Presenting music with Oscar Brown, Jr
BROADCAST: Jun. 6, 1977 | DURATION: 00:39:23
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Studs Terkel Thank you, Norm. Here this morning in the studio, old friend Oscar Brown Jr., one of the rich talents of the city and we'll hear some of Oscar's songs, some of which he is celebrated and celebrated for, as well as new works and thoughts of his and he'll be retrospective and reflective too, knowing Oscar, ever since we were in a new kind of soap opera together back in the '30s.
Studs Terkel It was the '40s. We're jumping around and about. Oscar, you were 15 years old, "Secret City", it was, but of this -- after we hear from Norm Pellegrini. By the way, Oscar opened at The Earl of Old Town this last weekend. But he and his wife, Jean Pace, equally gifted, performing Tuesdays and Wednesdays through the month of June at Earl of Old Town at Wells and North. So, in a moment the songs of Oscar and reflections after Norm Pellegrini, this message from our sponsors. [content removed, see catalog record] You might call that Oscar, games people play.
Oscar Brown Well, it's really hard to describe. Signified is worse than stealing. Now, having said that, it means that to imply things about a person, to suggest things to denigrate a person and to put 'im down --
Oscar Brown Well, 'the dozens' is of course a game, really, a form of insults in which person you insulted that individual by insulting the individual's mother. And I think that came from the fact that slavery was a matriarchal setup. And your mother was your connection and insults to your mother were about the deepest ancestor that you had as far as slavery was concerned. That's about as far back as you could go.
Oscar Brown Signifyin' is a form of insult too, Studs, that is played, it's a folk form of insults and it can, it can be played very skillfully and be very funny when it's played. It can be played unskillfully and become unfunny and a lot of people have been hurt or killed, I suppose, who couldn't signify properly.
Oscar Brown It sounds so naive let me say, I was just listening to that music compared to the music that you hear now, you listen to a Stevie Wonder record, you know, and listen to a record like that, it seems like such a cute little conventional simplistic way of doing things. Today, what, hear 36 track and stuff --
Oscar Brown The sound, yeah, the whole, not only just the technology, but the sophistication of the music. If I'm listening now, I'm playing with my son, my son is now 20 years old. He's the bass player and another 20- year-old youngster is the pianist and other 21-year-old is the drummer, and these kids, man, they are, their whole sophistication about music, their whole idea is so far ahead of where it was for me when I was 20.
Oscar Brown I came out of a bag where I thought, you know ,as I was growing up, that jazz was going to be it. The kind of jazz that Max Roach and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and all those guys. That was -- but that just went on off. I mean, the jazz joints closed, the musicians became more and more introspective to the point where they were no longer communicating with the audiences very much. And the next thing you knew, rock and roll, which was a very simplistic kind of dong dong ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding, kinda little piano lines in it. But that evolved. It started very simply, but it evolved and it combines now some of the best techniques of jazz. If you listen to a Stevie Wonder record or listen to James Brown's horn section --
Oscar Brown Yes.
Oscar Brown Well, the newest thing is a piece of, taken from the book of Genesis. It's called "In De' Beginnin'" and it is a verse story of the evolution and of the creation of man. You wanna hear a little bit?
Oscar Brown Something like that, yeah. It starts out at the same point. "In the middle of the void where a vacuum was employed by a vacancy that's absent from a whole full of nothing more or less than a lost emptiness there had never been a solitary soul. What was missing from the top took this unexpected drop and long before it got the bottom, it was all gone. Since the outside wasn't there when the inside went nowhere, the whole disappeared vanished from then on. And the Lord say, 'This ain't much. I was totally out of touch, I ain't got nowhere, so got nowhere to go. Ain't no one but me around, and I's never yet been found. This existence am a big Z -E-R-O. Seein' nothin' was no fun,Lord say 'Something must be done. Reckon I'll get busy here and create a bit. Let's see, what do I goin' first? I knows. What? The universe! I'll need me lots of room for stuff to fit.' Never being one to shuck, the Lord said, 'This has to work and in nothin' flat had something swell designed. It had galaxies in place each with its own cosmic space operated by a universal mind. He had agencies like fate to control and regulate endless stores of time and and space and energy all vibrating with a force coming out a hidden source and developed from a secret recipe. All to which he set his hand turned out fine as it were grand and for every part he made a counterpart. There was certainty for doubt. Every in had someway out, and at every stop he put in one whole start. T'was splendiferously vast, and he tended it to last him at least a full eternity or two, so the Lord had time arranged to take it all through constant change and replace what done grow old with what grew new. Then the Lord, he struck a spark and he stuck it next to dark, and his whole creation come to life in the light and he say, 'That's good, not bad.' And then another to be had, and he guaranteed the works all his might. Now some complains it have its flaws but I figure that's just 'cause they ain't never seen no universe before. So I was telling them and you here, this'll here have to do, because the Lord ain't promise us he'll show no mo.'"
Studs Terkel That's good, that's good. You know what I like about it, Oscar, is it is a black preacher's vision, isn't it? A very eloquent -- 'cause think of the black preacher, he's a singer, he's a bard, he's a prophet. He's an actor. He's a shepherd. He's all of us, isn't he? And so in a way it's it's making it come down. Bring 'em up, that down and then elevate and down up there. That's good. It's a preacher, isn't it? [Unintelligible] genesis really and it is a variation, think of James Weldon Johnson, the creation, but it is different. They both come to the same conclusion, God does. That's good.
Oscar Brown That's good. not bad. But then, in my, later on, bad comes into it and the Devil comes into it, and Lord with everything he makes, the Lord from time to time it takes and He tries not to put them to the test, but odds he had to keep. Never let him try out sleep, 'til one night He said, "Think I'll test some rest." So he build hisself a cloud. Shushes everything that's loud. And there for the first time stretches out to doze. He no sooner shuts his eyes than he [unintelligible] and deep off into this nightmare the Lord goes. It commences with a cuss: 'Damn you [eyes you're reverse?] then I as come here for to tell you go to hell. Then this ugliness appear. Lord say, 'How you get in here?' Then this ugliness say, 'I ain't gonna tell.' Though the nightmare light were dim, the Lord looked and saw it was Him only with hisself the way he ought not be. Where the love should be t'was hate. And the Lord, He hollered, 'Wait! I ain't going let myself do this to me. I done turned myself about. I must cast my bad self out.' But his ugly bad self say, [unintelligible] 'It don't matter what you say, I believe I just wanna stay, and go into business right here sellin' sin.' The Lord say, 'No, wait!'" Anyway, you get it, so the Lord creates evil out of himself, out of his own nightmare. You know, he creates all things.
Studs Terkel And so you've been working on this and new songs as well. Let's go back to something else now. Your songs, there's one song of yours, written in another Colombia album before the technology, you know, and we hear that about young people, all you kinds of young people. There seems to be an indifference -- seems, seems to be, seemingly, you know, a cool coolness, seemingly a non-feeling of emotion, seemingly. You've got a song there. Let's try that and then we'll take off. "But I Was Cool."
Oscar Brown OK.
Studs Terkel Oh, yeah, it's a way of life. The genesis of that song, Max Roach was going to do a session here and he came, a recording session, this is years ago, and he came up with the idea of his of his playing something and me crying and singing, screaming while he was beating on the drums. Is this about as we beaten and battered and instead of doing, at the time when the time came to do the idea, he just scratched it, he decided he didn't think it was such a good idea, but I was taken with it. And the idea of this screaming, crying character evolved into this song, "But I Was Cool" which really is, as I say, a kind of way of life that a lot of people who behave like that one way or another. The British call it a 'stiff upper lip.'
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel In a way, you know the phrase, a variation be, 'laughing on the outside, crying on the inside' or raging on the inside. But this, the coolness, coming back to [Young, Paul Young?], the coolest is obviously a facade. It seems to be, it has to be sort of a protective covering, I think.
Studs Terkel We know what happens in outbreaks, of course, it does when there are outbreaks, of course, it has to be. Oscar, I'm thinking about you and, incidentally, Oscar Brown and his colleague, Jean Pace, who's a very gifted, both are at The Earl of Old Town, and my regret is she's not here this morning. I want -- I did, but I goofed up. I generally goof up, you know. We know each other on the subject, this is free association we'll play more of Oscar's works, early and new. When the year was 1941. Got it now. There was a new kind of a young people's radio show, called "Secret City", didn't last very long and had a blue collar hero. And that was me. And then it had -- He was a mechanic and it had --
Oscar Brown But it was a great revelation and you know, the opening up of life for me, because here I was, 15 years old at Englewood High School, and I was on the radio, radio at that time was hot stuff, man, there was no television. And to be on the radio and to be earning $64.60 a week which was union scale. You know, Studs, I been an actor since oh, my goodness, I oughta be dues-free by now. I been an actor for a long time. And you even longer.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Thirty-four. I'm thinkin' about you and I, also saw you once you produced, you and a marvelous actor in Fred Pinkard, produced a version of "Lonesome Train", Earl Robinson and "Lonesome Train", you were the narrator, you were the preacher, I think, and Fred was the narrator, or was that DuSable? That was an overwhelming experience with the kids in the chorus and the choir. And it was it was a marvelous experience.
Oscar Brown No, that was Willoughby's brother. I should have to apologize that I don't know. Lord, bring it to me, because he was a marvelous man and he dealt that choir with a firm hand and got a marvelous sound from 'em and it just made for a wonderful show. It was my first experience at directing and being involved in a musical revue because essentially that was what the "Lonesome Train" was, and always --
Oscar Brown Skyloft.
Oscar Brown Yeah, well, actually, Studs, if my memory serves me, "Lonesome Train" and "Waiting for Lefty" were part of two one-acts done back to back at [MacAr?] School, and the chief character in "Waiting for Lefty", Fat was one Studs Terkel.
Oscar Brown Well, and then I had to write. You know, when we start saying that, here we were, young black actors at that time, Fred Pinkard and Janice Kingslow and [Weslin Tilden?], and Sid McCoy, that's right. We were all aspiring you know, to act, there with groups like the DuBois Theater Guild, and the Skyloft Players, but there were no plays. There were no plays. If you wanted to do a play as a Black group you could wind up doing "The Importance of Being Earnest" and nothing seemed more ridiculous to me then or now than a bunch of Black folks playing "The Importance of Being Earnest" or any other, you know, Moliere or British drawing-room comedy. But there was no literature. The best stuff we could come up with would be something like "Waiting for Lefty" or --
Studs Terkel And everything and they of course and in Chicago [Val Ward?] has a group that's very exciting. We're doin' Oscar Brown and we'll more of his -- well, everything, reflections in the songs and more of what he does continuously creating. He and Jean Pace, Oscar Brown Jr. and Jean Pace at The Earl of Old Town Tuesdays and Wednesdays and by the way, it's also, to see Oscar and Jean is, part of it, here there's one dimension of Oscar just the voice, the sound, it's both, of course, Oscar and Jean being gifted actors as well as creative spirits at The Earl of Old Town Tuesdays and Wednesdays through June. And we'll resume in a moment after we hear from Kerry Frumkin and our sponsors.
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Oscar Brown Yes. Well, we did a sort of family production of it at the First Congregational Baptist Church last month, and Africa, who is 8, was Eve, and a little girl down the street, [Shante McSwain?], played Adam, and Jean was the serpent, my daughter Iantha was the Lord, I was the Reverend, and our cousin [Jan Branion?] played the role of the devil, and it was quite quite an effective production and we are hopeful that we're going to be able to do more of it. Perhaps under a more professional sort of --
Studs Terkel Later on we're going to hear a work of Gwendolyn Brooks who is a poet laureate, our Illinois poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner and something of hers she put to music. But before that, "But I Was Cool", I thought of Gwendolyn's poem, one of the poems. You know, "We Cool"? Oh, and she does it so beautifully, these guys in a pool hall, of guys and, I just we, and and sort of a cadence, is, "We Cool." But maybe, maybe not, that's the whole point of what you're saying. Oscar, let's have one foot in the gutter and of this [unintelligible]. Doin' this guy, Oscar, your model was a very marvelous comedian named Dusty Fletcher.
Oscar Brown That's right. That was the model for that character and I in fact used, he used to have a line, "Look at that old lady up there, lookin', yeah, it's just me and I'm drunk again." Well, I just use that as a part of this character and set the verse to Clark Terry's music, that was a jazz instrumental when I first heard it. You know, then recorded it.
Oscar Brown Yes, frequently. And they -- You know, when the Regal Theater stood there, at 47th and South Park, what's now King Drive, Dusty Fletcher used to come there frequently and I saw him many times there and saw him in a couple of nightclubs, too.
Studs Terkel There was a gap, though, of many years, you know, he was, he was, 'cause I remember Dusty Fletcher in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds, was called, I forget when, it was the '30s and he was doing this character you just did. And he was there with, I forget, he was sort of the foil drunk and I forgot who the woman was, might have been, wasn't Ethel Waters, it was a marvelous actress, funny. And she would just, you know, she would just slap him down, but there he was, Dusty Fletcher.
Oscar Brown He could take great pratfalls, he could climb up a ladder and balance on a ladder, he was marvelous, he was not just a comedian but he was a clown. He was an, he was an acrobatic clown. He was a blackface clown and the character that he played was just tremendously rowdy irreverent drunk.
Studs Terkel It was a combination of, there was Charlie Chaplin there because in the use of body, that was Chaplin, in other things he could have been James Barton, W.C. Fields, combination, but he was the idea the all --
Oscar Brown I remember his work on a ladder, he used to get up around and he would he would climb up a ladder as if he was climbing into his second-story window, and he was just balancing up there. He was an acrobat. He had to be, or he'd killed himself.
Studs Terkel You mentioned Regal, of course, the Regal Theater, there were certain theaters, still exist, some do but don't have the acts because now because of movies and TV, because of TV primarily the acts that came with the performers, the Regal in Chicago, the Apollo in New York, the Howard, but the Regal, and whether it be Billie Holiday, whether it be Moms Mabley or the Basie would be just --
Oscar Brown Oh, we used to see marvelous acts because that used to happen at the Chicago Theater, too, Muhammad Ali's playing in "I'm the Greatest" now. And that's a great change from what used to be happening there. But in earlier times I've seen Cab Calloway there, I saw Josephine Baker on the stage there at the Chicago Theater, and the Regal was just marvelous source of all kinds of entertainment --
Studs Terkel So all this played an influence on you, Oscar, I'm thinking about you living in Chicago, south side most of your life and all the influences were brought to bear upon you. What, what else now before we hear, we're going to come to Gwendolyn Brooks in a moment, what you did with her poem, how you put it to music. One of her poems. What else. In the mill now with you?
Oscar Brown Oh, well, immediately I'm going to do, there's going to be a reading of a play that I've done at the LaSalle Street Church at 1136 North LaSalle Street on Friday and Saturday at 8:00 this weekend. The play is called "1869" and it's never been performed and the reading is I guess really an ego trip for the author. That's me. So that I can hear how it works and get an audience response to it, in not a finished production form but just in a reading, a staged reading. I wish you could come. It -- pardon me. It was taken -- what I did, I saw "Oedipus Rex", in a movie version and 20 years ago and I was reading --
Oscar Brown Yes.
Oscar Brown That's correct, that's the one. And in there they had a story of a man and woman who got married and were reminiscing and discovered that they were mother and son. And so this put me in mind of then taking the Oedipus tale and putting it over into Reconstruction time and I started working on that idea about 20 years ago doing the research for it, and it got to be so tedious there was such an involved amount of research plus the writing to do that I put a pin in that point and went on to work on "Ticks and Company and some other things and not until about 1975, maybe almost 20 years later, I would say, I was in Oakland, California with time on my hands and a nice studio in which to work and I wrote two plays in about six weeks, one of which was this Oedipus thing. What I did was to take the original "Oedipus Rex" and and just paraphrase it. And by the time '75 came along, Lerone Bennett had done all the research that I was having to do, he had done and put into a book called "Black Reconstruction" so I had Lerone Bennett's "Black Reconstruction" on one side of the typewriter, and Aeschylus' "Oedipus Rex" --
Oscar Brown He's a senior editor at the Johnson Publishing Company and, you know, a marvelous learned man and really his work was extremely helpful. So anyway that's another of the things that I'm doing. We're going to read this as I say at the LaSalle Street Church at 1136 North LaSalle at 8 o'clock Friday and Saturday. And we like to have people who would be interested in that to come --
Studs Terkel Next
Oscar Brown When I think of Gwendolyn Brooks, I think of the Blackstone Rangers and the writers workshop that she developed during the time we were working with them just 10 years ago. Gwen came to work with the youngsters to set up a poetry writers workshop, and I think she had a very profound influence on the lives of numbers of young people. And I believe they had a profound influence on her.
Studs Terkel Even now, this morning, before you came in, some mail came, and one is a notice of award winners, young children of Chicago won Gwendolyn Brooks scholarships her encouraging the writing of poetry in the young and the very [unintelligible].
Oscar Brown I think she would be, you know, as well as being a poet she is an inspirer of poets and of young people. She is a marvelous marvelous woman. Let me tell you a little anecdote about this, Studs, this song "Elegy", the recording of it came out in 1962 or three and was released as a single by Columbia and we were, had high hopes that it was going to be successful, they budgeted some promotion money for the publishing company, budgeted some money for it. And the NAACP in Los Angeles and in New York objected to this song because of the use of the term 'Black.'
Oscar Brown She wrote a letter to the publishing company, Gwendolyn Brooks did, that was just so beautiful. It was simply she said that she couldn't imagine why they found her poem objectionable. And that she she couldn't find any words to defend it. It's all she could do was repeat it. And so she wrote it again for them, you know, she just wrote the poem, the letter consisted of the poem, and they were fools, they were fools. There's such an eloquent beautiful poem, I that --
Oscar Brown Yes, yes. Just -- I heard the blues in it. I heard a dirge. And we arranged it sort of like a New Orleans funeral. I've never been in New Orleans but I've seen them in pictures and heard it on records and that whole idea of a marching band going to the cemetery that the conception of this Ralph Burns took that conception and I think made a marvelous arrangement of it, and as I said, when we released it, we had high hopes of it, it's still one of my favorite of all the recordings I've done.
Studs Terkel Mine, too. Oscar Brown's singing and music, arrangement of Ralph Burns to the poetry, the eloquence of Gwendolyn Brooks' "Elegy." [content removed, see catalog record] "Elegy", a tribute to, well, it's Gwendolyn Brooks' words, Oscar Brown's performance.
Studs Terkel And Oscar, I'm thinking of all the influences on you, Gwendolyn, of course, many vaudeville, jazz music, the church and street sounds, street cries, today everything is pretty much processed and cellophane wrapped and supermarketed and there are those sounds and you recreate those, one of the first things you did when you went out on your own was just recreate those sounds, that man calling out, different people, the hawkers.
Oscar Brown Those street cries of, you know, the rag man, the watermelon man, those are the songs that always sang to me from the earliest time, from the alleys in Chicago. There always seemed to be a lot of music and then you hear, you know, songs from Jamaica from the Caribbean or from some other countries that was supposed to be exotic sounds. It seemed to me we had our own exotic sounds right here in Chicago.
Studs Terkel Yeah. What's her name, Miss Dowdy, I forget her first name, she was the strawberry lady in "Porgy and Bess", she said Gershwin, she she gave Gershwin the stuff, the strawberry lady's cry, she says, her mother, her and her mother in South Carolina, sing it, and he said, "Just do it the way you -- just do it."
Oscar Brown Some of the street cries? Oh, sure. The, well, the rag man went: [sings rag man's cry]. What he was saying was, "rags and old iron." And what I didn't know that, Studs, until I was 30 years old, my uncle Walker Beck was one of these people who had all sorts of information about every imaginable thing. He was sort of the Studs Terkel of our family, and he knew, you know, you'd raise a question, well, he knew what it meant. So, I was singing, "[unintelligible]." So what did that mean? and he said, "Well, that was rags and old iron." And further investigation told I discovered these rag men were mostly immigrants who would come over fleeing pogroms from the Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe and a lot of guys had been scholars and cantors in the church. And when they got over here there was nothing for them to do in their field of work. So many of them became just junk men going around from place to place. And they used the incantation of the church as they as they cried out for the stuff that they were selling. Or not really, buying, actually, you would sell them coathangers if you would call, in all kinds of newspapers and bits of rags, 'cause rags and old iron is what they were after. And then they would be [unintelligible]. Or they would be the watermelon man. He would go, "Hey, oh, hey-O, get your watermelon, here, watermelon man, watermelon man." Well, actually, the watermelon man, you don't have to talk about him as a was, 'cause he is a is. There's still spots in Chicago where right this summer you're going to hear that cry. You'll hear the watermelon man still at work. But most of them are gone. Deacon Hope, the vegetable man, "Yes, ma'am, vegetable man. [unintelligible] sweet potato, I got your freestone peaches, five cents a pail. I got collard greens, stringless beans." On Friday you'd hear, "Chicago Defender, Chicago Defender Paper." That was the Chicago Defender, which came out on Fridays in those days, and was sold out on the streets by newsboys and all over the neighborhood on a Friday, that cry, that song was sung. I've been trying for years to write a song to that, maybe someday I'll get it, but I haven't gotten it yet, but that's that cry, "Chee-ca-go Defender." They still sing it.
Oscar Brown Well, "Rags and Old Iron" is one of the songs that's that's one of my strongest numbers and perhaps the strongest number I have in my whole repertoire. And another is "Watermelon Man." And actually there are two versions of the "Watermelon Man" cry, I do a male version and a female version, and in the show we did here in the eleven years ago at the Harper Theater called "Summer in the City", we combined those two songs and had a dance thing going.
Studs Terkel You're doing this, of course, a lot of this is being done, much of Oscar's rich repertoire is being performed by himself as well as Jean Pace's own work, too. Oscar Brown and Jean Pace together Tuesdays and Wednesdays at The Earl of Old Town through the month of June and it's quite an experience, a very exhilarating one, seeing hearing both. You know, we can end with, perhaps, the snake, way back we opened up with signifying monkey and a variety -- and implications. The Snake has all sorts -- we think of the snake in the Garden of Eden, of course, and all there's wisdom to the serpent. At the same time all sorts of other aspects.
Studs Terkel As we let it go at that. Oscar Brown, "The Snake" and many other songs and works and offerings. We hear that now and at The Earl of Old Town Tuesdays, Wednesdays through June with Jean Pace. Thank you very much, Oscar.
Studs Terkel And so Oscar Brown and "The Snake." This is our program for this morning, and after we hear from Kerry Frumkin and this message from our sponsors, we'll speak of tomorrow's program and guest.
Kerry Frumkin The Studs Terkel program is brought to you on Mondays by H.C. Nahigian and Sons. Purchasing an oriental rug for your home can be a fascinating and gratifying experience when you visit H.C. Nahigian and Sons on Golf Road in Skokie. The Nahigians have just received an outstanding shipment of new rugs from Iran and India. Included in the collection are a variety of rugs that can be used as wall hangings. There are many prayer rugs, rugs with animal and hunting designs, as well as fine pieces in floral and geometric designs. Each rug has been carefully selected by members of the Nahigian family. Your assurance of top quality and good value. Visit H.C. Nahigian and Sons display rooms at 5140 Golf Road in Skokie, just west of the Old Orchard shopping center. They're open weekdays and Saturdays until 5 p.m., Monday and Thursday 'til 9 p.m. The phone number, 676-2500. Now with a word about tomorrow's program, here is Studs.
Studs Terkel Tomorrow my guest is Jonathan Katz and it's an all-encompassing book, it's called "The Gay History of the United States", and it's a story of some historical readings and writings and passages of the life and the ordeals and challenges of the gay people of the United States. Tomorrow when Jonathan Katz is guest. Until then, take it easy, but take it.
Kerry Frumkin You've been listening to Studs Terkel heard on WFMT each weekday from 10 a.m. 'til 11 and on Thursday evenings at 10:30. On Mondays, H.C. Nahigian and Sons on Golf Road in Skokie bring you Studs.