NOTE: This blog entry originally appeared in February 2008.
I’ve never been much of a folk music fan, so when I volunteered to produce an hour-long conversation between Bob and Pete Seeger, I was practically starting from scratch. Sure I recognized the name, but I didn’t fully appreciate the man or his music. Well I do now. That’s one of the best things about being a producer on this show - the chance to learn new things about new people - or people you should have known about all along. One of my favorite parts of the production comes at the end of the first segment, when Seeger talks about entertaining a tough crowd of kids by singing She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain, then we hear him performing it, complete with all of the silly sounds to delight the children. “You can’t get mad at some stupid grown-up who’s gonna sing a song like that.” I hope you learn a few things as you listen to the piece - whether you’re Pete Seeger’s biggest fan or just coming to appreciate him yourself.
NOTE: This blog entry originally appeared in November 2008 and was written by Bob
Louis “Studs” Terkel was an actor, law school graduate, radio interviewer, union booster, oral historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, raconteur, a fan of jazz and opera, champion of the underdog, arch liberal, strong advocate of civil and human rights, an opponent of anyone who felt superior by virtue of class, race or privilege. And what a talker! When I joined satellite radio to do a long-form interview program, I made a list of interesting people who might be able to carry a conversation for an hour. The first name on my list was Studs Terkel because I knew I could get the full hour with just one question, “How’s it going, Studs?” That’s all it took to set him off on some outrage—a rant that would reference numerous historical precedents because the man lived 96 years and he’d seen it all before. Along the way, he’d leave his main argument and pursue some tangent that was so fascinating that I’d forget what question I had asked. But HE never forgot, and, after completing his verbal sidebar, would return right back to the spot where he had interrupted his own oration, and continue.
Studs searched for the dignity in everyone and nearly always found it. Poor and working class Americans seldom get a chance to feel important, but Studs did that for them. He’d ask them about their families, their struggles, the work they did and the conditions under which they performed that work. They walked a little taller after twenty minutes with Studs, the rare person who took them and their world seriously.
My favorite Studs Terkel story involves a Yuppie couple at a bus stop. Studs has pre-judged them by their clothes and manner, and he’s already setting up his pigeons by greeting them with, “Happy Labor Day.” When the unsuspecting pair grumble something dismissive about the holiday and the people it honors, Studs leaps for the kill. “How many hours do you work in a day? Eight? Why not 12 or 16? Workers did that routinely until labor unions changed the lives of ALL Americans.” Studs is rolling now and turns up the volume. “Did you know that workers right here in Chicago were hanged because they advocated for overtime? Labor unions gave you the 40-hour week, allowing you to have a weekend. Paid sick leave and vacations were unheard of until labor unions won those benefits through collective bargaining.” On and on he went as the couple looked down the street and prayed for that bus to arrive soon. Studs said if they ever rode the bus again, they caught it at another stop.
He was born in the Bronx, but reached his formative years in Chicago. His size, features and accent made him perfect for the role he played most frequently in early radio—-a crook. He said if there were three crooks on the show, he’d always play the stupid one. Medically ineligible for service in World War II, Studs tried to join the Red Cross but his lefty politics made him unwelcome there. When the FBI called at his house to question him, he offered them vodka. “After all, that’s what we Reds drink.” He was a TV pioneer, doing a live network show called “Studs’ Place,” but lost the show when the entertainment industry blacklist came along.
So he became a disk jockey and radio interviewer. He also wrote simple yet stunning books of oral history including Division Street: America, Hard Times, Working, and The “Good War.” The books had impact because his “witnesses” gave fascinating accounts of their lives and experiences—and they did so because their interviewer had totally engaged them and won their confidence. I’m convinced that people were more open and candid with Studs than they were with their closest friends and relatives. For all his reputation as a talker, Studs was a great listener who treated the common man and woman with respect.
Studs Terkel was born in 1912, just a month after the Titanic sank—-“It went down and I came up.” He always greeted me with a reference to our shared birthday of May 16th. I was born on his 35th. His parents ran a boarding house and men’s hotel in Chicago during the Great Depression. It was a gathering place for workers and Studs heard their stories and joined their arguments. He also signed their petitions, and that’s what later got him on the blacklist. No offense to his alma mater, the University of Chicago, but those sessions with workers were his best schooling—the foundation for the inspiring and exemplary life he would lead. I interviewed him after a fall that could have been fatal for a man his age, but he insisted his descent to the floor was a graceful ballet. I talked with him again after open-heart surgery, and who else could survive that at 93? These were mere bothers compared to the loss in 1999 of Ida, his wife of 60 years. He had just one problem with Ida. When he obtained copies of their FBI files, he was mortified to see that hers was thicker than his.
Each time he said goodbye to me, he employed the old Woody Guthrie line—“Take it easy, but TAKE it.” It’s as good an epitaph as any. He was a dear and wonderful man—a national treasure—and we will not see his like again.
Studs Terkel died on October 31, 2008 at his home in Chicago. He was 96 years old. Thanks to Charlie Summers, radio station WFMT and the Chicago Historical Society for their help with the archival tape in this program.
Monday, November 24, 2014: This week we are giving thanks for the interviews we conducted before it was too late. Pete Seeger was banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years, after topping both the pop charts and the Hollywood blacklist. Seeger wrote or co-wrote many of our most iconic folk songs and was still writing and performing into his 90s. When he spoke with Bob in 2008, Seeger was about to release a new songbook and the PBS program American Masters paid tribute to him with a show called The Power of Song. Pete Seeger died in January at the age of 94. Then we’ll remember Studs Terkel. In the spring of 2005 Bob traveled to Chicago and to Terkel’s home to reminisce about his career as a writer, broadcaster, oral historian and story teller.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014: We continue our series of timely interviews by remembering renowned poet, author, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. She died in May at the age of 86. Angelou is known best for her award-winning writing, including her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her collection of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie. Bob spoke to Maya Angelou in 2006 and we share their conversation on writing, aging, and being an American. Then we’ll remember the youngest member of our group. Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died in February at the age of 46. In 2005, he spoke with Bob about his career and his film “Capote.” Hoffman won his only Academy Award for that role as Truman Capote.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014: We’re giving thanks this week for interviews Bob conducted before it was too late. Today we remember Phil Ramone, the legendary music producer who worked with everyone from Stan Getz to Madonna. He produced the celebrated Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles duets albums, won over a dozen Grammys, and had more than 60 platinum records to his name. Ramone was one of the most influential talents in modern popular music. He died in March of 2013 at age 79. Next, we pay tribute to legendary guitarist Les Paul. Considered one of the 20th century’s guitar masters and innovators, Les Paul influenced countless musicians. In 2008, Bob visited Paul at The Iridium Club, where he played a weekly gig. Les Paul died in August 2009 at the age of 94. Then Bob visits with baseball legend Buck O’Neil about his long career. O’Neil was an All-Star first baseman with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. In 1962 the Chicago Cubs made him the first black coach in Major League History. And he was a masterful storyteller. Buck O’Neil died in October of 2006, also at the age of 94.
Thursday, November 27, 2014: We’ll take a break from our week-long series today for Thanksgiving. While most of America gathers with family and friends for an annual feast, millions of other Americans are dealing with poverty and hunger. It’s estimated that as many as 49 million Americans do not get enough to eat each day and that almost as many citizens are living below the poverty line. In a new set of interviews before a live audience, Bob talks about efforts to change those numbers with Bill Ayres, co-founder of WhyHunger and with Jen Chapin, daughter of folk singer Harry Chapin, the non-profit’s other co-founder. Chapin also serves on the organization’s board of directors.
Friday, November 28, 2014: Today we remember some of the old-guard journalists Bob talked with through the years, starting with CBS News and 60 Minutes legend Mike Wallace. In 2007, Bob talked to Wallace about his struggles with depression and the continuing stigma attached to mental illnesses. Wallace died in April 2012 at the age of 93. Next we listen back to Bob’s 2007 conversation with Helen Thomas. The pioneering female journalist covered the White House under ten presidents, starting with the Kennedy administration. Thomas died in July 2013 at the age of 92. Next, Bob visits the office of Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post for a wide-ranging discussion of journalism and politics. Bradlee was 93 when he passed away last month. And we conclude this Thanksgiving Week with Bob’s 2005 conversation with the always outspoken Molly Ivins. The Texas-based syndicated columnist died in 2007 at age 62.
What if John F. Kennedy had taken the advice of some of his aids and left the top of his car on that fateful day in Dallas? Journalist Jeff Greenfield explores how America and the world might have been different in his book If Kennedy Lived. Greenfield also worked as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy.
Bob talks to award-winning public radio producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva about their audio book, Hidden Kitchens: Stories and More from NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters. It’s a collage of stories, interviews, and anecdotes, about kitchens both far out and familiar.
Bob talks to Nathaniel Philbrick about the Pilgrims, the real story of the first Thanksgiving and the difficult years that followed. Philbrick is the author of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War.
Bruce Hornsby has sold more than 11 million records, drawing from a wide-range of American musical traditions. He was schooled in bluegrass, folk, rock, pop, country, blues and jazz, although the “adult-contemporary” label has plagued him ever since his hit, “The Way It Is,” became the most-played song on American radio in 1987. Hornsby talks with Bob about his career and his music.