Sunday, November 02, 2008

Born to Live

When I was a freshman in college, our 9:05 classes ended at 9:55, and then there was a chapel break after which the next class started at 11. I went to chapel sometimes, but one day I didn’t and went to my dorm room. I turned on the radio, which was tuned to the classical music station I liked to listen to.

But that day, there wasn’t music, but his voice, this rough, gravely voice, full of energy and passion, asking questions. I have no idea who the guest was that day, but it was my introduction to Studs Terkel. It didn’t take long for me to realize he was a gem, and for the twenty years I lived within the signal of WFMT, I was a regular and devoted listener. When I was unable to listen to the show in the morning, I listened to the Sunday evening rebroadcast.

I have three particular memories of Studs’ broadcasts. In 1981, I was unemployed and staying home with the kids and listened to Studs each day. On Monday, he said that his friend, the Chicago author Nelson Algren, had died, and was going to devote the week to him. There were a couple of interviews with Algren and some of his friends, but the bulk of the week was Studs reading from Algren’s works. I was sort of familiar with the Man with the Golden Arm, but nothing else of Algren’s, and now when I read him I hear Stud’s voice.

Algren is an unjustly under appreciated writer – he thought so, at least – but not by Studs. He understood Algren and obviously loved him and his work. (He was a founder of the Nelson Algren Committee that got Algren's work back in print.) I’ve been an Algren fan ever since.

The second memorable broadcast was really a brief excerpt a show, the context of which I can’t remember. Studs was interviewing his friend Mahalia Jackson in the hospital where she was recuperating from something or another, and while he was there Dr. Martin Luther King walked into the room to visit her, too. Studs left the tape recorder on recorded the most beautiful interchange between Mahalia and her friend Martin, absolutely authentic, full of love and humor, with some mild teasing if I’m remembering correctly. It is the only recording I’ve ever heard of Dr. King in a candid, non-public situation.

Finally, there is an one hour show he produced in 1960 entitled “Born to Live.” I think it puts everything about Studs’ life as a radio person and his message to the world. WFMT broadcast it mid-morning each New Year’s Day, and after having obtained a copy of the Folkways-Smithsonian CD, I continue the tradition to this day.

Here is how Studs describes the program:

With Born To Live I had the help - more than the help, the collaboration - of Jim Unrath, who was an announcer at the station. He and I worked together on all the documentaries, and all on his own time. As I told you earlier, I'm inept mechanically. Jimmy gathered all the stuff. He knew the way I was thinking. Born to Live is a collage montage of voices.

How to explain this? There was a contest called the Prix Italia. It's the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, you might say, for radio and TV documentaries and features. And Dennis Mitchell had won it for Morning In The Streets. So Rita Jacobs said, “Let's submit it.” Well, very few American stations ever win. It's won by BBC or Stockholm or wherever.

So I thought of all the interviews that I had, and there's this one that was sponsored by UNESCO as a special interview. It was 1961, I think, that we started doing it. The Cold War was going on pretty hot. And UNESCO says, “Can't there be one program of East/West values to lower the temperature of heated discussion?”

What came into my mind when we decided to enter the contest - with the odds about a thousand to one - was interviewing a hibakisha, one of the Hiroshima maidens, they were called, who survived the August 9th atomic bombing. She was talking through an interpreter. She’d been brought by the wife of a Quaker who ran that ship The Golden Rule, challenging the nuclear stuff. As she talked, I thought, “I’m going to open with that.”

And then I thought of other tapes I’d done. One of a street worker talking to a kid, a tough kid who's got a tattoo that says “Born To Die”. There are tattoos on his fingers: die, death, D-E-A-T-H. The street worker says, "What about the time between you're born and the time you die? What about that?"

“I don't know. What is it?”

And then I say, “Time to live.” See? And then snip. [snaps]

Little thoughts. And music. Pete Seeger doodling on a banjo, but he's doodling the chorale from Beethoven’s Ninth. Then it cuts to someone else - two couples in a suburb talking about their kids: “And so she says to me, ‘Well, might as well live today, tomorrow you're gonna die. I don't know how long I'll live.’” :How old is she?” “Nine.” And in between and interspersed are children's songs, American children's songs and Japanese children's songs. And then finally I say, “Born to live. What about the time between you're born and the time you die?” Then all the voices start. Some dealing with humor and laughter and some dealing with myth and legend, and the voice of Jimmy Baldwin and the voice of Miriam Makeba, the voice of Einstein. And John Ciardi says, “Sometimes you can tell the difference between a large decision and a small decision. Sometimes it's the sound of it. When I was a kid I used to hear Caruso records. I heard them in these Italian households in Providence, Rhode Island, I’d hear these Caruso records. And you think, ‘That’s as far as a human voice can go./ And there he'd go one step further.” Then I slip in the voice of Caruso singing “Oh, paradisio,” as he goes one step higher. And then Charlie saying, “ . . . .tell the difference between a small decision and a giant decision.” Then it cuts to the voice of Sean O’Casey, and Einstein, and Bertrand Russell. And then it cuts to the voice of a child.

In any event, it had everything. But I was influenced by Dennis Mitchell as well as by Norman Corwin. Sounds need not have a narrator. I got that from Mitchell. Just let the ideas flow from one to the other.
You will never spend a better hour than listening to this program.

Studs died last week, at 96. He'd been frail, especially after a recent fall, and practically deaf they say. I last saw him in 2002 at Macalester College in St. Paul. He was on a book tour promoting his book, Will the Circle be Unbroken, an anthology of interviews with people about death and what happens afterwards.

I can't imagine that he had any regrets at the end except possibly one: that he didn't live to see his fellow Chicagoan, Barak Obama, win election as president of the United States. He died knowing it was going to happen, though, like Moses maybe.

As he always signed off his broadcasts, "Take it easy, but take it."