History buff has a passion for folk music
October 18, 2013 1:02PM
Professor emeritus Ronald D. Cohen standing beside a statue honoring the Tuskeegee airmen at the Aquatorium in Miller. | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 21, 2013 6:19AM
“In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?”
— Woody Guthrie
I met with professor of history emeritus Ron Cohen at one of my favorite places, the Aquatorium in the Miller neighborhood of Gary. The retired Indiana University professor has a penchant for the past, folk music and Gary. Cohen, 73, and his wife Nancy live in Miller with a parrot named Che.
The professor and I share some of the same political beliefs and interests, including reading and writing. I was delighted when he gave me a signed copy of his book “Work and Sing: A History of Occupational and Labor Union Songs in the United States.”
“I was born in Los Angeles,” Cohen began. “I attended North Hollywood High School; it’s still there. After high school, I went to the University of California Berkeley.
“After Berkeley, I decided to attend grad school at the University of Minnesota. Hubert Humphrey was a member of the faculty back then.”
Quite a difference from sunny California and “Frostbite Falls,” Minnesota.”
“I had never seen snow. I found out quickly what snow was. I froze to death.”
You mentioned Humphrey, wasn’t Bob Dylan from that same neck of the woods?
“Bob Dylan had already left Minnesota by then. I did have his brother, David Zimmerman, as one of my students.”
When did you come to IUN?
“Professor James Lane and I were hired on the same day in February of 1970. My specialty was American colonial history, but I found out that the Gary school system had become the most famous school system in the world — the work-study-play system.”
“Yes. It also was known as the Gary Plan. I continued my research on the Gary schools and Jim (Lane) continued researching Gary proper and doing interviews. We started collecting a lot of stuff which was piled all over our offices. We decided the university should have a public collection. The chancellor supported us as far as putting in an archive space. They also allowed us to hire an archivist.”
Enter Steve McShane.
“Yes, we did a national search and eventually hired Steve. It was the best thing we ever did. The Calumet Regional Archives has grown and grown ever since.”
Prof, let’s switch gears. Folk music. You were nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Historical Album category several years ago.
“It was a five-CD set called ‘The Best of Broadside, 1962-1988.’ It’s about topical songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
You also wrote a biography on Woody Guthrie.
“Pete Seeger said of Woody, ‘I can’t stand him when he’s here and I miss him when he isn’t here.’ I guess Woody would sleep with his clothes and boots on and tear up the sheets. His personal hygiene wasn’t the best, but he was a great performer.”
Huntington’s disease also is known as Woody Guthrie’s disease.
“His mother died of it. He had three children by his first wife — two of them died of it.”
Have you met Pete Seeger?
“Oh, yeah. At 94, Pete’s still going strong. I’ve written a book on Pete Seeger that will be coming out in December. I’ve included an article in the book where he campaigned for Ed Sadlowski when he was running for president of the United Steelworkers union.”
Eddie is an old friend of mine. I was in a play in Chicago called “Unfriendly Fire.” It took place at the Republic Steel union hall and was about the 10 steel workers who were shot in the back and or bludgeoned to death by the Chicago police in 1937. Afterwards, Sadlowski introduced me to Studs Terkel, who attended the play.
“Studs was a great guy.”
Terkel spoke to the audience saying, “This is my kinda crowd, not a yuppie in the joint.” Were men like Woody Guthrie and Studs Terkel, Reds?
Space does not permit me to include all of Ron Cohen’s accomplishments and the deserved accolades bestowed upon him since 1970. Another great read by Cohen — for those who are interested in this region’s past — would be “Children of the Mill: Schooling and Society in Gary, Indiana, 1906-1960.”