Take a look at Mississippi in 1936. That was the year that the state’s William Faulkner published one of his greatest novels, Absalom, Absalom! That was also the year that Mississippian Robert Johnson recorded several of his greatest songs (“Rambling on My Mind,” “Come on in My Kitchen” and “Cross Road Blues”).
When Johnson died two years later in Greenwood, Mississippi, he was just 80 miles from Faulkner’s home in Oxford. For all that they had in common in geography, profession and talent, however, they were trapped in different spheres that made it nearly impossible that they might meet. They were both born to be writers, though, and each followed the path that best fit his circumstances. Perhaps, if their origins had been reversed, Faulkner might have become a blues singer and Johnson a novelist.
Both men traveled a lot (Faulkner’s novel was published by New York’s Random House; Johnson’s songs were recorded in a San Antonio hotel room), but Mississippi remained their essential subject matter. What they said about their home state, however, had such universal resonance that it still illuminates the life of any reader or listener who encounters their words. As a result, Faulkner’s and Johnson’s writing ranks among the great achievements of 20th century American culture.
Few folks recognized this. It wasn’t until 1949, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, that Faulkner rose from near-obscurity and near-poverty to have his novels put back in print. It wasn’t until 1961, when Columbia Records released King of the Delta Blues Singers, that Johnson’s songs were known to any but the few thousand people who owned his original 78s. Faulkner lived long enough to be interviewed and researched exhaustively; Johnson died before anyone cared enough to try.
Several historians tried, however, to put the pieces together after the fact. The most dogged of them was Mack McCormick, a Houston musicologist who battled depression and paranoia to track down clues about Johnson’s life. He compiled his research into a book, to be called Biography of a Phantom, that was much rumored but never published. The few who read portions of it described it as a landmark work in the history of American music. McCormick and his manuscript became major characters in Peter Guralnick’s slender but vivid volume, Searching for Robert Johnson, published in 1989.
It is only now, eight years after McCormick’s death in 2015, that part of his manuscript has been published by Smithsonian Books as Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey. Far from satisfying our curiosity, it raises more questions than it answers. The most fundamental question of all is this: What is the proper subject of music journalism and history—the musician’s life or the musician’s work?
Much music writing, whether published in Texas Music or The New York Times, by the University of Texas Press or Doubleday, has more to say about the performer’s life — career moves, romances, drug problems, money — than about the music. This is understandable. We’re all interested in gossip, in the vicarious thrill of bad problems and great triumphs. And it’s much easier to create a narrative from these facts than it is to explain why certain music has such a cathartic effect on us as listeners. It’s very hard to put the latter into words.
After 48 years of interviewing musicians for living, however, I am more convinced than ever that artists really aren’t that much different from the rest of us. A performer’s problems with romance, drugs, money and reputation are surprisingly similar to the struggles of your next-door neighbor, your co-worker or the ninth-grade friend you haven’t seen since the last reunion. Perhaps the quantities of lovers, drugs, money and fame are magnified for artists, but the dynamics are much the same. As one of Johnson’s contemporaries describes him to McCormick in Phantom, “He was just an ordinary kind of guy, except he had this talent for music.“
The only thing that separates a musician from the rest of us is an ability to translate emotions into words and music. That gift is what makes us care about musicians, but it’s as mysterious as it is astonishing. What happens in that transformation of feeling into song is hard to put into prose—and hard to digest when it is. So most writers and readers are content to distract themselves with back story. It’s a lot easier. This is not to say that the life can’t provide context and clues to the art. But the life is not the point; the art is.
Nonetheless, McCormick traveled the city streets and rural roads of the Gulf Coast states seeking out information about his favorite blues artists. Between his day jobs as grill cook, census taker, taxi driver and the like, he would go hunting for facts and stories about the living and dead alike. He would type up copious notes from his interviews; he would tape performers on a reel-to-reel recorder; he would take photos and collect ephemera. He kept it all at his home in ever-expanding files that his daughter Susannah Nix calls “The Monster.”
It takes a certain kind of obsessive personality to pursue such research with no or minimal compensation. That personality proved to be both McCormick’s greatest asset and his most crippling handicap. The doggedness of his quest was admirable. His unwillingness to return borrowed materials or to share research was as indefensible as his willingness to attack real and perceived rivals.
After her father’s death, Nix donated “The Monster” to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Inside the 90 linear feet of materials were the manuscript for Biography of a Phantom and the recordings now being released as a three-CD, 66-track box set called Playing for the Man at the Door: Field Recordings from the Collection of Mack McCormick, 1958-1971.
Of McCormick’s many obsessions, Johnson was the greatest. He kept returning to that Moby-Dick-like quest again and again. And his at-long-last published book is more interesting as a detective story than as an explication of the enduring mystery that is Robert Johnson. Whatever his other flaws, McCormick was a gifted writer, and his description of his travels through rural Mississippi in the ’50s and ’60s evokes that time and a place quite compellingly.
Armed with little more than a rumor or a line from a song, this European-American stranger would park in an African-American neighborhood, raising the suspicion of Black residents and White law enforcement alike. His ability to stay out of jail and coax interviews out of new acquaintances are a testament to the persuasiveness any good investigator needs. One clue leads to another, and the sleuth gets closer to his quarry as the book progresses.
But just as the book is reaching its climax, when McCormick has finally tracked down Johnson’s stepsister Carrie Thompson, that chapter is missing and the story skips ahead to its epilogue. What happened? The book’s editor John Troutman explains that blank space in an introduction and afterword that wrestle with the complications of European-American historians investigating African-American history. Troutman raises legitimate concerns about this situation, but he doesn’t always reach convincing conclusions.
Anytime one culture tries to investigate another culture, there are bound to be awkward misunderstandings, wary skepticism and the temptation to unethical behavior. And when one culture is dominant and the other marginalized, those problems are magnified. And yet, if one desires an integrated, democratic society, cultures must mix, and the obstacles must be negotiated with not only ethical standards but also mutual allowances for a learning curve.
As it so happens, Thompson was more financially stable than McCormick, but he did have links to record companies, publishers and museums that gave him an edge, and he sometimes took dishonest advantage of the situation. He borrowed photos from Thompson, for example, and claimed they were lost when she asked for them back, even though they were in his files all the time. He interfered with her attempt to release a box set of Johnson’s complete recordings with Columbia Records, even forging an agreement between himself and Thompson.
These are indefensible acts, and Troutman is right to not use the photos and to condemn McCormick in the book’s addenda. Troutman’s decision to not use McCormick’s interview with Thompson makes less sense.
When a journalist or historian identifies oneself as such, the resulting interview is on the record, and can’t be taken off the record. The interviewee—whether a musician’s relative or an indicted ex-president—doesn’t have the right to take back their comments or to demand money for them. By removing that chapter, Troutman wrecks the detective story’s architecture and deprives history of potentially important information.
Or maybe not so important. Johnson’s family got its say in 2020 when Annye C. Anderson’s Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson was published. While Thompson and Johnson shared a mother and Thompson and Anderson a father, the author had no blood relationship with Johnson. She did, however, share a house in Memphis with the older musician whenever the peripatetic Johnson stayed put for a month or two.
Like McCormick’s, Anderson’s prose is surprisingly fluid and enjoyable for a first-time book. Like McCormick, Anderson offers up fascinating details about a man who had been obscure to most of the world for so long. Like McCormick, Anderson is quick to attack rivals such as Claud Johnson, Robert’s son and heir. Like McCormick, Anderson never sheds much light on what made Johnson such an unusual talent.
Both books broaden our picture of Johnson. Anderson reveals that he was more of a songster than a narrowly focused bluesman. That is, he could play a wide spectrum of contemporary music: cowboy songs, Irish ballads, children’s tunes, hillybilly numbers, Tin Pan Alley, swing tunes and more.
But when it came time to record his music, the country blues dominated even if an occasional novelty number like “They’re Red Hot” got thrown in. But it was a different kind of country blues from his predecessors such as Son House, Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson. Robert Johnson added new harmonies, grooves and licks that indicated that he was listening to music far beyond the blues circuit he was working.
The best chapter in the truncated version of Biography of a Phantom describes a listening party where McCormick played King of the Delta Blues Singers for locals who had known Johnson as a young performer. These African-American neighbors were familiar with the singer’s handful of singles; they remembered some numbers from his live shows, but others were new to them. Their favorite was the double-entendre romp, “Terraplane Blues.”
In his own book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, Elijah Wald (who wrote the foreword for Brother Robert) points to this preference for “Terraplane” as proof that European-American audiences misunderstand how African-American audiences responded to Johnson’s music at the time. But as McCormick points out, “Terraplane” got the room jumping, but it was songs such as “Hellhound on My Trail” that silenced the room with the poetry of the words and the ghostliness of the music.
Wald’s book is full of terrific musical analysis and influence-tracing, but he often confuses popularity with quality, as if “La Bamba” were Los Lobos’ best song or “Short People” Randy Newman’s. He also assumes a homogeneity of opinion within each culture’s reaction to Johnson—or any phenomenon—when in truth the differences within each group are more striking than the differences between.
Both Anderson’s relatives and McCormick’s party guests describe Johnson as smartly dressed and women-crazy, but also unusually quiet and obsessed with his craft. In another fascinating chapter, McCormick summarizes the interviews with the musicians who worked with Johnson. The great Son House confesses his astonishment that the young guitarist had transformed so rapidly from bumbling beginner to virtuoso. Son House attributed it to the devil. Maybe he believed it, or maybe it was just a metaphor for the sudden transformation a young person is capable of.
How Johnson pulled off his own reinvention remains as mysterious as his literary inspirations. And why did he choose to work in the declining genre of country blues at a time when he was clearly exposed to everyone from Duke Ellington to the Ink Spots? It’s not as if he were afraid of innovation, for he stuffed his arrangements with new twists on the format. Perhaps he saw this acoustic, local music as a vehicle to pursue his own ideas, a way to differentiate himself from the urban stars, a way to use an old form to contain new approaches. Maybe it wasn’t the devil that spurred him on but rather his own intelligence and ambition.
There was a lot more to McCormick than just his research on Johnson. In some ways, his biggest contribution to American music was his championing of two Texas singer-guitarists: Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. It would be inaccurate to say that McCormick discovered them, for they were well known to local African-American audiences, but McCormick opened a door for Hopkins and Lipscomb to move from one culture to another. That was financially advantageous for the singers and artistically inspiring for their new audience.
They were an odd pair. Hopkins was a sly hustler and blues specialist in urban Houston, while Lipscomb was a gentle patriarch and songster generalist in rural Navasota. But McCormick introduced both of them to Chris Strachwitz on the German-American’s first trip to Texas. The latter went on to release Hopkins’ and Lipscomb’s greatest recordings on Strachwitz’s California label, Arhoolie Records, but McCormick documented the two singers on tape as well.
In fact, the highlights of the newly released Playing for the Man at the Door are the 14 songs by Hopkins and Lipscomb. Especially impressive are the selections from a 1962 Hopkins show at Houston’s Alley Theatre. The box set comes with a 128-page booklet that tells the story not only of McCormick but also of Hopkins, Lipscomb and the dozens of other Gulf Coast artists in the package.
Midway through the box set, producers Troutman and Jeff Place juxtapose Hopkins’ and Lipscomb’s versions of “Tom Moore’s Farm,” a song about the notorious plantation on the Brazos River that hired Black inmates from the penitentiary and worked them almost to death. Hopkins sings it with barbed resentment and Lipscomb with saddened fatalism, and each captures a different segment of the deep emotions the situation evokes.
Those are the two biggest names on the set, though slide guitarist CeDell Davis and pianist Grey Ghost enjoyed late-career revivals that may make them familiar. The big revelations are steel guitarist Hop Wilson and pianist Buster Pickens, who each put a distinctive spin on the Texas blues.
And the bizarrely compelling legacy of George “Bongo Joe” Coleman, who only released a single album on Arhoolie in his lifetime, is expanded by three songs on this set. Coleman was a street busker in Galveston and San Antonio who would bang on big oil drums and improvise half-spoken, half-sung monologues about his unlikely ambitions to become President, a big-time preacher or a lover of beautiful women.
There are two theories when it comes to documenting old, vernacular music. One is the Alan Lomax approach of looking for performances that are representative of a culture and niche cultural styles. The other is the Harry Smith approach of looking for performances by individuals whose singular talents and visions are outliers in any culture. McCormick adopted the Lomax strategy, and this box set has quite a few cuts that are included more to represent the culture than to please the listener. Strachwitz was more in the Smith vein, believing that even old and obscure music had to be entertaining and perhaps stirring.
McCormick died in 2015, a poor, unhappy man unable to let go of his Johnson manuscript or the “Monster.” Now that the book and the field recordings have been released, we know more about Johnson and Texas blues, but we are still left with burning questions. The biggest question of all is what might have happened if Johnson’s life had not been cut so short and he had lived to become a crucial figure in the tumultuous changes in American music during the 1940s and ’50s.
Cover photo of Mack McCormick, 1970, courtesy of Susannah Nix from the Robert “Mack” McCormick Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
This article originally ran in Paste (pastemagazine.com)