Smithsonian’s Folkways label and American History Museum are releasing Robert ‘Mack’ McCormick’s tapes, research and writings as part of Folkways’ 75th anniversary
Which is why Nix thinks she knows exactly how her father would feel about the Smithsonian’s public reveal of the unruly collection McCormick coined “The Monster.”
“Oh, he would hate it,” says Nix, a 52-year-old writer in Texas and McCormick’s only child. “Which is why he never did anything. He was his own worst enemy. Nothing would ever be perfect enough. Even if he didn’t know he wanted it, it still had to be the ideal version of how it should be.”
McCormick spent decades building his collection — 590 reels of recordings and 160 boxes of other materials. He was a member of what is often described as the “Blues Mafia,” the White collectors who roamed the South during the 1950s and ’60s searching for Black blues musicians they felt had been overlooked. The material on McCormick’s shelves remained largely unheard and unseen — until now. Thanks to Nix’s decision in 2019 to donate it to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, there is a slew of material being released to the public.
One chunk involves McCormick’s work documenting the short life of Robert Johnson, the mystical bluesman who deeply influenced such artists as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Bonnie Raitt. After years researching Johnson, McCormick guarded the files and abandoned multiple versions of a manuscript he had developed from them. This year, Smithsonian Books took that work and published “Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey,” edited by John Troutman, curator of music and musical instruments at the American History Museum.
The great revelation in the collection, though, has nothing to do with Johnson. It arrived in August when the Smithsonian’s Folkways Recordings label released “Playing for the Man at the Door,” a three-CD, six-LP set of McCormick’s field recordings of more than 30 artists produced by Troutman and Folkways senior archivist Jeff Place. (After Nix’s donation, the museum transferred McCormick’s sound recordings to Folkways.)
The music, recorded in living rooms and juke joints and even on sidewalks, is primarily blues but also includes gospel and tinges of country. The artists range from recognized figures of the ’60s blues revival (Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb) to such relative unknowns as James Tisdom and Blues Wallace.
The 128-page booklet in the “Playing for the Man” set is packed with essays and reproduced documents, from McCormick’s detailed list of odd jobs (“balloon dark hank pank” at a carnival) to maps highlighted in black marker of routes he took through the South in 1968 as he conducted his research.
The third piece of the McCormick reveal also came this summer when the National Museum of American History opened the display “Treasures and Trouble: Looking Inside a Legendary Blues Archive,” which features items never seen in public, including photographs, a booking contract for Hopkins, the questionnaire McCormick sent to Blind Lemon Jefferson’s sister and a Washburn guitar played by Lipscomb.
The scope of the launch is by design, coming as it does on the 75th anniversary of Folkways, the label founded by Moses Asch in 1948 and sold to the Smithsonian in 1987.
“It just gives a multifaceted view on how Folkways fits into this realm and the relationships that were happening at the time that Mack McCormick was out there collecting,” says Maureen Loughran, director of Smithsonian Folkways. “And even the fact that there are photos of him from the [Smithsonian] Folklife Festival. It’s all these deep connections.”
The McCormick material is also being released under a shroud of self-examination, largely because of how he managed his collection and his relationships. McCormick borrowed photographs without returning them. He wrote notes attacking other researchers and historians. He had a falling-out with the Johnson family in the early 1970s after trying to get exclusive control of the bluesman’s material and sent a slew of legal threats to record company executives to block the rerelease of Johnson’s influential 1930s recordings for years.
And McCormick’s deep paranoia about having his research stolen led to a bizarre strategy: He put intentional lies — or hoaxes, as he called them — inside his legitimate material to foil those he suspected might take his work.
Vanessa Broussard Simmons, the lead Smithsonian archivist charged with sorting through and indexing hundreds of boxes from McCormick’s collection, found the whole scenario troubling. She shared her concerns with curator Troutman.
“I told him I didn’t like Mack McCormick when I finished,” she said during a recent tour of the stacks of boxes in the Smithsonian archives. “And I didn’t know if that was the right feeling that I should have had.”
McCormick was unsettled from the start. His parents separated when he was 2, and he and his mother, Effie Mae, would move at least 20 times by the time he had turned 17. He never graduated from high school, choosing instead to pursue his love of music by taking odd jobs, including driving a taxi, working the grill at a diner and clerking at a hospital. He also got into trouble by trying to balance his budget by forging checks. In 1949, at age 19, he was arrested and jailed.
Starting in the 1950s, McCormick found a way to support his research. He wrote for DownBeat music magazine and took a job as a census taker, which was also convenient because it gave him official standing as he searched for musicians. McCormick also worked for the Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and founded a record label, Almanac.
Nix has never made an effort to hide her father’s flaws. She loved him and tried to help him deal with “The Monster” in his later years, but she also knew he could be saddled by depression and become easily frustrated. She decided that his entire story would be told best through the files Troutman and Place picked up in Houston in 2019.
They are a stunning discovery, particularly now that they’re accessible for the first time to researchers and the public through the boxes of reels and papers digitized by Broussard Simmons and three staffers at the American History Museum’s archives center.
McCormick’s files include transcripts of his interviews with musicians and letters to his mother and other collectors and historians, as well as strategies on how to best capture natural field recordings. He suggests ways to loosen up the proceedings: “Like the guitar and the tape machine, you’ll need a supply of booze … get 2 or 3 half-pints of some economy brand (Imperial, Old Taylor) on sale at a supermarket.” There are also hundreds of black-and-white photographs of musicians playing and singing at home or getting ready for performances, recording contracts, and fliers and posters for performances.
Then there is the Johnson material. The bluesman died in 1938 at 27. He had recorded just 29 songs, but the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death and the power of his music sparked a mythology — that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical genius. The legend inspired books, songs and movies (1986’s “Crossroads” and the 2000 Coen Brothers saga “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” “Cross Road Blues” and “Terraplane Blues” became staples of the blues rock emerging in the 1950s and ’60s.
McCormick spent several years trying to track down Johnson’s history, roaming the South as he sketched maps and knocked on doors. But he gave up in the mid-1970s after the dispute with the Johnson family. As Troutman would discover, McCormick wrote and rewrote his Johnson book and then packed it away. The time that had elapsed since he did his research made the material less revelatory. Other books and articles came out in the intervening years, including 2020’s “Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson” by his stepsister, Annye Anderson.
“Biography of a Phantom” is far more compelling for what it shows about McCormick, from the way he approached strangers as a White man traveling through the rural South to the way he tried to throw others off his trail.
Troutman detailed the complicated reality he found in the transcripts in a long preface and afterword. There is great beauty in the writing, Troutman says, particularly the poetic way McCormick had captured his quest.
“He was managing paranoia and depression in various ways since he was a teenager,” the curator says. “But as I began to take a look at the manuscript, it had some amazing passages. He was a really brilliant writer. And in the end, I felt the only way to publish the book would be to provide that contextualization as well as the layers of challenges in the archive.”
Troutman addresses McCormick’s hoaxes head-on in his notes in the book. They are also included in the American History Museum display and in the box set.
“The object of all this,” McCormick typed in one hoax note, “is simply to insure the files will not be used, and cannot be used, without my participation.”
That, in fact, would not be true.
‘King of unfinished manuscripts’
When she was growing up in the ’70s, as Nix explains it, the family home was full of music. Cole Porter. Willie Nelson. Brahms. It’s notable what McCormick didn’t play: Hopkins, Lipscomb or any of the artists on the reels he had stored. By the time Nix was old enough to pay attention, McCormick had largely shut down his research.
Still, he demanded so much attention, so much focus, that McCormick’s wife, Mary, and daughter moved out in the 1980s. Not that Mary abandoned him. There would be no divorce, and she would come over once a week to cook and clean for him until her death in 2004.
“She was his closest friend and confidante,” says Nix. “And so when she was gone, he didn’t have that. And he was the kind of person that pushed people away. He’d be friends with someone or someone would try to be friends with him, and eventually he would get upset with them or do something or take advantage of them, and so he ended up sort of alone with no support but me.”
“The Monster” was well known but not really understood. McCormick told famed historians Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick about it, and spoke with Texas writer Michael Hall, a friend and one of the few outsiders he felt he could trust.
“I’m the king of unfinished manuscripts,” McCormick told Hall.
McCormick’s great fear, Hall wrote, is that his collection would simply decay and disappear after he was gone.
That was unlikely. For years before his death, historians and members of the Blues Mafia had been prodding him to release some of the material. Sales of blues 78s are booming, with auction sites selling even scratched-up records for thousands. With her father gone, Nix began fielding calls.
One collector wanted to buy a rare photo of Johnson that McCormick had borrowed and never given back to Johnson’s family. There was interest in the collection from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and from Rice University in Houston, McCormick’s adopted hometown. Then Nix heard from Troutman.
“So there are people who are just interested in the music parts or the Texas parts, but the archive is so expansive,” Nix says. “And the Smithsonian was the only institution that was in a position to take all of it. They were really excited. I mean, they were like, ‘We have a food curator who will kill for these recipes your dad recorded.’”
The Smithsonian also already had a relationship with the material. McCormick emceed at the Folklife Festival from 1968 to 1976 (a photo of him at the event is in the archives). In the early 1960s, he helped connect Texas bluesmen Hopkins and Lipscomb with Chris Strachwitz, whose label, Arhoolie, would record both. Strachwitz sold Arhoolie to Smithsonian Folkways in 2016.
Place, the longtime curator, had even spoken briefly to McCormick in the 1990s.
“He told me he was selling the collection and wanted a lot of money, and we just didn’t have it,” Place says.
In 2019, Troutman and Place returned to D.C. from Houston with a truck full of boxes. In March 2020, as covid struck, the Folkways offices were closed, leaving Troutman to drop off reel-to-reels for audio recording specialist Ronnie Simpkins. He took them home and transferred them to digital files for Place to examine.
Place, who has been documenting and compiling material for Folkways for more than 35 years, including the Grammy-winning reissue of the “Anthology of American Folk Music” and collections of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, was impressed.
“This box [set] is really just the first one,” Place says. “There’s a lot of other records in there. There’s entire Hopkins records and Mance records.”
To that end, there is a previously unheard Hopkins concert recording from Houston’s Alley Theatre in 1962. For now, just four songs are included in “Playing for the Man at the Door.” There are also masterful interviews with the musicians McCormick stumbled upon. The collector, despite his reputation for being short-tempered or blustery, is curious and soft-spoken on tape.
As Troutman knew, the Smithsonian couldn’t release the material without making some amends. He and archivists worked to find people who, from notes in the file, had been promised to have material returned. Most dramatically, as outlined in Troutman’s detailed afterword in “Biography of a Phantom,” the Smithsonian, at Nix’s urging, worked with Johnson’s heirs, including his stepsister Anderson. The photo of Johnson and several others from the family will be given back. The Smithsonian is waiting for instructions from the heirs on how and when.
Troutman also decided to remove McCormick’s interviews with Johnson’s late sisters, Carrie Thompson and Bessie Hines, from the edited book.
“Biography of a Phantom” has earned strong reviews and also sparked conversations about the role of collectors and researchers, and as Troutman writes, the “disturbing cautionary tale on the profoundly complex, at times harrowing, and sometimes haunting practice of telling (or selling) others’ stories.”
For Nix, the experience has been something else: a huge relief. She no longer has to worry about protecting “The Monster.” She no longer has to struggle with the ethical implications of her father’s work. The day that Troutman, Place and two archivists were finished loading up the truck, she took a photograph of them.
“I remember watching that truck drive away and just thinking, ‘Oh, thank God. It’s not my responsibility anymore,’” she says. “‘Somebody who is qualified to take care of it can now do it.’”