Terkel Estate. And especially critically in the forward momentum of the evolving archive: Allison Schein and Grace Radkins, WFMT's Archivist and the STRA's Digital Content Librarian respectively. (For a deeper dive into all the nuances of bringing the archive into digital and analog life, go visit this article from Radio World or this from the Chicago Tribune) But for now, back to the ghosts…

Studs' radio archive as a portal to the land of the dead, for me, begins with the atomic bomb. We don't talk or think about nuclear war so much these days. That's a funny thing. I'm old enough to remember the last gasp of the Cold War and being a twelve year old lying in bed late at night sweating out hypothetical calculations about the odds of escape and survival. Studs, by strange happenstance, was in Wales on the day the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in 1962, meeting with the wizened, then 90-year-old British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was one of the world's leading voices speaking out against the insanity of assured mutual destruction and the bomb. With the tinny old telephones in Russell's house ringing non-stop as (presumably) people were calling to seek his advice in the face of potential annihilation, Russell was already half speaking from beyond the grave, telling his American listeners through Studs' show that the future of the world (or lack of one) was no longer really a practical concern for him since he'd already lived 90 very full years, but it was for those whose lives were just beginning.

A few years later, in 1965, Studs spent several weeks with mostly Latino teenagers in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood talking about all facets of life for a largely unprecedented (for the time) form of sociologically-infused radio documentary called Joy Street. Studs hung out for hours with the teenagers, asking them all about work, love, drugs, alcohol, family, race, the atom bomb, art, dreams and what they would do if they were God. It is strange to think those 16 year olds (the ones who survived) may now be among the retired folks hanging out in that same park today where my own 8-year-old son played Little League in recent summers.

These are real people whose voices come rising up out of the radio archive. And something that is easy to forget in our internet age is that, despite the sometimes paralyzing glut of information and "content" available to use, really hearing people from the past speak with ease and intimacy about their lives and thoughts at length, with humor and deep engagement, meandering and unconfined by typically media PR talk or political agendas is still very hard to come by. Real conversation was rarely documented. Most of what we hear from the past are either formal speeches or concise interviews on some narrow slice of life. Famous people, used to the spotlight, often talk in PR chatter or push some political agenda. The uncelebrated were either taken aback by the intimidating task of talking in the media or, as time went on, learned to mimic the smooth ways of the professional talking heads. Real, open-ended conversation, the way people talking about what matters most to them in private, is something far-less documented. Ghosts from decades tend to speak in bellowing proclamations or fragmented utterances. The ones who really make their presence fully felt through flowing conversation are a lucky few (at least until recently).

With the STRA, we think about this especially intently when someone famous (or not-so-famous) dies whose voice is in the collection. In recent years we've sadly gone hunting to retrieve Studs' conversations with people such as Pete Seeger, Mohammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Oliver Sacks and many others in response to their deaths.

Hearing the voices, so full of vigor and life, immediately after the person just passed, is a curious form of sitting Shiva. And it can be even more touching with the voices of the less celebrated. Recently a marvelous American Indian activist and educator died, Roger Buffalohead, who Studs interviewed in 1971 when he was a young man. We heard from a close friend of Roger's who spent lots of time with him in Minnesota in his final years, when illness left him quite literally voiceless. To listen to the conversation with him, knowing that his family and friends were just given the same tape to hear for the first time or the first time in decades, was a powerful moment in communing.

The STRA isn't just about individual voices. Thanks to his portable Uher tape recorder, Studs was able to travel the world gathering sounds from the streets and private spaces of places such as South Africa, China, the Soviet Union, Italy, France, England, Denmark and far-flung places throughout the United States (including some remarkable forays into the South during the Civil Rights Movement). And of course he soaked up the sounds of his beloved city, Chicago. All those sounds captured in the field resonate in a different way. To take just one example: Studs' long friendship with Chicago writer Nelson Algren resulted in some giant rivers of sounds like the program Come in at the Door from 1959 that used excerpts from Algren's stories and poems, as read by Algren himself, Studs and others, woven together with music and ambient sounds, to create a kind of documentary symphonic-poem that evokes "the city's rusty heart, that holds both the hustler and the square. Takes them both and holds them there. For keeps and a single day."

Of the 5,600 programs in the STRA, there are particular voices from the past and situations that have resonated especially for me: journalist friends Mike Royko and Herman Kogan taking over Studs' radio show in 1967 to turn the tables and interview him upon the publication of his first oral history book, Division Street. The great blues singer Big Bill Broonzy unpacking the meanings of seemingly simple blues songs he learned many decades earlier in Louisiana and Texas, knowing that his death was near at hand, making the most of a last chance to pass on a little more about the music and about himself. 

Studs died almost exactly eight years ago, on Halloween day 2008. It was a Friday, four days before the presidential election that brought a fellow Chicagoan to the White House. Studs was following the election intently, despite being 96 years old and having been knocked around by various health woes. It's fascinating to ponder what he would have made of this year's election, with its off-the-rails style.

Likewise Studs' was a lifelong baseball devotee and the Archive contains marvelous conversations about the lore of the game, especially with writers such Roger Angell and Bill Leonard. Studs played memorable roles in Ken Burns' 1994 baseball series and John Sayles' film about the Chicago Black Sox Scandal of 1919, Eight Men Out.

In this Chicago autumn when presidential politics and local baseball are neck and neck in the race for improbability (although Studs was decidedly a Sox, not a Cubs fan, for reasons that are far too complicated to get into here), the voices of the radio archive seem both more distant (how much has changed in just a few decades) and capable of offering much-needed perspective on the present. Politics and Baseball. It's a perfect little synecdoche for what Studs tried to capture about the world. The necessary, sometimes brutal, social fabric that we all live in, like it or not, and the artistic realm of escape and timeless pleasures. But it could just as easily be: Music (blues, jazz, gospel, folk) and the Civil Rights Movement. Or Poetry and the Cold War. Or Theater and the Spectacle of Class Divides. The ghosts in the Studs Terkel Radio Archive are busy debating all these big seeming dichotomies.    

One of the many hopes for Studs' radio archive moving into the future is that people surprise us with ways of taking voices from the past and making them live in unexpected ways. The philosophy of the STRA has been to help people making things or trying to make sense of things through stories (radio people but also teachers or journalists or musicians or activists or filmmakers and so on) feel at ease rummaging through our giant closet of ghostly voices.

We have plans to make a podcast that features excerpts from Studs' radio archive being curated by people from the present-day. The plan (at least for now) is to call the podcast "Take it Easy, But Take it" from the phrase that Studs liked to use to end his radio program and his conversations with guests. It's a funny phrase. Simple, peculiar, with folksy origins. The "take it easy" is gentle way of saying farewell while also offering a bit of sage advice: "don't let things get you down, relax, enjoy life, go slow…" But the "take it…" that ends the phrase hints at a little grassroots social justice: "Take your fare share, don't let a rigged system prevent you from getting your dues, no Big Rock Candy Mountain or pie in the sky when were gone… the eating needs to happen now, make sure you get yours…" Combined they almost represent a little six-word guide to sane social justice: "Go slow, non-violence, savor life's pleasures BUT don't forget the second half…"

I also like to think of Studs' beloved sign off phrase in another way. In reference to these voices, these ghosts the radio archive itself. What was once a little wave / tip of the hat of farewell is now an invitation, a welcome. "Come in, take these voices from the past and give them another dose of life." Do this by weaving them into a theater production about hope or a radio documentary about the history of Chicago architecture or a classroom lesson for 5th graders about the Civil Rights Movement and the role music played in it. Help get a little more context on a contemporary political election by hearing people talk thoughtfully about elections past or think more strangely and vastly about art by hearing a blues or jazz musician talk about being around when the music was just being born or a long-gone poet stir emotion unexpectedly with just the right bundle of words. But then "easy." Don't make these voices puppet your preconceptions. Don't merely use them to confirm what you think you already know. Let them say their piece, let their "feeling tone" unfold as they offered it and above all give the ghosts their due and fully listen. Whenever that happens, the archive is alive.



Studs Terkel Radio Archive


Tony Macaluso is the Director of the WFMT Radio Network that produces and syndicates radio programs on the arts to stations around the world and the Director of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. He has worked with various Chicago theater companies during his career and he is the author of Sounds of Chicago's Lakefront: A Celebration of the Grant Park Music Festival.

All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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