A very 'ordinary' commentator


Studs Terkel's Chicago
SBS, Thursday, April 20, 8.30pm
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

Studs Terkel is one of the United States' most celebrated radical writers. In his long life he has been a gangster (at least in radio soap operas), a DJ, a television show host and a jazz critic. Presently, he is prolific public radio broadcaster. Terkel is also part of the very fabric of Chicago, the third largest city in the US.

This introduces us to this eccentric, lovable rogue and his rough and tumble, exciting and depressing, beautiful and ugly city. Terkel loves Chicago not for its skyscrapers or busy streets but for its heart and soul, the working people and the battlers. He does not love Chicago "warts and all", but is committed to removing the warts.

In a series of books — among them Division Street, Hard Times, Working, American Dreams: Lost and Found and The Good War — he allows the people who built Chicago to speak for themselves. "There is a history that has been underrated, taken for granted, or not used. The history of the anonymous mass", he explains. The aim of his oral histories — and radio interviews that he has conducted seven days a week for 33 years on Chicago public radio — is to discover "what it is like to be the so-called ordinary person living at a certain point in history in a certain circumstance".

In the course of this thoroughly entertaining program we meet just a few of those "ordinary" people. People like Florence Scala, who fought to keep her small community "of Italians, Mexicans, blacks, Greeks together as they had been for many generations" when the notoriously corrupt Mayor Daley and the city's business class moved to "develop" their neighbourhood. Scala, says Terkel, is representative of the United States' real history. Her story began Division Street.

Peggy Terry tells how she was "amazed that anybody could care" about her life when Terkel interviewed her about the depression years. Terry moved to Chicago from the south. White, she joined the civil rights movement and marched on Washington in 1963 to hear Martin Luther King, and of course so did Studs with his ever-present tape recorder.

Terkel has a deep love and respect for blues and jazz, the music of Chicago. Gospel giant Mahalia Jackson unrelentingly and unsuccessfully tried to convert Studs to the Lord. "Cowardly, I'd say I was agnostic but deep down I'm an atheist. But I would tell her that if anybody was going to convert me, it would be her."

There is some classic footage of Terkel's good friend and blues great, Big Bill Broonzy, renowned for his raw country blues and anti-racist lyrics. Big Bill was one of the millions of blacks who migrated to Chicago from the south this century.

On the corner of 47th Street and Martin Luther King Drive in the heart of the south side — Chicago's Soweto as Terkel described it in a tourist guide I read while there recently — Vernon Jarrett explains that blacks coming to Chicago "felt for the first time there was hope. Regardless of how badly you may have been treated in the south — the violence, the fact that your parents could not vote and you had to witness all that humiliation — there was Chicago where you were equal, where you were free."

But all that changed, Jarrett says. Those dreams are now unreachable. "We believed that the conditions down south were not permanent because there would always be a Chicago, a Detroit, a New York ... where there are jobs, equality, where you can be human. Now someone has thrown a blanket over that dream, and they have boarded it up just like that store on the street corner."

A union leader tells us that the south side was once the world's largest steel producing region. Unemployment is 25%, higher than it was in the depression. Says Terkel, "Free enterprise is like putting Muhammad Ali in the same ring as a little flyweight and saying may the best person win. Free enterprise is ghost towns now springing up. The men of steel are now the men of rustiness."

Studs Terkel and his Chicago are a timely reminder that the real US is not Hollywood, or big business, or the marines, but the mass of "ordinary" people.

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