A quarter century ago Terkel was writing Hard Times, his oral history of the Depression. Among his subjects was “Eileen Barth,” a social worker of the era. Her reminiscence concluded with this:
“I’ll never forget one of the first families I visited. The father was a railroad man who had lost his job. I was told by my supervisor that I really had to see the poverty. If the family needed clothing, I was to investigate how much clothing they had at hand. So I looked into this man’s closet–(pauses, it becomes difficult)–he was a tall, gray-haired man, though not terribly old. He let me look in the closet–he was so insulted. (She weeps angrily.) He said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I remember his feeling of humiliation . . . this terrible humiliation. (She can’t continue. After a pause, she resumes.) He said, “I really haven’t anything to hide, but if you really must look into it . . . ‘ I could see he was very proud. He was so deeply humiliated. And I was too.”Says Terkel today, as he recalls hearing this story for the first time, “Well, I’m saying, ‘This is great!’ [He cackles.] ‘I gotta get that goddamned interview!’ Of course it was moving! But to me, my God, that fit! Just before another guy in the book, about the WPA and his humiliation. It fit right there! It was what I wanted, even though it was she, and even though she was deeply, deeply moved–as I was!
“But it didn’t matter. I gotta get that goddamned thing. So that’s part of it. That’s part of it. That’s guile, in a way.”
In a very loving way. “Eileen Barth” is Terkel’s wife.
To interview is to finagle. Studs is one of us.
We turned to Studs Terkel seeking answers. Being 82 now, Terkel can take the long view of American innocence. If there was a moment when it vanished he’d have noticed.
“We lost it long long ago, for Chrissake,” Terkel bellowed. “We lost it when Andrew Jackson was honored. You talk to an American Indian–Ramona Bennett with the Puyallup tribe, and her grandmother telling her, great-grandmother telling her, ‘There they come along, the cavalry, with their Winchester in one hand, Bible in the other, and the Indian women holding a shawl over their kids’ faces before the guns start coming at them.’ Andrew Jackson. And so our innocence was lost long ago! We never began in innocence! Redford’s a nice guy, but he’s way off.
“Ignorance, however–that there’s plenty of. It’s a hot commodity, not least because it looks a lot like innocence. “That’s the whole point of it too,” Terkel mused. “‘I don’t know history. So how can I be guilty?’
“You see, we’re also living in a time of antihistory. It’s as though we’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease. There is no past. We have the sound bites that come on–15 seconds of wisdom–and then it’s forgotten. Kids are born, without any fault of their own, with no sense of past. There isn’t any past. The kid says, ‘I wasn’t born yesterday,’ and I say, ‘You weren’t. You were born this morning.’ Because there is no yesterday. That’s part of the horror of our day.”
Herman Kogan probably hit the Azteca from time to time; before retiring to New Buffalo, Michigan, he and his wife Marilew lived on Old Town’s Crilly Court, in a row house that’s probably worth a half-million bucks these days. Old Town was a haven for artists a decade ago–one night at O’Rourke’s tavern, you could have spied seven Pulitzer Prize winners elbow to elbow, and I played a set at the Earl of Old Town later that evening for an audience that included Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren (at the same table!), Roger Ebert, Severn Darden, Del Close, and who knows what actors from Second City who are now household words.
Beginning July 7, Monday night became folk night at the Blue Note, and “I Come for to Sing” became the granddaddy of the great American hootenanny of the late 50s and 60s.
The hipsters who hung out regularly at the club were stunned. Betty, for one, just couldn’t get into it, even resented it. In the first place, she didn’t make much on Monday nights: the folk crowd were lousy tippers. “Come on, Frank, let’s do something else,” she would beg. Almost in spite of herself, however, she learned to dig another great American musical and political tradition. Club publicity described the show’s aim as presenting “a cross section of American singing from the frontier wilderness to the asphalt jungle,” and it very nearly achieved that. Monday folkfests at the Blue Note became a rather surprising success. Radio’s Studs Terkel emceed, narrating between the acts of a well-paced show. Half the show, in fact, consisted of Terkel’s slightly jaundiced, highly learned, and mostly ludicrous introductions on the origin of each song and its impact on man’s social and economic life. In 1952, however, the idea of folk music was mildly bohemian (not to use the more common 50s synonym, “subversive”); it was the crowd-pleasing audience sing-along that ultimately accounted for the great popularity of “I Come for to Sing.” “Come Monday,” according to an early review, “many of the jive-den set and an impressive representation of the folk song fraternity gather in admiration of the songs of another musical epoch.”