Almost 2009 and as usual at this time most people me included tend to reflect, it might seem morbid but I always think about those who have passed on during the year, this seems more relevant than ever since I turned 60, 2 weeks ago, just the other day one of my heroes from the old folk scene died, Davy Graham, an extraordinary and influential guitar player, probably not so well known outside the world of the guitar buffs but, an incredible talent and a man who couldn’t really care less about fame, rich or poor he was happy playing music. Richard Widmark, Roy Scheider and Paul Newman, great film stars and liberal Americans gone too, Paul Scofield great British star of stage and screen; a man whom I had the privilege of seeing on stage in Glasgow playing opposite Felicity Kendall in Othello, god I am getting on a bit, the great Oscar Peterson whom I’ve written about before, absolutely irreplaceable, likewise Humphrey Littleton.
“As the Titanic was going down I was coming up” (Studs Terkel, 1912 to 2008) the type of character you get only once in a lifetime, the great American chronicler of the 20 Th. Century, he interviewed everyone who was anyone but, interviewed even more ordinary people, in his own words he was “fascinated by the faces in the crowd” plumbers, soldiers, nurses, waitresses, actors, singers, bosses and union members, never without his tape recorder he got Buster Keaton, Louise Armstrong, James Baldwin, Brando, Dylan, Pete Seeger, Bertrand Russell, Dorothy Parker, JK Galbraith, Noam Chomsky, Martin Luther King, Mel Brooks Rosa Parks, Ali, Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein and many more his output was incredible. From a bit part actor to a disc jockey to writer to union organiser and life long political activist, he never wasted a minute.
He was of course inevitably “Witch Hunted” by McCarthy and one of “the house Un-American activities” thugs tried to persuade him to admit to being duped by the communists, “ we have to oppose communism at all times” said the goon, “if they oppose cancer are we for it” said Studs, “not funny” said the goon, “ we must all stand up together” said the goon, Studs immediately got out of his chair and stood up, “that’s not funny either” said the goon, he was blacklisted. The radio station he was with tried to coerce him into signing an “American Oath of Loyalty” he refused using Chicago language, they were about to sack him when the rising star of the show Mahalia Jackson said “if he goes so do I” he survived.
When the Watergate hearings were held, Studs organised a public convention of professional burglars and Safe Crackers, the result of which condemned the corrupt politicians as amateurs who brought shame on decent criminals, hilarious stuff. He was of course synonymous with Chicago where he talked to everyone and everyone talked back, on meeting a young wealthy couple who were declaring their contempt for organised labour Unions he demanded to know how many hrs, a day the guy worked, 8 he said, why not 18 said Studs, don’t know said the guy not seeing the punch coming, “because of Unions ya goddamn shmuck” yelled Studs.
He was a one off and well worth any interest shown in his life and work; he made up his own obituary which said “Curiosity did not kill this cat”
A GREAT AMERICAN.