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Forgotten Files, Reconsidered Legacies in WFMT’s Print Archive

Right now WFMT is undertaking a momentous task– digitally archiving 45 years of “The Studs Terkel Show” and making it freely available for public use. His seminal radio program captured the moods and opinions of entire generations of thinkers, politicians, artists and everyday people. Digitizing the show has been as much about preservation as it has been about giving a new generation of people access to these histories and license to make compelling media from them. In fact, we’ve already begun to see the creative reuse of classic interviews with some of our partners at The Pop-Up Archive, The Poetry Foundation and The Third Coast Audio Festival.

But of course, when archiving any collection, unexpected and often forgotten material turns up. At WFMT there’s a large, splitting-at-the-seams box of printed materials collected during Studs’ lifetime–things that won’t necessarily be thrown away, but won’t be spotlighted in any collection of Studs’ work, either. Most of it is news clippings, memos and reviews–but a few weeks ago I came across the “Miscellaneous” folder–a collection of the harder to define, and therefore more interesting, parts of the printed archives. Between some of Studs’ hand written notes, unpublished essays and forgotten photos I found the obituaries of two Chicago giants–Mahalia Jackson and the late Major Daley.

Major Daley’s obituary is a thoroughly marked-up rough draft–written on a typewriter with notes in the margins, there and dashes and ellipses everywhere–the common radio script format. But no one is certain if this obituary ever aired–it’s four pages of acerbic tone probably deemed too inappropriate for broadcasting. “Even to those of us, who found so much of his work appalling, his death is astonishing. Such power, no more,” wrote Studs.  For him, this was an opportunity to address and remind the mourning public of Daley’s Chicago: “the most segregated large city in the world outside of Johannesburg,” with a police force that spied on it’s citizens, that gave tax breaks to the wealthy while running de-functional public schools. His denunciations go on as he presents “the Emperor in tattered robes, a broken man.” But despite Studs’ desire to expose the “myth of Daley’s… surrealistic tenure,” he does genuinely mourn–not for the man Daley–but for the people of Chicago who felt adrift without their icon. “That all men are mortal is the awful truth our city fathers have refused to come to terms with” he writes, “It goes for millions of other Chicagoans, as well. At this moment, I stunned, am of that number.”

The second obituary I found that Studs wrote was of his dear friend and gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. The magnetism between the two of them is heard is the easy way they laughed with each other on air. And that laughter is echoed in his farewell to her, “Died on Joy on Road to Jubilee,” in little anecdotes he shares with readers. Studs remembers what her hands looked like and why she thought of them as integral to her work–”My hands demonstrate what I feel inside. My hands, my feet. I throw my whole body to say that all that is within me. The mind and the voice by themselves are not sufficient.” He recounts a time when they walked down the street together and children, older women and grocery store workers came up to Mahalia thanking her.  She was an extraordinarily talented woman, whom Studs memorialized as an artist and as an important cultural figure for working-class black Americans within the Civil Rights Movement. “Thus,” he writes, “her art endures; and though doctors tell us she died of heart failure, she really died of joy. And of hope in times of such despair.”

When I first encountered these obituaries it was hard not thinking of Studs’ own legacy. How can his voice, now heard only in recordings but certainly not forgotten, help us make sense of what is politically, socially and even emotionally significant in our own time?

For Studs, I think the answer was a simple one–anything that piqued his curiosity was of significance, and anyone with a story was important. The two obituaries in the archives encapsulate this. As a lover of music and everyday people, a political agitator and cultural critic, both Mahalia Jackson and Mayor Daley were figures Studs asked the public to take a second look at–to make us reconsider the given, and listen to the unheard. And when the archives have been fully digitized we hope you take that chance to re-listen and make something new with these histories.

- by Analeah Rosen