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Archive for November 1st, 2008

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Studs Terkel died the other day, aged 96.

I only saw him once but it was a memorable occasion, a preamble of sorts for several careers.

I am not able to pin the time down with any certainty but I think it must have been in 1947, perhaps in the spring. The laborers of the University of Chicago, the maintenance workers, groundskeepers, dormitory housekeepers and the like, people who would today be members of the SEIU, were striking for better pay and working conditions. The business manager for the university was an infamous hard-headed son of a bitch, no more popular with the students than he was with the workers. The union put on a concert in Mandel Hall, which seated a thousand (1066 actually), to raise funds for the strikers, publicize their cause and seek support from the students and faculty. The concert was organized and MC’ed by Studs Terkel who had a popular radio show at the time and wrote newspaper columns about the goings-on in Chicago.

There were three principal performers, all Studs’ projects, people he was promoting – but not for any gain for himself, just as a public service.  First up was Mahalia Jackson who was just getting known outside of the black churches where she had been performing for several years. What a sight and what a sound! That great plain of a face and those small eyes and that huge round voice that made the whole chamber resonate with it. The audience was overwhelmed.

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson

Next was the choir from the South Park Baptist Church, featuring as director, accompanist and singer Myrtle Jackson (not a relative). The group’s performance was a mixture of gospel and jazz – the choir (which included the director’s grown son)  would start out, setting the background and then Jackson’s wonderful (big!) soprano would come in, riding over the top like Louie’s trumpet. Later in the concert Mahalia sang with the choir and the combination was dazzling.

Myrtle Jackson

Myrtle Jackson

The third performer was Brownie McGhee who was known to folk and blues cognoscenti but not in the wider world. He started out by snapping a string on his guitar (even from my seat I could see he had large and powerful hands) which took several minutes to replace and a bit longer for retuning but the audience didn’t seem to mind and sat quietly until he was able to resume. The one piece he sang that I distinctly remember was “Black, Brown and White” in which the refrain goes “If you’re white, you’re alright. If you’re brown, stick around. But if you’re black, O brother, git back, git back, git back”.

Brownie McGhee

Brownie McGhee

Thanks, Studs, for a good memory.

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