This Week's Show •

Studs Terkel’s Feeling Tone

The Studs Terkel edge on the radio was, first of all, picking guests who would sound more interesting 50, 60 years later: Mahalia Jackson, Bucky Fuller, Toni Morrison, Bertrand Russell. Simone de Beauvoir on her ...

The Studs Terkel edge on the radio was, first of all, picking guests who would sound more interesting 50, 60 years later: Mahalia Jackson, Bucky Fuller, Toni Morrison, Bertrand Russell. Simone de Beauvoir on her Second Sex. Federico Fellini on La Dolce Vita. David Mamet on his Glengarry, Glen Ross. Aaron Copland, Dizzy Gillespie. James Baldwin from 1961, Woody Allen in his twenties. Janis Joplin, Tennessee Williams. John Cage.  The other great mark of Studs Terkel radio was that these weren’t interviews – except when Marlon Brando wanted a second hour to interview Studs. They were conversations – emphasis not on facts or even opinions but rather “feeling tone,” emotion and experience.

Radio legend Studs Terkel was the all-American listener: ears tuned, mind open, tape recorder always on.  The trick, he said, was something he’d heard – appropriately enough – from one of the uncelebrated citizens he loved interviewing.

Illustrations by Susan Coyne

That “feeling tone” is the thread of this radio hour as much as the late Studs himself.  He was the voice of Chicago between Carl Sandburg a century ago – “hog butcher to the world,” and all that – and Chance the Rapper today.  Studs Terkel compiled a best-selling vernacular oral history of city life — Division Street America — then classic social histories of the Depression and World War 2.  Home base for more than 50 years was his daily radio hour on a privately owned fine-arts station in Chicago, WFMT.  The news of Studs Terkel that we’re happy to share is that 5000 hours of that radio archive are open anew, being digitized and transcribed – an audio event on a par with the opening of King Tut’s tomb.

 

Tony Macaluso manages the Studs collection at WFMT. He led us into the archives this week and guided us through some of his favorite interview with folks like Muhammad AliMahalia Jackson, Bertrand Russel, and Jimmy Baldwin.

Alan Wieder wrote an oral history of how Studs got to be Studs. He helped us understand the roots of Terkel’s “soft socialist” politics through his growing-up years in the Wells-Grand Hotel as well as his early television career in Chicago.

Rick Kogan is a newspaper guy and radio voice in Chicago today.  He grew up modeling himself after his father—the great Chicago journalist Herman Kogan—and his father’s great pal, Uncle Studs:

Sydney Lewis was one of Studs Terkel’s closest collaborators in radio and literary production to the very end. She now works down the road from us at public station WCAI in Falmouth, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. With us, she discusses the joys of working with the man who wrote Working.

Jay Allison produces the NPR story-telling hour known as The Moth, which draws on a certain Studs enthusiasm… and extends it into deep into the digital cosmos: all those individual voices empowered in the podcasting era. He guides us through one of the lesser known parts of Terkel’s audio legacy: the incredible, freeform audio documentary Born to Livewhich won the Prix Italia in 1962 and which was given a second-life online thanks to Allison and the team at transom.org.

Podcast • September 24, 2009

Whose Words These Are (2): Regie Gibson

In anticipation of the 2009 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, where does poetry come from these days? And where is it going? Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Regie Gibson. (27 minutes, 12 mb mp3) Chicagoan ...

In anticipation of the 2009 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, where does poetry come from these days? And where is it going?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Regie Gibson. (27 minutes, 12 mb mp3)

Chicagoan poet Regie Gibson places himself “somewhere between page and stage,” writing and speaking about life, art and philosophy. He won the 1998 National Slam Competition and founded the Church of The Funky Word, a literary and musical arts ensemble utilizing ancient, contemporary and original literary text combined with world music. He has taught, lectured and performed in seven countries.

Q: Give us the poem that got you into the game.

A: “The Raven”

Q: Who’s in the conversation with you?

A: Emily Dickinson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Pablo Neruda

Q: Give us a signature poem.

A: “It’s A Teen Age Thang.”

Q: What’s your preferred mode of delivering a poem?

A: Somewhere between page and stage. We’re creatures of sound. We listen before we’re born.

Q: Who’s doing or did your kind of work in other arts?

A: Jimi Hendrix, Caravaggio, Rothko, Dali, Ayi Kwei Armah

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: I lean towards the shamanic.

Q: What talent would you most like to have that you don’t?

A: Facility with higher mathematics. Ability to play violin.

Q: What quality do you look for in a poem?

A: Imagination.

Q: What’s the general state of the art?

A: On the upswing, especially after 9.11. People turned to poetry for succor …

Q: What do you learn from high school students?

A: Stay honest— they can sniff when you’re not.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “We’re individual flames that tend to burn the brightest together.”

Click to hear Regie speak more of his work.

Podcast • May 21, 2009

Aleksandar Hemon: through bi-focals, darkly

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Aleksandar Hemon (25 minutes, 11 mb mp3) Aleksandar Hemon: funny people, sad tales What the Bosnian-American fictionist Aleksandar Hemon loves about being compared to Vladimir Nabokov is not ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Aleksandar Hemon (25 minutes, 11 mb mp3)

Aleksandar Hemon: funny people, sad tales

What the Bosnian-American fictionist Aleksandar Hemon loves about being compared to Vladimir Nabokov is not the part about mastering English as a new language — praise Hemon doesn’t feel he’s earned quite yet. What pleases Hemon is a deeper Slavic kinship that readers have noted — the same kinship that Nabokov felt with Chekhov and “the subtle humor” of “this Chekhovian dove-gray world,” as Nabokov put it. Hemon writes “sad books for humorous people,” he says, and perhaps “humorous books for sad people” as well.

Our conversation is with the novelist of The Lazarus Project, the story-teller of Love and Obstacles. Hemon is a favorite of The New Yorker magazine for his very typically bi-focal new-century identity. He is about equally rooted in Sarajevo and Chicago by now – about equally drawn, for example, to gaudy gangster histories in either place. The Lazarus Project made a surreal link between a historic murder in Chicago in 1908 and the carnage in Sarajevo at the end of the 20th Century. He writes a very stylish immigrant English for one part of his audience, but the interesting thing in the Internet age is that Aleksandar Hemon also writes a political column online in Bosnian, not just for Sarajevo but for Bosnians in the US who wouldn’t – maybe couldn’t – read him in English. Like the Bosnian man now living in St. Louis who watches pictures of the snow falling in Sarajevo, on the Web. He’s not writing about exile, Hemon says, because he can and does go back to Bosnia. Rather he’s writing the stories and moral discoveries that come with displacement. I asked him to surface his theory about the continuities of violence in the world.

AH: I don’t believe in human atavism, that we’re savages waiting to be activated. I think what turns people into killers on a vast scale is a kind of misguided historical project. These things are well organized. The Nazis, obviously, were not savages. Genocide is a technology, it is a very complicated operation, and they needed a vast, well trained force to do that. Similarly, in the Balkans. A lot of people have represented the conflict in the Balkans as, you know, tribes at each other’s throats, which was a lie in so many ways. But it also misses the point of genocide, the technology of genocide. To kill seven thousand men in Srebenica, you need a large number of buses to transport people from Point A to Point B, so they can be shot. Someone has to organize those busses. There is an army hierarchy and so on. So, for the worst in us to be brought out, there has to be a historical project. In that vein, not quite a genocidal project obviously, the Bush administration, for example, brought out the worst in Americans. They had a misguided horrible project which somehow we’re still at. We’re still doing it, in many ways. And this brought out the worst things in America, and I hated that experience. Which is also to say that opposing such projects becomes a necessary ethical position for each citizen, including writers.

CL: There is a moment in The Lazarus Project that many have noted, where Brik is in a fight with his wife. She is American and she’s kind of defending the innocence of the kids at Abu Ghraib. And the Brik character, who has a lot in common with you, tells her: “I hate the normal people, in the land of the fucking free and the home of the asshole brave… I told her that to be American you have to know nothing, and understand even less. And that I didn’t want to be American…” What has happened to that anger in you, what has happened to that in us?

AH: Well, I have had my anger. It never quite reached that point. Brik is very, very angry with the whole notion of being American. So I could write him, because during the Bush years I had a hard time being American. I was more of an American in ’99, when I wasn’t even a citizen, than I was during the Bush years. Because it seemed to me that if you were an American, you had to sign up for these projects, and I didn’t want to sign up.

CL In The Lazarus Project, Chicago in 1908 is the site of a kind of nativist hysteria. 100 years later, precisely, it became the seat of the new almost transnational American politics. What has happened to us, what has happened to Chicago?

AH: Well, Chicago, like America, was never one thing. It is not a monolithic thing, absolute and primitive… You know, as long as there has been a history of racism in this country there has been a history of opposition to racism. As long as there was an injustice, there were people fighting that injustice. The question is who has a higher hand. That is what I love about America: that vitality. And it can never be reduced to one thing, and the Bush regime tried to reduce it to one thing, we can stand united and question nothing. But it is too big, it is too complicated, it is too democratic. And what happened in Chicago and the United States is this: people like myself, who were playing defense, moved over and started attacking the opponents goal to score. And we scored.

Aleksandar Hemon in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Cambridge, May 15, 2009.