This week I’ve been talking to Dan Terkell about growing up in Lakeview during the ‘50s and ‘60s with politically engaged parents—one of was blacklisted during the Red Scare. This caused the family some economic strain, sure. They all worked, passionately and for social justice, but this rarely pays. Were he a different person, as Dan’s been explaining, his father Studs Terkel may well have amassed vast wealth. But Studs, and Dan too, are rare types in this day and age: principled, determined, and unwilling to accept as given what has been given.
Terkell takes care of his father’s estate, which must be hard on him. Dan is certainly his own person, with curiosities and proclivities unrelated to his famous father. Yet it’s clear that he developed an unabiding love of Chicago, and Chicagoans, somewhere along the line.
I was political science major, went to, I went to university part time, never experienced campus life. Took me eight years before I graduated because I was working full time, too, so I did get my bachelors in political science. I was thinking of going on to law school but never followed through with it. I did go so far as to take the LSAT, the law-school qualifying exam, and actually did quite well, but I never followed through.
None of the work I’ve done has really had much of a relationship to my academic education. The jobs I’ve had have been relatively mundane. I guess I’m what you would call a bush-league accountant now. I do work for non-profits.
I don’t think my father was stoked on the idea of me going to law school, especially because of his own experiences. He was a law school graduate but never practiced. He just found that wasn’t to his liking. He found it boring, he used to say he had visions of Clarence Darrow but found himself faced with torts and various other mundane subjects and he just lost his enthusiasm for the law. Even though he finished, he never even considered practicing law. Of course, in the mean time he found other diversions…
I guess what led him to focus on becoming what was considered a disc jockey, an interviewer, was—he prided himself on being what he called a street-car student. When he was studying law at the University of Chicago, he’d ride the State Street car south from the hotel his parents managed, where he worked part time. An old men’s hotel on the fringe of the Loop. Not one of the upscale places. So he’d take this marathon street car ride out to the University of Chicago. The transfer point was at 47th and State, so one day he heard this music that really blew him away. At the time it was considered race music. His transfer point was right in the heart of what was known then as the Black Metropolis—it’s now Bronzeville—and he heard this, what was considered race music, coming out of a record store. It was Mahalia Jackson, and it kindled a lifelong interest in music. Especially folk, blues, and gospel . . . so one thing sort of led to another, and I think that’s when he began at the same time to really lose his interest in law…
Music has always been a part of my life, even though I never learned an instrument. I’ve always had fantasies about being able to play the violin and the fiddle. Any variety of genres: classical, folk, whatever, but I never followed through with that. I still have a pretty good voice, though. I sang in the high-school choral groups, a capella choir, the boys chorus. I’ve always been able to carry a tune pretty well.
I always had an intense interest in music of all genres: classical, folk, blues, ‘60s and ‘70s rock. Very eclectic. Popular music of the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond just doesn’t resonate with me. Truth is, I can’t stand it. I realize that a lot of it has a message—I mean the early days, a lot of the early rap stuff—I remember I was very turned off by early rap. Especially the numbers that were misogynistic, as a lot of them were. But I recognize that a lot of contemporary rap and hip-hop has a message and lot of kids like it. It’s just nothing I’ve really been able to get my head around.
I’m a secular Jew and I have no qualms about being identified as being Jewish, but like my folks I consider myself an agnostic, or as my father used to say a cowardly atheist [laughs]. Unlike folks who consider themselves atheist, I’m not quite so certain that there is no greater power out there. There are too many unanswered questions.
Many of my interviewees have told me that they felt like some of those questions were answered in the events surrounding September 11th. How did you experience those days?
I mean—we can’t afford to go off half-cocked as the Bush administration did and that only compounded the tragedy, extended the tragedy to many millions of others, both here and across the ocean, here and in the Middle East in particular. Of course, it’s made many folks here in certain respects more distrusting, even more cynical.
But I want to focus on an anecdote for a minute. On September 11th, I had an appointment with a lawyer. We were working on my father’s will. So I called the lawyer and asked whether I should still come to the office, and as it was, I did go downtown. As I was coming up the elevator in this downtown office building, there were a couple of other guys in the elevator, I guess office workers somewhere else in the building. They were in shirts and ties. One was white, and the other was very swarthy looking—looks as if he could be Middle Eastern—so the white guy said to his colleague, Now, I want you to take care of yourself.
It was pretty clear what he meant. He said, Just take good care of yourself. Be careful. He was genuinely concerned. It’s just one little observation, but it shows that there are folks out there, even in a crisis, who still have have humane values.