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Remembering Steve Goodman

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I get a lot of television research questions. Recently, a West Coast writer, Clay Eals (from Washington state) contacted me with an odd one. He was finishing off a new book on Chicago folk legend Steve Goodman, gone now more than two decades. Clay wanted to check the correct way to describe the size of the television audience for Johnny Carson's Tonight show when Steve Goodman appeared on the program in 1979. Was the audience “millions” or “tens of millions”?

Essentially, he was checking the accuracy of a modifying phrase. Well, attention to that kind of detail always impresses me, so I quickly answered the question via email.

But digging through those old ratings statistics stirred my affections for the music scene of that era. In my email back to Clay, I also mentioned that I had seen Steve Goodman perform some amazing shows, in particular at Northwestern University in the early 1970s. I even referenced a joke at one show that Goodman had made about Arlo Guthrie's cover version of the song City of New Orleans.

He wanted to know more. To further spur my memory, he sent a complete list of Goodman performances at Northwestern, and mentioned he had been listening to tapes from some of them.

I could still picture the fans jammed into a tiny campus venue, the Amazingrace coffee house. We were all standing close to each other, and close to Goodman and his band. Close enough to be looking straight at Steve Goodman and thinking: Gee, he really is short.

As I remembered it, Goodman had just finished singing City of New Orleans when someone in the crowd yelled: Yea, Arlo. There seemed a moment of annoyance on his face, then Goodman launched into a quick parody riff that exaggerated Arlo Guthrie's style, doing a few lines from the song in a more drawn out, nasal tone. A quick, but effective jibe that let Goodman reclaim his own song.

Clay Eals liked that story and said it fit the character he had come to know in his research. He then said that he was shoe-horning this anecdote into his book, right on the eve of publication.

I thanked him and told him I was jealous that through his research he had the opportunity to listen to some of those great old performances again, on audio tape.

He corrected me with a heartfelt observation of his own. He said that he had only been listening to tapes of shows from back then. I had been there. I got to see it happen in person. I was the one to be envied.

He had me there. Eals had seen Goodman twice on stage toward the end of his life. I had been there in his prime.

Clearly, I love history and historical research.

But in a world of YouTube clips and instant playbacks and historical archive collections, nothing tops that moment of in-person first experience. Fresh. Unencumbered.

I still feel it. I still get excited today at new shows and new performances. These are events that will be chronicled … later.

At the moment of creation, though, they deserve to be appreciated, savored, and enjoyed. And then … remembered.

For 848 on Chicago Public Radio, I'm Wally Podrazik
Revised draft notes copyright 2007 by Walter J. Podrazik

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