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Mack McCormick’s Lengthy, Tortured Quest to Discover the Actual Robert Johnson

Mack McCormick’s Lengthy, Tortured Quest to Discover the Actual Robert Johnson

2023-04-10 01:02:50

Almost every thing we thought we knew about Robert Johnson was unsuitable. The biographical information that historians had gathered in regards to the King of the Delta Blues Singers, the Grandfather of Rock and Roll, an inspiration to Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones? The man from Mississippi whose face was on a postage stamp? 

Nearly all of it was unsuitable. 

And I had the proof in my palms: a secret manuscript about Johnson’s life discovered within the archive of Houston folklorist and document producer Robert “Mack” McCormick. This wasn’t simply any archive. On the time, it was some of the sought-after collections within the nation—the Library of Congress needed it, and so did the Smithsonian and the Rock & Roll Corridor of Fame. Rock star Jack White was all in favour of it, as had been Austin’s Dolph Briscoe Center and San Marcos’s Wittliff Collections. The archive had as soon as stuffed virtually each nook of Mack’s dwelling—dozens of file drawers and bins full of tens of hundreds of paperwork, photographs, and recordings. Mack’s laptop was stuffed with nonetheless extra information—manuscripts, performs, interviews. The archive was so huge that Mack gave it a reputation: the Monster. 

Mack had died just some months earlier than, and now I used to be studying a manuscript he had labored on for nearly fifty years—a e-book that numerous music followers had been ready to learn for many years. Not solely had Mack by no means printed it, he had apparently by no means even proven it to anybody. I felt like I used to be studying one of many Lifeless Sea Scrolls. 

Mack was an evocative, literate author, and in these chapters he vividly re-created the American South of the thirties, the place and time when Johnson wrote and carried out the songs that made him well-known. He had even talked to individuals who had met the elusive Johnson—a person mythologized as having offered his soul to the satan to turn out to be a virtuosic guitarist—and who remembered issues Johnson had stated. I used to be transfixed.

Robert Johnson in Memphis, circa 1936.
Robert Johnson in Memphis, circa 1936.Courtesy of Michael Johnson/Malaco Music Group

However the extra I learn, the extra confused I grew. Some passages contradicted earlier issues Mack had written. Others appeared to defy widespread sense. Nonetheless others had been somewhat too literate.

I used to be baffled. Mack and I had been associates, in a approach. Over the course of almost a decade and a half, I had spent numerous hours with him, a lot of it in late-night dialog, speaking about his penchant for solitude, his writing, his capability to resolve seemingly unsolvable mysteries—and his incapacity to complete this e-book. We spoke of his love for giant band jazz, barrelhouse piano, and the poems of Emily Dickinson, a fellow lonely recluse who nonetheless managed to seek out magnificence and hope on this planet. I favored to suppose I knew Mack in addition to anybody did. And but, as I contemplated the proof in entrance of me, I used to be beginning to suppose I didn’t know him in any respect.

That was seven years in the past. On April 4, Mack’s manuscript, Biography of a Phantom, was lastly printed, greater than 5 many years after he began it. But it surely’s very totally different from the pages I held in my palms again in 2016. In components of the e-book, Mack’s presence outweighs Johnson’s—and to not Mack’s profit. By the final web page, Mack has turn out to be the villain of his personal life’s work.

Mack’s favourite Dickinson poem begins, “That is my letter to the World that by no means wrote to me.” In the event you’re accustomed to the poem, you recognize that it ends, “Decide tenderly—of Me.” As Mack’s pal, I’m going to strive to do this for him. Although he made it actually exhausting, as a result of plenty of what I assumed I knew about Mack was all unsuitable.

Mack McCormick in his Houston home, in 2002.
Mack McCormick in his Houston dwelling, in 2002.{Photograph} by Dan Winters

The primary time I rapped on Mack’s door was on a sizzling September afternoon in 2001. Two small gargoyle tchotchkes and a satan figurine stood puny sentinel by the entrance window. A handwritten notice taped to the door learn “Don’t knock till 1 pm or later.” 

I used to be there due to Robert Johnson. I’d first heard of him after I was a teen dwelling in San Antonio, in all probability from an article in Rolling Stone. Johnson’s songs, which conjured up a darkish cosmos of hellhounds and crossroads out of nothing however his voice and acoustic guitar, had little in widespread with the trendy rock I spent most of my time listening to. I bear in mind poring over the liner notes of the 1961 Johnson assortment, King of the Delta Blues Singers, and being shocked to see that he had recorded a lot of the songs in 1936 on the Gunter Lodge, just some miles from the place my household lived. Over time I learn lots about music, and virtually anytime anybody wrote something about Johnson or Texas blues, Mack’s identify got here up. He was the person who had uncovered most of what we knew about Johnson’s life however by no means managed to complete his e-book on him. So after I found, in 2001, that Mack lived in Houston, I wrote him a letter saying I needed to take a street journey with him to San Antonio to speak about his seek for Johnson and write about it for Texas Month-to-month

Mack wrote again one of many strangest letters I’ve ever acquired. “A quoggy irony has descended,” it started, sending me to the dictionary. He stated he wasn’t all in favour of speaking about Johnson—he had lately been sued by Johnson’s inheritor and was cautious of claiming something publicly. However he was getting previous, and he was frightened about his life’s work being misplaced to time. Come to Houston, he stated, and profile the Monster. I jumped on the likelihood. 

Mack opened the door and welcomed me in. He was 71 and gradual transferring, with white hair and enormous ears. His workplace was lined with towers of lengthy, old style file cupboards; down a brief hallway, the again room was full of cabinets holding bins of reel-to-reel tapes and nonetheless extra file drawers. Two of the tall cupboards had been certain by metal chains and held quick by padlocks. 

Mack lived alone, and we sat in the lounge, which was cluttered with stacks of papers, books full of Put up-it notes, and banker’s bins stuffed with information. A guitar as soon as performed by the bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins leaned towards a wall. I regarded round and shivered. I’d by no means felt so near a lot hidden historical past.

I spent a few days with Mack, speaking about his lengthy profession. Effectively, I listened, Mack talked. He was a spellbinding storyteller, a bohemian Renaissance man spinning from one subject to a different as I struggled to maintain up. He’d begin with Blind Willie Johnson and pivot to the Voyager spacecraft and wind up with the Chuck Wagon Gang. He had a wry humorousness and wasn’t afraid to make enjoyable of himself. He was at all times prepared to indicate me a number of the unreleased tapes he’d made from seminal blues musicians corresponding to Mance Lipscomb and Gray Ghost or information with names like “Black Rodeo” and “Zydeco: How is it spelt?” 

I couldn’t get sufficient. Mack would make us gin and tonics, and we’d speak till it was supper time. On the way in which out the door, he would cease, flip, and name out loudly, “We’ll be again in somewhat bit, Lorraina!”—simply in case somebody exterior was watching. He was so frightened about thieves that he claimed he stored a few of his archive at a secret spot within the mountains of Mexico. 

He talked about his household, his well being, his unpublished works. He was manic-depressive, he stated, and had “some harmful block” that stored him from ending his books. This didn’t stop him from beginning new tasks, which he did on a regular basis. “I’m the king of unfinished manuscripts,” he stated, noting at the least six, together with the Johnson e-book, which he didn’t wish to discuss. Besides when he did. It was clear that Mack was nonetheless obsessive about telling Johnson’s story.

Inside one of the Monster’s file cabinets.
Inside one of many Monster’s file cupboards.Michael Corridor

Mack was an solely youngster—born in Pittsburgh, in 1930, to folks who had been X-ray technicians. They separated when he was two, and he was raised in numerous cities, largely by his mom, with whom he was shut. Mack modified colleges typically and didn’t have plenty of associates; he hung out glued to the radio, listening to the music of the period. He and his mother moved to Houston when he was sixteen, and Mack, a shy child and music nerd, whiled away the hours studying, writing, and listening to jazz. 

The birthplace of jazz wasn’t far-off, so Mack hitchhiked to New Orleans, the place he met an inscrutable document collector named Orin Blackstone, who was engaged on a set of books known as Index to Jazz. Blackstone requested the teenager to be the Texas editor of the ultimate two books and discover jazz and blues 78-rpm information made within the state. The assembly modified Mack’s life. He had by no means favored being an introvert, and now, working as a discipline researcher, he was pushed to attach with folks, hitching out into the agricultural areas round Houston and knocking on doorways, in search of previous information. 

In 1947 his mom, who labored at an osteopath’s workplace, launched him to certainly one of her sufferers, Invoice Quinn, who owned the music label Gold Star Information, and the person invited the tall, skinny child to a recording session. That day, Mack met Lightnin’ Hopkins, who recorded for Gold Star however was largely unknown exterior Texas. Mack was getting an schooling within the Houston music demimonde, and he dropped out of highschool and started selling massive band reveals. He additionally turned the Texas correspondent for DownBeat, the jazz journal. His writing was sensible and humorous—in a evaluate of a Stan Kenton present he famous “the completely tasteless trumpet acrobatics of Maynard Ferguson.”

However Mack had been affected by bouts of tension and even nervous breakdowns, which in all probability led to his incapacity to carry a job for lengthy. He spent his twenties drifting amongst posts—barge electrician, short-order cook dinner, cabbie. Driving a taxi took him throughout Houston, the place he heard every kind of music: blues, swing, Czech songs, conjunto. He started recording a few of it, and in 1959 he put a mic in entrance of Hopkins. The sensible however mercurial Hopkins introduced out an untapped ambition in Mack, who was wanting to carry the bluesman to the burgeoning people viewers. And it labored. Mack produced and wrote the liner notes for a number of Hopkins albums and helped him get gigs in entrance of built-in audiences in Houston. Inside a yr Hopkins was taking part in on a invoice with Joan Baez and Pete Seeger at Carnegie Corridor.

Mack’s work with Hopkins drew the eye of a younger California blues fan named Chris Strachwitz, who needed to start out a roots-music document label. In 1960 Strachwitz got here to Houston and met up with Mack. The pair drove across the rural space northwest of Houston knocking on doorways and in search of musicians to document. They heard a couple of 65-year-old sharecropper and guitar participant named Mance Lipscomb, discovered him in Navasota, and persuaded him to document proper then. Lipscomb’s album was the primary launch for Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Information (the label would ultimately put out lots of of albums), and Mack, once more, wrote the liner notes. That LP helped flip Lipscomb right into a people darling; over the following few years he signed to a serious label after which appeared at California’s Monterey Folks Competition, alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Mack cherished knocking on doorways and knew that what he was discovering behind them—the music, the musicians, the historical past—wanted to be documented. So he started collaborating with the British scholar Paul Oliver on a e-book tracing the origins of Texas blues. The thought was easy: Mack would do a lot of the analysis, and Oliver would do a lot of the writing. Mack was so passionate about his job that in 1960 he took a job as a census taker in Houston’s Fourth Ward; after asking residents his official questions, he would ask them what he actually needed to know: did anybody in the home play music? He would head out into East Texas, approaching locals in locations the place, he wrote on the time, “Suspicion and indifference are the everyday masks which confront a stranger.” Relying on the state of affairs, he may very well be gruff like a cop or earnest like a schoolboy. He would cease within the county seat, strategy a gaggle of males taking part in dominoes, and ask if he may watch. “Get pleasant with folks,” he instructed me. “After some time, ask a bunch of questions without delay, get them agitated, sit again, and so they begin answering them.” He was continually seeking out expertise; if he was sufficiently impressed by musicians he noticed on a road nook, he’d document them. On the finish of the journey, Mack would label his tapes and sort up his notes and put them in folders—after which into the Monster. 

He went locations nobody had ever searched earlier than. In Wortham he tracked down the sister of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who instructed him that her brother would stroll by way of the streets taking part in the guitar, utilizing the echo of his notes to seek out his approach, a lot as a bat used sonar. Mack tracked down tales of the bluesman Lead Belly close to tiny De Kalb and located individuals who he stated remembered the singer’s early days—together with family members of two males he had killed. Mack recorded cowboy songs, truck-driving songs, soiled songs. He even began his personal document label, however he put out just one album earlier than it fell aside. 

Mack’s psychological well being wasn’t getting any higher. He can be struck by, as he wrote Oliver, “weird funks which overcome me every now and then bringing apathy and leaving me in dysfunction.” Mack discovered some solace with a Houston lady named Mary Badeaux, whom he married in 1964. And his fame as a folklorist continued to develop. In 1965 he was requested to carry a jail crew to sing work songs on the Newport Folks Competition, in Rhode Island. He put collectively an advert hoc group of ex-convicts dwelling in a Houston midway home who chopped wooden whereas they sang. Mack would later declare that when Bob Dylan and his band refused to stop jamming throughout the sound examine, Mack unplugged the PA. Quickly the Smithsonian employed him to placed on festivals all around the nation that includes artists as various because the Georgia Sea Island Singers and Invoice Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.  

However one musician captivated him greater than all of the others. 

McCormick's 1968 field trip map, showing his round-trip route from Houston to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, in Washington, D.C., with fieldwork forays in between.
McCormick’s 1968 discipline journey map, exhibiting his round-trip route from Houston to the Smithsonian Folklife Competition, in Washington, D.C., with fieldwork forays in between.Courtesy of Susannah Nix/Robert “Mack” McCormick Assortment, Archives Middle, Nationwide Museum of American Historical past

Mack had first heard of Robert Johnson in 1946, when Blackstone confirmed him certainly one of his Johnson 78s, however he didn’t turn out to be a fan till he dove into the identical 1961 compilation that received me began. Little was identified on the time about Johnson apart from the declare, typically attributed to the bluesman Son Home, that Johnson had offered his soul to the satan in an effort to play so nicely. Throughout Mack’s travels, he had began to collect info on Johnson, together with, in 1969, his 1938 demise certificates. By then Mack had turn out to be obsessive about, in his phrases, this “darkish younger fury that reveals one thing in regards to the American expertise.”

Mack ventured to cities and cities in Mississippi that the singer talked about in his songs and buttonholed complete strangers. In 1970 he traveled to tiny Robinsonville, simply south of Memphis, which he had been instructed was Johnson’s hometown. Mack climbed onto a yellow college bus that served as a “rolling retailer” for sharecroppers and started asking about Johnson. He was met with clean stares till a person stated, “You imply Robert Spencer.” Earlier than Mack knew it, he discovered associates and distant family members of the guitarist, who was identified by multiple identify. These folks knew about Johnson, his brother, mom, and sisters. Mack additionally interviewed a girl named Virgie Mae Cain, who had had a baby with Johnson named Claud and gave Mack a photograph of her son. In Greenwood, Mississippi, the place Johnson died, Mack discovered a number of individuals who stated Johnson had been poisoned by a jealous husband. 

Johnson’s sisters had been initially suspicious of the pushy white historian, however he charmed his approach into their houses, and so they started filling within the particulars of their brother’s life.

Step-by-step and telephone name by telephone name, Mack managed to trace down two of Johnson’s sisters, Bessie Hines and Carrie Thompson, who lived in Maryland. Each had been initially suspicious of the pushy white historian, however he charmed his approach into their houses, visiting a number of instances in the summertime of 1972. The 2 started filling within the particulars of their brother’s life: when he was born, who his mother and father had been, the place he grew up. There was even an off-the-cuff reference to the recording periods that will flip Johnson right into a legend: Thompson instructed Mack that her brother as soon as excitedly requested her, “Sister Carrie, you recognize the place I been?”

“No,” she stated, “the place on earth have you ever been?”

“I been to Texas,” he replied. “I made some information.”

The sisters gave Mack particulars that fleshed out their brother’s story: how he purchased an inexpensive guitar as a teen, how he’d play on the levee at Robinsonville, how his first spouse had died in childbirth—and the way it took him a very long time to recover from it. The sisters loaned Mack a number of photographs, together with certainly one of younger Johnson with Thompson’s son Lewis in a white sailor’s uniform. Mack additionally received them to signal a contract giving him permission to make use of their tales in a e-book. 

In late 1972 he returned to the home in Houston that he shared with Mary and their toddler daughter, Susannah, and gathered the outcomes of his staggering analysis, a number of the first identified biographical particulars about American music’s most elusive persona. Now all he needed to do was write.

LeDell Johnson in his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
LeDell Johnson in his dwelling in Jackson, Mississippi. Courtesy of Susannah Nix/Robert “Mack” McCormick Assortment, Archives Middle, Nationwide Museum of American Historical past

McCormick’s notes from his interviews with Cleveland and Lula Smith on April 27, 1970 in Commerce, Mississippi.
McCormick’s notes from his interviews with Cleveland and Lula Smith on April 27, 1970 in Commerce, Mississippi. Courtesy of Susannah Nix/Robert “Mack” McCormick Assortment, Archives Middle, Nationwide Museum of American Historical past

By round 1975, Mack had accomplished a primary draft of Biography of a Phantom. However he additionally had firm on Johnson’s path, one other blues researcher named Stephen LaVere, who talked the sisters into signing a brand new contract. LaVere would oversee the property in alternate for half of all the cash that got here in. As executor, he would later launch two photographs of Johnson, one exhibiting him carrying a pinstriped swimsuit and hat, one other with a cigarette in his mouth. LaVere additionally went to Columbia Information and received the label to place collectively a compilation of Johnson’s whole recorded output—songs from that 1961 album in addition to a second one from 1970, plus alternate takes. When Mack discovered, he threatened to sue. Columbia held off on the gathering’s launch, a delay that will go on for years. 

Some writers would have taken the competitors as a prod to complete their e-book. However not Mack. He was a perfectionist who wanted to sq. each element and join each dot. He would get pissed off with the numerous contradictions he had present in Johnson’s story—and impatient together with his household. He would inform Mary to cease cooking; the smells had been interfering together with his work. He would inform Susannah to cease taking part in; she was making an excessive amount of noise. He would sink into moody funks and cease working altogether. 

He put the e-book apart for an additional obsession: Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, who had recorded a sequence of buoyant reels, jigs, and early blues songs within the twenties. Nobody knew something about him, apart from that he was a hobo who traveled Texas by prepare taking part in guitar and a few sort of pan flute. However Mack dived deep, pushed by the conviction {that a} guitar-playing vagrant he’d met on a downtown Houston road in 1949 was Thomas. Considered one of Thomas’s songs talked about stops alongside the railroad in northeast Texas, and Mack knocked on quite a few doorways in small cities there, taking part in recordings of the singer’s voice for aged African People, making an attempt to position the accent. His analysis lastly led to a farm in Upshur County, the place Thomas had been born. Mack sat down and wrote the liner notes for a compilation album of Thomas’s songs, which got here out in 1975. The eloquent and deeply detailed essay acquired virtually as a lot consideration because the music. “Mack had the reward of imaginative transference,” the celebrated music author Peter Guralnick instructed me, “the flexibility to suppose, really feel, and see past the bounds of your personal slim world.” The rock critic Greil Marcus known as the essay “the very best notes of their sort I’ve ever learn.” 

However Mack’s manic despair was getting worse. When he was “up” he would exit into the world and speak to folks—and get into late-night arguments with cops in Dunkin’ Donuts. When he was “down” he would lose all his power and withdraw additional. The Texas blues e-book he had been engaged on with Oliver was shelved, however Mack insisted that the Johnson e-book was “present process remaining modifying.” 

On his good days, he may very well be terribly beneficiant. In 1976 Guralnick visited Mack and interviewed him. Mack instructed Guralnick what he had realized from Johnson’s sisters and even confirmed him the photograph of Johnson and his nephew that few had ever seen. Guralnick wrote about Mack’s findings in Rolling Stone, the primary time most of the info of the bluesman’s life turned public. 

13 years later Guralnick launched a e-book on his personal obsession with Johnson known as Looking for Robert Johnson. The e-book gave an much more detailed biography of the bluesman—once more, largely primarily based on Mack’s investigations. A yr later, in 1990, Columbia lastly determined to disregard Mack’s threats and launched its long-planned compilation, a two-CD field set known as Robert Johnson: The Full Recordings. The album ultimately offered greater than 1,000,000 copies, received a Grammy, and made Johnson a family identify. However Mack’s identify was utterly absent from the credit and the voluminous liner notes. The document and Johnson’s growing fame earned a small fortune for his property and for LaVere. 

And Mack’s e-book was nonetheless nowhere to be seen. By this level he was spending most of his days and nights hidden away in his Houston dwelling. He and Mary had break up, Susannah had left for faculty, and Mack started to withdraw from nearly everybody whereas he labored on varied manuscripts, watched motion pictures, and wrote letters. The home lights would burn till 4 or 5 within the morning. He wouldn’t put out his rubbish can till late, satisfied that thieves would undergo it, in search of discarded items of the archive.

McCormick working at home in the early seventies.
McCormick working at dwelling within the early seventies.Courtesy of Susannah Nix/Robert “Mack” McCormick Assortment, Archives Middle, Nationwide Museum of American Historical past

My Texas Month-to-month profile of Mack got here out in 2002. The headline, “Mack McCormick Still Has the Blues,” was a nod to his despair and isolation, however the story was largely a wide-eyed, gee-whiz take a look at a person whose complete life had been about making connections—amongst concepts, artists, and different human beings. “Every of us are linked by an infinite variety of threads,” he instructed me, a thought I thought of notably stunning. 

And there have been days when Mack nonetheless reveled in making these types of connections. Quite a few folks visited him, together with archive administrators hoping to host the Monster and writers and researchers hoping to faucet into his knowledge. He genuinely loved holding court docket together with his callers. “He was beneficiant with me, virtually to a fault,” stated music scholar Ted Gioia, who first visited Mack in 2005. “He shared proprietary info from his personal analysis—issues different writers would have retained for their very own publications.” 

Nearly every thing we knew about Robert Johnson, Mack believed, was unsuitable, as a result of we had been wanting on the unsuitable Robert Johnson.

Mack and I stayed in contact, and after I visited Houston, I’d cease by and take him to dinner. He had began once more in earnest on the Johnson manuscript, and he instructed me some startling issues. He had been going again over his previous interviews and discipline notes and had begun to take extra severely nagging suspicions he’d lengthy had about Johnson. He stated he was having severe doubts that the person whose path he had found again in 1970—the Robert Johnson from Mississippi—was, in actual fact, the Robert Johnson who’d recorded these immortal songs in Texas. There was no proof, he stated—no contracts, no letters. 

He was troubled, too, by the authenticity of Johnson’s demise certificates; it acknowledged that the useless musician was a banjo participant who in all probability died of syphilis. “A syphilitic banjo participant!” Mack snorted. He stated he had discovered seven different males with the identical identify who additionally performed music in Mississippi at the moment and asserted that everybody else at Johnson’s periods in San Antonio and Dallas got here from Texas or close by. Why would the producers carry an unknown child all the way in which from Mississippi to document? Mack didn’t know of any proof that Robert Johnson ever performed in Texas in any other case. It could make rather more sense that the Robert Johnson who recorded in Texas already lived in Texas, was maybe from Texas. Nearly every thing we knew about Robert Johnson, Mack got here to imagine—which is to say every thing Mack had found about Robert Johnson—was unsuitable, as a result of we had been wanting on the unsuitable Robert Johnson.

Mack was beginning to consider his Johnson manuscript as being two distinct entities. What he ultimately got here to name “Ebook One” would deal with the Mistaken Man, the Mississippi blues musician whose story and likeness Mack had delivered to the world by way of his analysis—however who, so far as Mack may inform, had by no means recorded a notice. “Ebook Two” would deal with the Proper Man, the musician in Texas who had recorded these well-known sides in San Antonio and Dallas. He was concentrating on Ebook Two now, and in his manic phases he would write for hours on finish. There wasn’t a lot biographical info on this Robert Johnson, however Mack stated that whereas going by way of his voluminous information, he had discovered interviews he’d completed way back that forged mild on this determine. 

I used to be fascinated by all of it and flattered that Mack was entrusting me with this secret data. I assumed I used to be going to be the author who would reveal the surprising fact about Robert Johnson to the world—one thing any music journalist would dream of getting the possibility to do.

However I wasn’t Mack’s confidant for lengthy. In 2007 I spent a few days in Houston engaged on a story about Lightnin’ Hopkins. I used to be thrilled to have the ability to give Mack some credit score for all he did for Hopkins, and I borrowed a number of of the classic LPs he had produced to make use of as artwork for the story. Mack made me promise that we wouldn’t make any copies of the album covers—which I readily agreed to, pondering he was speaking about reproductions that may very well be bootlegged. Days later he flew right into a rage when he realized that we had made copies of the LP covers for our web page proofs. I attempted to purpose with him, however the subsequent morning I discovered a six-minute voice mail on my workplace telephone threatening to sue me and Texas Month-to-month if we used photographs of any of his LPs. The tone of the message was implacable, and I may inform he was studying from a script. I known as to attempt to speak sense to him, however he wouldn’t choose up the telephone. We pulled the artwork.

Over the following 4 years I known as sometimes, however Mack by no means answered. As I attempted to determine how our friendship had fallen aside, I started to suppose that perhaps his troubles had been deeper than I had identified—and that I had been blind to them. I had at all times seen Mack as a lonely, pioneering folklorist who meant nicely however was undone by his idiosyncrasies in addition to a extra business-savvy rival, Stephen LaVere. When, in 1998, LaVere and Johnson’s son, Claud, sued Mack, claiming he had stolen photographs from the household, Mack swore that he’d misplaced the photographs, and I believed him. (The swimsuit was ultimately dropped, and the images went unreturned.) I knew Mack had fallen out with each Oliver and Strachwitz, and when he instructed me that it was simply the form of factor that typically occurs between longtime associates who not see eye to eye, I believed him.

However I’d quickly be taught that Mack was within the behavior of torpedoing nearly each relationship he’d ever had—particularly when the buddies in query needed to assist him. Considered one of Mack’s closest associates was Roger Wooden, an writer of a number of music books and an English professor at Houston Group Faculty who, like Mack, cherished Emily Dickinson. For greater than a decade, the 2 had a month-to-month dinner date and would speak for hours about music, poetry, and historical past. A few decade in the past they began discussing a photograph e-book that Mack needed to place collectively about musicians he had labored with at a 1971 people pageant in Montreal. “I’d actually prefer to get one thing printed right here earlier than it’s too late,” Mack instructed his pal.  

However then, not lengthy after, Mack began hinting that perhaps he didn’t wish to work on the e-book in any case. One night time Wooden went to Mack’s home for dinner. “He was ready for me,” Wooden remembers, “and he was indignant.” Mack hectored Wooden, accusing him of pondering he may do one thing that Mack couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Finally, Wooden stated he couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m out of right here,” he stated, to which Mack replied, “In the event you go away, don’t come again.” Wooden left. A number of weeks later, after he’d cooled down, Wooden known as Mack, however received no reply. He wrote Mack a letter and known as once more, however Mack didn’t reply to any of it. They by no means spoke once more. 

Wooden was disillusioned by all of this, and greater than somewhat damage. However he wasn’t solely shocked. He says that a number of folks, together with Strachwitz, had warned him that Mack would inevitably subvert any undertaking they labored on—and their relationship. “All of us knew—and Mack inspired us to see—that he was a sufferer of a illness,” Wooden instructed me. “However to me there was will concerned, one thing self-sabotaging. There was some actual anger in Mack.” Wooden thinks Mack resented how folks like him may simply transfer by way of the skilled world after they had by no means completed the sort of analysis Mack did. “He had this punk ‘f— you’ angle towards the educational institution, the publishing institution, the music historical past institution.”

“My whole life I watched the cycle repeat,” his daughter, Susannah, instructed me. “It didn’t matter who he handled, he would alienate them, and they’d alienate him. He couldn’t make selections; he received hung up on minor particulars. It was his sickness, it was his character, it was his age.” 

The person who believed that we’re all linked “by an infinite variety of threads” was too debilitated by despair and bitterness to carry on to that conviction for lengthy. The tragedy of Mack’s life was that he severed so most of the connections that folks desperately needed to make with him. 

The levee at Friars Point in Mississippi.
The levee at Friars Level in Mississippi. Courtesy of Susannah Nix/Robert “Mack” McCormick Assortment, Archives Middle, Nationwide Museum of American Historical past

The Kitty Cat Cafe in Helena, Arkansas.
The Kitty Cat Cafe in Helena, Arkansas. Courtesy of Susannah Nix/Robert “Mack” McCormick Assortment, Archives Middle, Nationwide Museum of American Historical past

In January 2012, I made certainly one of my occasional calls to Mack, figuring that the telephone would, as soon as once more, ring and ring after which I’d get despatched to his answering machine—despite the fact that he virtually actually was sitting close by in his recliner. To my shock, this time he picked up. “Mack, how are you doing?” I stuttered. “Getting older is a matter of getting floor down,” he replied. Mack instructed me he was writing plenty of performs, together with one about Emily Dickinson. He was nonetheless engaged on the Johnson manuscript, which was lots of of pages lengthy. He stated he was terrified about taking place in historical past as a footnote to the Johnson story. Once I visited him a number of months later, I seen that he was weak, stooped over, and barely capable of stroll. Once we went out to a restaurant, I needed to maintain his arm and assist him to the desk. 

Mack had at all times been paranoid about somebody probably stealing his supplies, and, in 2013, somebody did. Sort of. A yr or so earlier, Mack had been contacted by the journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan, who was all in favour of writing some sort of story involving Mack and the Monster and stated he would possibly be capable to assist him end the Johnson manuscript on the New York Occasions’ dime. When Sullivan came over, they spoke about varied subjects, together with two obscure feminine blues musicians named Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, whom Sullivan stated he was notably all in favour of, particularly after Mack stated he had interviewed Thomas. Mack even gave Sullivan a number of the notes he’d made about his 1961 searches that exposed her identify was L. V., not Elvie. A researcher named Caitlin Love was introduced in to assist with the undertaking. However after a few weeks Mack grew pissed off by what he stated was her tendency to vanish behind closed doorways for hours at a time. Mack quickly terminated his relationship together with her and Sullivan—as a result of, he instructed me, he was satisfied that Love had hidden ragweed in his AC system in an effort to render him groggy.  

This was a ridiculous accusation, an indication of simply how unhinged Mack may very well be. However Love did do one thing problematic. She took images of the transcription and notes that Mack stored of the interview he had completed with L. V. Thomas greater than fifty years earlier than—photographs she would ultimately move on to Sullivan. In 2014 the New York Occasions Journal printed Sullivan’s story on Wiley and Thomas—which included a dialog with Love about how she took the images—on its cowl. The linchpin was that interview transcript. Sullivan wrote, “I admired the bravery of her act of quasi-theft, feeling strongly that it was the proper factor to do.” He additionally wrote a succinct model of a criticism many researchers had had towards Mack for many years: “You’re not allowed to sit down on these items for half a century, not when the tradition has determined they matter.” 

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Sullivan’s story was exceptional. He and Love engaged in some very Mack-like analysis, knocking on doorways in Houston and discovering individuals who helped them rescue two uncared for blueswomen from obscurity and convey them to life. But it surely additionally prompted a serious scandal in journalism circles, with Susannah telling the New York Observer that she was “appalled” by Sullivan’s actions. (Sullivan and Love declined to be interviewed on the document for this story.) Although I used to be livid with Sullivan, too, I shared his frustration. I additionally knew how paranoid Mack may very well be—and the way sneaky. “Had he intentionally left these papers within the open in an effort to check her?” he wrote within the story.  “It was exhausting to not really feel that he organized for this little disclosure.” I, too, had little doubt Mack had purposely tempted Love by leaving the file in plain view. 

Mack, who believed that we’re all linked “by an infinite variety of threads,” was too debilitated by despair and bitterness to carry on to that conviction for lengthy.

Amid all that, Mack was nonetheless writing, however he had been having hassle swallowing, and in 2015 he acquired a dire prognosis: most cancers of the esophagus. I visited him that September and requested how he felt. “Terminal,” he replied. He lay in his tan recliner, the seat from which for many years he had acquired pilgrims. His hair was brilliant white, his eyes darkish and sunken. An previous white T-shirt sagged off his gaunt body. At his request, I agreed to be his literary executor, to care for his archive and his manuscripts, together with Biography of a Phantom. 

To my shock, he even gave me a few the early chapters to learn. I took them dwelling and was shocked by how good they had been. The writing had a agency sense of place, and it was stuffed with element and dialogue. I may image Mack in Mississippi, speaking to strangers, asking questions. I instructed him how impressed I used to be. “Thanks,” he stated, sounding genuinely happy. “That’s very encouraging. Nobody’s stated that to me earlier than. In fact, nobody’s had an opportunity to learn it.” He was slurring his phrases, his physique drunk on morphine. It was certainly one of our final conversations.

Mack’s remaining days had been a large number of recriminations, worry, and loathing. He caught a contagious bacterial an infection known as C. diff that stored all guests away. He turned satisfied that everybody was out to get him—his daughter, his caretaker, me. At one level he requested his caretaker to marry him so his archive and manuscripts can be protected from the thieves who had been ready for him to die. When she stated no, he requested her to seek out him a bride on Craigslist. She refused. He spent his remaining days watching the Animal Planet channel till he slipped into unconsciousness. He died on November 18, 2015. I delivered the eulogy at his funeral and skim Dickinson’s “This Is My Letter to the World.” Lots of the mourners within the room knew these phrases. He had tried the tenderness of every of us.

The day after Mack died, I drove to Houston to assist Susannah and her husband, Dave, transfer the archive to a storage facility. We had been astonished at how a lot stuff was within the Monster. Mack had greater than twenty file cupboards, every of which was jammed with paperwork. There have been additionally about 600 reel-to-reel tapes of music and hundreds of photographs and negatives. 

I felt privileged to be going by way of these information, as if I had been a witness to historical past. Once I received to drawer quantity 4, I discovered an eight-by-ten envelope containing a dozen prints. I flipped by way of them and stumbled on certainly one of a person in a white sailor’s uniform. Subsequent to him stood a shorter, smiling man in a pinstriped swimsuit and hat. I stared at his face. It was a well-known smile, a well-known swimsuit, and the hat was set at a well-known angle—on the pinnacle of Robert Johnson. In my hand I held certainly one of solely three then-known photographs of Johnson, a photograph that few folks apart from Mack, Johnson’s sisters, and Guralnick had ever seen. 

I started to uncover different secrets and techniques too. Within the Lemon Jefferson file was a letter from the bluesman’s sister complaining that Mack had did not return a photograph of Jefferson that he had promised to ship again. I additionally discovered a letter from Claud’s mom, Virgie, asking for a photograph of her son she had given Mack. There was a transparent sample right here, and it appeared doubtless that Mack, regardless of his protestations, had simply refused to return the photographs  Johnson’s sisters had loaned him again in 1972. 

And it turned out that Mack was no stranger to swindling. Round that point, Susannah despatched me a textual content. “Do you know my dad was arrested for passing phony checks when he was 19?” She had found the proof in certainly one of his previous “Memorabilia” information. Mack had used six totally different names as he cashed dangerous checks till he was lastly caught. He did time within the Harris County jail. Clearly, there have been layers of darkness in Mack’s life that even these of us closest to him knew nothing about.

I organized the twelve typewritten chapters of Biography of a Phantom, a.okay.a. Ebook One (The Mistaken Man), in addition to the voluminous laptop information of the untitled Ebook Two (The Proper Man) and eventually sat right down to learn. The manuscript of Biography of a Phantom was lengthy—some 550 typewritten pages—and vividly reported and written. Mack wrote intimately about discovering Johnson’s sisters in addition to Virgie. She instructed Mack that Johnson instructed her how he wrote his songs. “They arrive to me in a dream,” he had stated. The manuscript was each bit as thrilling as I had hoped, even when it was the story of a wild-goose chase—a biography of a person who, at the least based on modern-day Mack, in all probability hadn’t really written and recorded all these immortal songs.

Mack requested his caretaker to marry him so his archive and manuscripts can be protected from the thieves who had been ready for him to die. When she stated no, he requested her to seek out him a bride on Craigslist.

The chapters in Ebook Two in regards to the man Mack appeared satisfied was the actual Robert Johnson weren’t almost as nicely written, although Mack had loads of particulars. He had tracked down Marie Oertle, the spouse of the document label salesman Ernie Oertle, who had pushed Johnson from New Orleans to San Antonio for his first recording session. It turned out that Marie had gone alongside too and never solely had paperwork from the journey, she additionally had reminiscences in regards to the soft-spoken musician—how he dressed, talked, performed. She defined to Mack how Ernie had first picked up Johnson when he was hitchhiking by the facet of the street close to Lufkin, and after Johnson handed an audition in New Orleans, the trio set out for San Antonio, Johnson typically taking the wheel for stretches, as if he had been a chauffeur. They stopped in La Grange and met up with Blind Willie Johnson, who was taking part in at a revival. 

Mack’s interviewees revealed all types of fascinating particulars to him in regards to the Texas Robert Johnson. Al Dexter, who had auditioned for Oertle on the identical time, complimented Johnson’s guitar taking part in. Tony Garza, who labored for the document label, remembered taking Johnson to breakfast and being shocked when he ordered his eggs “picante” and stated “gracias” to the server. The session engineer, Vincent Liebler, an skilled studio hand, was in awe of Johnson. “He struck me as particular,” he instructed Mack. 

However I stored coming upon issues that didn’t make sense. Mack had written totally different variations of the identical occasion, and the small print shifted from one telling to a different—typically dramatically. And the dialogue—nicely, it was somewhat excessive. In La Grange, the place Robert met Willie Johnson, Willie stated to Robert, “You bought the Satan’s music in you and it ain’t welcome right here.” Robert replied, “I anticipate so. I completed offered my soul to the Satan.” 

That seemed like dangerous dialogue from a nasty play. Unnerved, I put down the manuscript and started going by way of Mack’s information, the place I discovered notes from a few of these interviews. Mack had certainly discovered Liebler, in 1978. However based on his notes, Liebler “doesn’t recall RJ too nicely.” Mack positioned Garza in 1973. “Not too good a supply,” Mack wrote. “Garza very unsure.” I got here throughout an e mail that Mack wrote to a pal in Dallas, in 2003, asking for assist monitoring down Marie Oertle: “She’s the one I must study.” However Oertle had died in 1994. It appears doubtless that he by no means spoke to her. Mack discovered Dexter in 1980. But his notes point out that Dexter recalled little besides that Ernie Oertle introduced a “coloured boy” from Mississippi to San Antonio to document—which appeared to substantiate that Johnson had, in actual fact, come to Texas from Mississippi.

It was clear that Ebook Two was as stuffed with invented dialogue and scenes as any of Mack’s performs. I used to be shocked at my gullibility, embarrassed at my willingness to imagine each story this storyteller had instructed. Might it actually be that Mack—indignant and bitter at a world that had lionized Robert Johnson and by no means given his most enterprising biographer his correct due—had spent his remaining twenty years making an attempt to destroy the Robert Johnson he had helped uncover, telling anybody who would hear—Gioia, Sullivan, Susannah, Wooden—that we had the unsuitable man?

I went again and went by way of the Monster once more. The clues had been in all places, however I had neglected them in my pleasure—and ambition. Considered one of Mack’s proposed titles for Ebook Two was telling: Who Killed Robert Johnson? A Subjective Biography and Wayward Autobiography

Susannah wasn’t solely shocked by any of this. “The final ten years earlier than my mom died after which afterward, he was dwelling in a fantasy world. Something within the manuscript from the final twenty years might be extremely suspect.” 

The Robert “Mack” McCormick Collection in the Archives Center at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
The Robert “Mack” McCormick Assortment within the Archives Middle on the Smithsonian Nationwide Museum of American Historical past.Jaclyn Nash

Overwhelmed by Mack’s weird treachery in addition to the dimensions of the archive, I instructed Susannah that I needed to jot down the story of this flawed genius who got down to do—after which undo—a lot. We agreed that she needs to be his literary executor, and she or he ultimately discovered the proper place for the archive—the Smithsonian, the official dwelling of American historical past and the place the place Mack had completed a lot work. The Smithsonian was comfortable to have the Monster, and archivists started working organizing the 590 reels of tape and sorting the paperwork into 165 bins.

John Troutman, a music scholar and a curator on the Smithsonian’s Nationwide Museum of American Historical past, started placing collectively the manuscript for Biography of a Phantom. Troutman was impressed with Mack’s writing and analysis, however he discovered himself compelled to make a troublesome alternative after studying Brother Robert, a 2020 e-book by Annye Anderson, one other of Johnson’s sisters. Brother Robert is, by my depend, the twelfth e-book about Johnson, and it’s top-of-the-line, as a result of after many years of tales of the musician as a darkish blues lord, Brother Robert, which featured a brand new photograph of him smiling on the duvet, humanizes Johnson, exhibiting the musician from the angle of a younger lady. He favored nation music, she stated, and rolled his personal Bull Durham cigarettes. The e-book additionally villainizes Mack, who had misled the sisters, stolen photographs from them, and held up for years the discharge of the Robert Johnson field set that lastly earned cash for some members of the family. “The largest drawback got here from Mack McCormick,” wrote Anderson.

In his afterword, Troutman concludes that Mack’s dangerous habits “delegitimizes” the settlement he had with the sisters, and he determined to excise something in Biography of a Phantom that Mack had realized from them. The Smithsonian additionally determined to withhold from public view the photographs of Johnson in addition to notes from the interviews Mack carried out with the sisters, pending route from the sisters’ heirs. Troutman was taking posthumous motion towards a con man—but additionally chopping out the e-book’s essence. “I feel lots of people are going to be disillusioned,” Troutman instructed me. “I perceive that.” 

The Smithsonian archivists discovered a folder with an enemies listing—and scripts stuffed with Mack’s fantasies of what he would do to sure folks he thought had betrayed him.

The Monster, although, nonetheless had extra secrets and techniques to disclose—particularly about Mack’s paranoia. The Smithsonian archivists discovered a folder with an enemies listing—and scripts stuffed with Mack’s fantasies of what he would do to sure folks he thought had betrayed him. Guralnick and unnamed others had been the meant recipients of copies of 1 unsent letter wherein Mack wrote, “In my fading years ought to I am going from city to city hiring bone-breakers to place you fellows in rehab for two years?” 

The archivists additionally found that, as early as 1962, Mack was inserting dozens of “hoaxes” into the analysis notes that he shared with Paul Oliver for his or her unfinished e-book, The Blues Come to Texas—invented passages that will undermine the e-book if it had been printed with out his permission. For instance, Mack solid a demise certificates for Blind Willie Johnson, exhibiting, falsely, that the Texas-born guitarist was from the Cayman Islands. This wasn’t that massive a shock to me. Mack had instructed me in 2014 that he at all times “poisoned” his manuscripts. “I take issues from Fitzgerald or Hemingway—take a paragraph and stick it within the manuscript so later I can take away it.” 

When the long-shelved blues e-book was lastly printed by Texas A&M Press in 2019, the reception was rapturous. “The Blues Come to Texas is unbelievable,” stated music scholar Elijah Wald. “Individuals are going to be writing books primarily based on Mack’s notes without end.” However researchers are going to should watch out. Anybody studying the passage on the blues guitarist Smokey Hogg, for example, will come throughout a passage primarily based on an interview with an orderly on the Dallas veterans’ hospital named Dallas Blankenship, who says that Hogg dedicated suicide there in 1960 by throwing himself down an elevator shaft. In response to Troutman, Mack despatched the Blankenship interview transcript to Oliver in 1969 however wrote on his personal copy, “NOTE THIS IS ALL HOAX, CAN BE DISCOUNTED BY TRUE COPY OF DEATH CERTIFICATE SHOWING NO SUICIDE.” In truth, Hogg died of a hemorrhaging ulcer. And Dallas Blankenship? That was the identify of an administrative choose in Dallas County who attained fame in 1964 by appointing a substitute choose for the Jack Ruby trial.  

Because the editor of Biography of a Phantom, Troutman had a tough line to stroll. In some locations he calls Mack out for his malfeasances; elsewhere he expresses some delicate skepticism however lets the reader resolve. He does that with Mack’s declare that he unplugged Dylan on the Newport Folks Competition in 1965—despite the fact that there’s no approach that occurred, says Wald, who wrote a whole e-book in regards to the pageant. And Troutman lets slide Mack’s declare that Virgie Mae Cain instructed him Johnson had stated that his songs got here to him “in a dream,” which I used to be suspicious of. I listened to the tape of two quick
interviews Mack did with Cain in 1970, and she or he by no means says something like that. Perhaps she stated this in one other interview, however she appeared to have solely a glancing familiarity with Johnson’s music; she remembered solely certainly one of his songs, the closest factor he needed to a success, “Terraplane Blues.” However it might be unfair to anticipate Troutman to vet each single truth; Mack’s disinformation is in all places. Bruce Conforth and Gayle Wardlow’s esteemed 2019 Johnson biography, Up Jumped the Satan, for instance, repeats Mack’s suspect declare that Johnson chauffeured the Oertles by way of Texas.

All these deceptions inevitably name into query different issues Mack wrote. Was the previous hobo Mack met in 1949 on a downtown Houston road really Henry Thomas? Does it matter? Mack didn’t suppose so. “Henry Thomas needed to have been just about like the person I met,” he told my former colleague Greg Curtis in Texas Month-to-month in 1977. “However I’m sure in my very own thoughts it was Henry Thomas. It is probably not the very best scholarship to suppose so, however then scholarship isn’t every thing, is it?” 

In June the Smithsonian will open an exhibit on the Monster, that includes discipline notes, photographs, live performance posters, album art work, and that previous guitar from Mack’s front room. Then, later in the summertime, Smithsonian Folkways will launch a 66-song field set from the lots of of hours of discipline recordings Mack made, largely in Texas, plus a 128-page e-book of beforehand unseen photographs with essays by varied folks, together with Troutman and Susannah. The gathering is a rare cross part of music—barrelhouse piano, blues guitar, steel-guitar rags, zydeco tunes, and gospel songs—carried out by well-known artists corresponding to Hopkins and Lipscomb and obscure ones corresponding to James Tisdom, a guitar-playing Black cowboy from Goliad, and George “Bongo Joe” Coleman, who performed fifty-gallon oil drums on the streets of Galveston and San Antonio. That is what Texas as soon as seemed like.

It would all be sufficient to remind us that, behind the shattered friendships, the brazen thefts, and the outright fabrications, Mack McCormick was a peculiar American hero: a searcher pushed to go locations nobody else went, the place he discovered, interviewed, and recorded guitarists, pianists, and singers who nonetheless stir us at the moment. To Mack, scholarship wasn’t every thing, not in contrast with curiosity, moxie, and old style hustle. Typically extra all in favour of telling a very good story than in getting his info straight, he maybe had extra in widespread with the artists he cherished than with the journalists, historians, and teachers with whom he now—lastly—shares bookshelf house. In the event you love music, it’s a must to really feel some form of unsettled affection for Mack and his stunning, broken thoughts.

“I see virtually every thing as a thriller,” he as soon as instructed me. “You cope with the thriller, be taught one thing about it, however you by no means resolve the thriller. It’s by no means completed.” He was speaking about his work and his travels, the connections he made and the music he heard. However he would possibly as nicely have been speaking about himself.

This text initially appeared within the Could 2023 challenge of Texas Month-to-month with the headline “Hellhounds on His Path.” Subscribe today.

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