Louis “Studs” Terkel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer and oral historian, hosted a daily nationally syndicated radio broadcast show from Chicago’s WFMT station from 1952 to 1997. Studs’s curious, inquisitive nature led him to interview people from all walks of life over the course of his career. For WFMT alone, he conducted more than 5,000 interviews. Before he worked for WFMT, Studs had a radio program called The Wax Museum on WENR in Chicago. It was on this radio network that Studs first featured the glorious voice of Mahalia Jackson.
Studs heard Mahalia sing for the first time around 1946. He was in a record store in Chicago when Mahalia’s voice rang out over the store’s speakers. Studs was captivated; he had to meet the woman who possessed that remarkable voice. At that time, Mahalia was gaining fame as a singer of gospels and spirituals in black churches both within Chicago and outside of it, as she did a fair amount of touring around the country. Beyond these black communities, however, Mahalia wasn’t yet known. With a little sleuthing, Studs discovered where she regularly sang: the Greater Salem Baptist Church on the South Side of Chicago. Studs went to the church, introduced himself to Mahalia, and invited her to sing on his radio program. Studs and Mahalia developed a close friendship over the ensuing decades, and they occasionally worked together professionally. As Mahalia rose to international fame and became known as the greatest gospel singer of her time, she and Studs never lost contact.
In researching WFMT’s Studs Terkel Radio Archive, I found several broadcasts when Studs featured Mahalia and her recordings on his show. Two broadcasts in particular stood out. The first broadcast occurred in 1963, when the pair sat down for a conversation that covered a wide range of topics, including Mahalia’s experiences of working in the South, the continuing hardships she faced being a woman of color, and the civil rights efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and many others (including Mahalia, who was a staunch supporter of Dr. King). The second broadcast dates from 1957; it features Mahalia performing a number of gospels and spirituals for a live audience at a hotel in Chicago. In crafting my composition, I decided to highlight many of the salient points of Studs and Mahalia’s 1963 discussion, with a musical performance from the 1957 concert featured prominently in the work.
Glorious Mahalia consists of five movements. In movement 1, Mahalia discusses the origin and meaning of the spiritual “Hold on.” In “Stave in the ground” (movement 2), she and Studs talk about the work she did when living in the South, and the continuing prejudice she faced. This is followed by a more heated discussion between Studs and Mahalia in “Are you being treated right” (movement 3). The fourth movement features Mahalia’s soulful performance of the spiritual “Sometime I feel like a motherless child.” The piece concludes with “This world will make you think,” in which Mahalia speaks of her hope that we can unite as one nation.
Kronos Quartet commissioned Glorious Mahalia for Carnegie Hall’s The ’60s: The Years that Changed America festival. I wish to thank Kronos Quartet’s violinist David Harrington for suggesting Mahalia Jackson’s interviews with Studs Terkel as the topic for the piece, as well as Tony Macaluso, director of the WFMT Radio Network and the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, and Allison Schein, archivist for the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, for their help in locating and securing my chosen broadcasts.