The Hunger Is There

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 13, No 3 (Fall 2002)

Studs Terkel

First of all, it's a delight to be here this morning because I meet so many old friends, and I knew that you would be here related in some way or other to this gathering of foundations. The foundations you represent are doing what in an ideal situation, all governments would, should do. What you do with your contributions, with your interest, is help keep this world relatively sane. I say relatively for obvious reasons. What you do is feed a hunger for all the people of the world. Not simply food, clothing, shelter of course, but there is in everybody a hunger for beauty.

Even now at this moment as I talk, between two of the most wretched conditions in Chicago — the Gateway Gardens, as well as Robert Taylor Homes, two miserable areas that look like they were townships in apartheid South Africa — there's a kid up there on the twenty-third floor practicing his tenor sax, trying to capture the sound of Lester Young. Somewhere in a bungalow, a working class bungalow, there is a little girl somewhere playing a violin. She was listening to a record of Jascha Heifetz and is trying to capture that sound. It's this quest for... You don't mind if I freely associate? I like to do this. It's sort of a...to be fancy I call it stream of consciousness. And this is kind of a stream of consciousness idea.

One day I'm home... I used to work for a radio station in Chicago called WFMT for forty-five years. It was known primarily as a classical music station, fine arts station. Of course it had all kinds of talk about every subject too. I'm listening to some music at that time at home, scribbling on some piece of paper. There was something wrong with the kitchen sink, and we called the plumber in. He's a middle-aged Italian guy. And as I'm listening to this music — I don't remember if it's now Bach or Stravinsky, some music — there is the plumber in the living room standing as though transfixed. I said, “Do you like that?” He says, “I love that. I don't know the name of the man who wrote that, but that music! Without music, what would we be? There'd be no humans in the world! It is music that sings.”

And I think of this Cockney waitress in London — she could be a waitress anywhere, in Chicago or any city where you come from — and this Cockney waitress is having trouble with the kids, and the six kids jumping around. She works very hard. Somewhere in the dimness of this tenement in the East End of London, something out of Dickens, you climb up three, four flights, dank staircase, you come in, and there is a Brueghel on the wall — a reproduction of a Brueghel. It's the same one I have at home. It's The Wedding Party. And she says, “Do you like Brueghel?” I says, “Yeah!” And she says, “That's us.” I said, “That's 400 years ago.” “I know, but that's us! Except for those costumes, that wedding party, I know that wedding. Now where is the groom?” Now no one told her that's one of the mysteries of that painting — no one knows where the groom is in that particular painting. The bride we know is in the middle. And she said, “I'll bet the groom is that guy feeding all those others the wine, the booze, and getting them drunk!” And of course she was right! Alexander Elliott, art critic of Time magazine, pointed that out. So did Mary Parparis, this Cockney waitress. In all there is this tremendous hunger!

I remember this spot-welder in an auto plant. One day he's picking up the paper and he reads about opening night at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall, or the Lyric Opera at the Opera House. “You see those people? That's the music for them.” Meaning, “That's not for me, that music is too good for me because it's for them! It's too rich for me.” But one day he says, “It's raining like hell, I'm walking on Michigan Boulevard, and I run into the building. It turns out to be Orchestra Hall.” He comes into the middle of the concert and says, “I look in, and there's a tall, bald-headed guy bowing.” He's talking about Maestro George Solti. “And I hear this music.” He said, “You know what? I liked that music!” He was hearing a Beethoven symphony. He said, “I liked that music! And suddenly I realized, hey! I'm good enough for that! That's for me too!” So it's this hunger I'm talking about.

Perhaps one of the best cases I could think of, is the case of an African American hospital aide. She's been in almost all my books. I called her Lucy Jefferson at the time — I use pseudonyms for people — her name was Lucile Dickerson. About fifty-five years old, hospital aide, self-educated. She would read paperbacks: Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner. She points toward her daughter. I remember the year, 1965, because her son was planning to take part in the Selma- Montgomery march; she was worried about him. And there's her pregnant daughter; her husband has left her. She points to the belly of her daughter, the baby's about to spring out any minute. And she points to the belly of her daughter and says, “I want that little baby in there to read books! To love music. To love painting and dancing. I want that little baby's soul to fly.”

Thirty-five years later I met that baby, Dr. Marvin Jackson, neurosurgeon in a Washington, D.C. hospital. So, Marvin Jackson says to me...thirty-five years later he says, “You know? I'll never forget. I was present when you and my grandmother had that talk! You know? So I knew you before I was born!” He said, “But you know what's so great for me? Whenever I see these single-mother hospital aides, I think of my grandmother. When I see those little kids staring after them, that's me.”

And so in a sense that's what the music is all about. But there's something else aside from classical music, aside from that which we call “upper-class” music. There's another kind discovered by Pete Seeger's father. Pete Seeger's father was an eminent musicologist named Charles Seeger. And Pete's stepmother was Ruth Crawford Seeger, perhaps the first American woman composer really recognized by her peers, male peers. And they're out to bring culture to small communities, and they'd travel; Pete was in a crib at a time. And they'd go to these communities — rural black and white — until they discover, wait a minute! These people have a music of their own! An indigenous music! And it's called folk music, and the Appalachian music of the old, old Scots-Irish ballad adjusted to local conditions. And in the black communities of course the spirituals and the hymns and the work songs. And of course jazz.

And then you realize that this is what keeps people together, that there's a unity in that quest for beauty. And that's what you foundations are all about. I'm just touching, you notice, on the arts, whereas you know the foundations deal with everything. And so in a way I'm so delighted to be here.

So I'm on WFMT again — it's almost forty-five years — I'm talking to either Andres Segovia, or to Ravi Shankar the great sitar player, or to Peggy Terry. Peggy Terry was an Appalachian woman who was very active in Chicago in the ‘60s, and she went through fifth grade only. “And one day” she said, “I picked up a book called Grapes of Wrath” — self-taught — “and never did I feel so proud of my people as I was after I read Grapes of Wrath.”

And Grapes of Wrath, by the way, was subsidized by a foundation called the New Deal. [laughter and applause] Because it so happens in doing some research on this for a centenary occasion honoring John Steinbeck in New York a couple of weeks ago, I came across that. And Beanie Baldwin, who worked for the Department of Agriculture of Henry Wallace, helped John Steinbeck find his guide. Because John Steinbeck wanted to get it right! He would want to be a pea-picker or a fruit-picker. He wanted someone who knew his stuff, but sure enough, Beanie Baldwin gave him a guy named Tom Collins, to whom the book, by the way, is co-dedicated.

And so that's what I mean by the hunger is there, as well as the capacity for people to understand and love all music, and all art, and all dance, and all that's bringing them together, as well as food, clothing, and shelter.

And so it's my delight to introduce our first group, that is called Saalam. Saalam, of course, is Arabic for peace. Now these are young people from Indiana but they represent the music of the Near East, of North Africa. You'll hear the oud, which is the string instrument of that area, much like the sitar of India. It's part of the guitar family. You'll hear contemporary Western influence. Here then my joy and delight in introducing to you, as Dave Garroway used to say, “Peace. Saalam.”

Studs Terkel is an oral historian and radio host; Pulitzer Prize winning author of the 1985 book, The Good War; and recipient of the Presidential National Humanities Medal, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and a George Pope Career Award. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Scholar in Residence of the Chicago Historical Society.

“The Hunger Is There” is published by permission of Studs Terkel and the Council on Foundations.