My Quest to Preserve the Secret Blues Archive of Mack McCormick
I tried and failed six times, and now the Smithsonian has taken control—but even that may not be enough to preserve his unique repository
Back around 2004, I embarked on a deep, immersive study of traditional blues—and spent several years focused on this one project. One of my first decisions was to track down all of the leading experts on the subject, and learn from them.
I’m talking about the pioneering researchers who did fieldwork during the 1950s and 1960s in Mississippi, Texas, and other early centers of blues activity. I wrote down all their names on a list, at least those who were still alive back then—and there weren’t many, around 10-15 people.
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Most of what we know today about traditional blues is the result of their work. But their names aren’t well known, not with the general public nor among music fans. Even today, institutions could honor the survivors in the group, key individuals who made many sacrifices to expand the scope of American music—Gayle Dean Wardlow, David Evans, Dick Waterman, George Mitchell, and a few others—but, for some reason, they don’t.
Almost 20 years ago, I got to know almost every person on my list. Most of them were still alive back then, and they were a fascinating group of individuals, more like outlaws and desperados than music historians. I pestered them for advice and information, and listened to their stories—and they all had amazing stories. In some cases, we became friends, and in every instance I benefited greatly from knowing them.
I can’t emphasize how important it is to learn from the masters. Even after I made my own reputation as a writer, I kept my passion for that. As John Wooden once said: “It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
I only know of two instances in which these people received meaningful institutional support. For the most part, they funded their research out of their own pocket, often taking menial jobs to make that possible. They worked tirelessly, nonetheless, to preserve this music, and in some instances actually relaunch the careers of the surviving blues musicians. But there were no grants to help them. Nobody offered them fellowships or any kind of financial support.
Except for Dr. David Evans, none of them even got prestigious teaching jobs—but that was more because of his Harvard and UCLA pedigree, not from a love of blues music in academia. I know for a fact that some of the greatest contributors to the blues revival and the preservation of traditional American music lived at the poverty line.
Blues fans nowadays are amazed to learn that James McKune, a leading figure in launching and legitimizing the study of traditional blues music, resided at the YMCA. Here he kept his collection of rare records in cardboard boxes under his bed. But they shouldn’t be surprised—nobody cared enough to help these people out.
The most intriguing person on my list was a mysterious man named Mack McCormick, who must have started researching traditional blues back in the 1940s, when there was little precedent for this kind of fieldwork, outside of the Library of Congress project (from 1941-42), and a tiny number of other initiatives, all of them happenstance or sporadic.
But Mack was a source of frustration to almost everyone in the blues community, because he never managed to publish his research. He always planned to publish books. He always talked about publishing books. But that never happened, not during his lifetime.
The biggest disappointment of them all was his planned biography of blues legend Robert Johnson. Mack allegedly had answers to all the open questions about Johnson. He had not only discovered the man who murdered the famous blues guitarist—but had even confronted the killer face to face. And that was just the start of what Mack knew about Robert Johnson and the Delta blues.
But we waited and waited and waited, but the much anticipated biography never got published. (Although posthumous publication of a manuscript found among Mack’s papers is now forthcoming—more on that below.)
It's revealing that the best book on Robert Johnson available during my formative years, Peter Guralnick’s Searching for Robert Johnson, had relied mostly on its author’s conversations with Mack McCormick for its juiciest bits of information. I knew from my own experiences, that you could resolve heated argument over the blues by relating what Mack McCormick had said during a chance conversation. That was how much music scholars respected his knowledge of the subject—others speculated, but Mack had gone to the source.
Mack was notoriously secretive and protective of the information in his archives. Based on what I later learned, I suspect that he took drastic steps to hide them—perhaps even moving some items across the border to Mexico (where they might be missed in the discovery process of the legal proceedings he feared). In any event, we all wondered what magic they must contain. After all, other people could create successful books just on the scraps he gave away for free.
In the middle of our dinner, Mack actually handed me a photocopy of Robert Johnson’s death certificate. He pointed out that there were 38 separate facts about Johnson on that document…but claimed it was written with the specific intention of misleading anybody who read it.
I first reached out to Mack by phone, and had a number of fascinating conversations with him. I had feared the worst, but I found him friendly and supportive. We seemed to be on the same wavelength, and I decided that all the horror stories I had heard must be unfounded or greatly exaggerated.
So I decided to make a pilgrimage to Houston and meet with Mack McCormick in person.
I don’t want to sound like a saint, but I fully realized that I had a higher obligation here than just my own research. I felt that my top priority should be preserving Mack’s archive and accumulated knowledge, and maybe even helping him publish his own writings. This was the right thing to do—far more than completing my own work. Mack’s expertise was one-of-a kind, absolutely irreplaceable, and needed to be saved at all costs.
I had a contract with Norton to write a book on the Delta Blues, but I asked my editor to insert a clause in the agreement—to the effect that I could fulfill the terms of the deal by helping Mack publish his own book instead of writing my own. My editor was puzzled—I don’t think my publisher had ever received a request like that before. But I was adamant: If I could somehow help focus Mack on documenting his 50 years plus of fieldwork into the blues, this would be a major contribution to American music. I could take satisfaction in my role as a helper.
Norton eventually got back to me, and their response was revealing. They would be willing to support my plan of helping Mack publish his Robert Johnson biography. But—and this is the key takeaway—they had asked around and talked to people who knew about Mack and his book. They told me that there was essentially zero chance of Mack McCormick successfully delivering a finished manuscript to a publisher.
The word on the street was that he was incapable of reaching closure on his projects. As it turned out, they were right.
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But I ignored these cautionary words, and headed off to Houston filled with optimism. I liked Mack. He liked me. And I was determined to save Mack McCormick’s research for posterity.
Of course, I had very little idea of what I was getting into. But I did know I was wrestling with something big. An article had already appeared in Texas Monthly about Mack’s secret blues archive, and called it “The Monster.” That’s how big and scary it was.
But even at our earliest encounters, I got a sense of how hard it was going to be to wrestle with this Monster. Here’s an extract from my notes on Mack McCormick from September 10, 2005:
“His health seems frail. He walks with the help of a cane, and after standing up from a seated position needs to rest for thirty seconds or so in order to muster his strength to move on. He also mentioned to me that he has suffered from a manic-depressive disorder.”
But somehow my pilgrimage to Houston gave him a boost of energy, and over the course of the next five hours I witnessed a remarkable change. At the start, Mack had told me that he needed to get out of his house because of a “situation”—although no details were provided. So I drove him off to a nearby restaurant, an IHOP, where he voraciously ate a double cheeseburger, meanwhile offering a nonstop monologue of observations on American music and culture.
I know this sounds corny, but this IHOP encounter was a major event in my vocation as a music writer. Mack McCormick turned out to be one of the most brilliant conversationalists I have ever met. And, over the years, I have dealt at the dinner table with Nobel Prize winners and other intellectual celebrities. Mack, in contrast, was a high school dropout, self-educated in almost every way, so you may be skeptical when I say this, but Mack was operating at that same Nobel-ish elite level.
And it wasn’t just blues he knew about. It wasn’t just that he was one of the leading folklorists in America. He also had stories to tell about Frank Sinatra, Greta Garbo, Doris Day, and others he had met along the way. And then would shift gears and start talking about something else—for example, the Kennedy assassination (a topic that seems to fascinate many blues researchers). I remember him saying: “I think I know where Lee Harvey Oswald was going when they finally arrested him.” But, in typical fashion, he would just leave that hanging, and go on to another subject, where he had equally fascinating things to say.
And the longer Mack went on (and ate), the stronger he got.
“Do you know how many Robert Johnsons there are?” Mack asked me at one juncture. I couldn’t hazard a guess. “One out of every ten thousand black males in Mississippi at that time was named Robert Johnson.”
I was amazed when after our huge lunch, he suggested that we drive off to another restaurant. He got back in my rental car, and gave me the directions to Steak ‘n Ale, where we started with drinks in the bar, then we moved to the dining room for dinner. Here he shocked me by ordering another large cut of beef—although it was only a little after 4PM, and he had just devoured the burger at 1 PM.
It was like he needed the fuel to rise to the next level. And he did just that.
Mack’s monologue continued over the dinner table. He had all sorts of information, much more than I could fathom. When I asked about recent rumors that another blues researcher had learned key details about the murder of Robert Johnson, Mack laughed at me. There was another person named Robert Johnson who had been murdered in that neighborhood back then, but he was not the blues musician—the researcher I referred to had simply gotten the two people confused.
“Do you know how many Robert Johnsons there are?” Mack asked me at one juncture. I couldn’t hazard a guess. “One out of every ten thousand black males in Mississippi at that time was named Robert Johnson.” Mack insisted that other researchers have found details about Robert Johnson, but they wrongly assumed they were on the trail of the famous guitarist. There was even another blues musician who had that same name, Mack pointed out.
And then in the middle of our dinner, Mack actually handed me a photocopy of Robert Johnson’s death certificate. And he pointed out that there were 38 separate facts about Johnson on that document. He claimed that a close inspection of the death certificate would prove that it was written with the specific intention of misleading anybody who read it.
This caught my attention, and I pressed for details. But you could never pin Mack down—that was his most salient personality trait. In response to my questioning, he started making all sorts of ambiguous comments.
Here’s what I wrote down in my notes:
Mack asked me: “Now why do you think someone might want to fake the information on a death certificate?” When I professed ignorance, he said simply: “I can think of some reasons.”
I responded that Johnson’s sister is referred to on the document, so that would add to its credibility. He replied that she is mentioned merely in the capacity of having requested a copy, and he asked me why I thought she might want one. “Certainly she didn’t need it to prove he was dead,” he added.
This was how a conversation with Mack always went. He did provide information, but what he enjoyed even more was hinting at other things he knew but couldn’t tell. You ended up with more questions than answers.
And, adding to the fun, he would even dispute his own previous revelations. He told me, for example, that he no longer believed some of the key details on Robert Johnson that he had provided to Peter Guralnick, and which showed up in the latter’s influential book. This was troubling, because much of this information is now considered bedrock biographical fact.
Even worse, the general drift of our conversation was that Mack had been second-guessing many of his earlier beliefs. That’s why the forthcoming publication of the Robert Johnson manuscript found among his papers may not be as definitive as we hope. I have no idea when he stopped work on that project, and it’s possible, or even likely, that he gave up on it because he didn’t feel it captured the story accurately.
In the weeks and months that followed our marathon eating-and-talking session, I worked on various plans to help Mack preserve his life’s work. And he always seemed willing to cooperate on these endeavors, which gave me a false sense of making progress.
I started by suggesting that we clean up Mack’s unpublished manuscripts, and get them ready for release. And he was willing—much to my surprise, because everyone had told me this would never happen. But the more we dug into the details, the more difficult everything became.
He absolutely insisted that the Robert Johnson manuscript wasn’t suitable for publishing—but as I look back on my notes, this might have been due to legal reasons, although Mack’s changing views on the blues legend probably also played a part here. I won’t get into the conflicts between Mack and Steve LaVere, a rival blues scholar—someone should write a book on their relationship, because it’s almost cinematic in intensity—but their legal wranglings may have played a part here.
In one of our conversations, Mack told me that I should ask other blues writers why they hadn’t published their own anticipated books on Robert Johnson (this kind of enigmatic comment was typical of him)—but I already knew from my friend Steve Calt, whose own Robert Johnson book never got released, that this was a complex matter with legal ramifications that went far beyond typical scholarly concerns.
But I didn’t give up.
Instead I focused on my backup plan, namely publishing Mack’s unreleased book on Texas blues, written back in the 1960s in collaboration with Paul Oliver, the great British polymath. The good news: Mack told me that he had a finished copy of the manuscript, and it was suitable for publication. The bad news: Mack was so upset with Oliver that he wanted it published without his collaborator’s name on the book. (I had fewer dealings with Oliver, but from what I gather, he was just as irritated with Mack, maybe even more so.)
I told Mack that this wasn’t a good plan. If he wrote it with Paul, both names should show up on the book. I told him that I wouldn’t participate in this project unless we had Oliver’s cooperation, and both of them had signed off on the deal. This apparently was more than Mack could stomach, so we had to abandon that idea. (The book was eventually published posthumously, and I’m not surprised that this didn’t happen until both authors were dead.)
But even at this point, I still wasn’t discouraged, so I suggested option three—namely that I collect Mack’s shorter writings, published and unpublished, and put them together in a book. Once again, Mack wanted to help, and he even provided me with a copy of his hard-to-find essay on early Texas songsters.
But I kept waiting and waiting for more material from my reclusive friend. It soon became clear that the notion of going back into his manuscripts and finding publishable extracts was more than Mack could deal with.
This was the pattern with Mack. He was great at starting, and bad at finishing. For example, I remember phoning him once, when he was filled with energy and excitement. He had just enjoyed several days when his writer’s block had disappeared, and he could finally get around to tackling projects. But—to my dismay—he had not worked on completing his unfinished manuscripts, but had started new ones. If I recall correctly, he had been writing a play in which Emily Dickinson appears as a character.
So I gave up on plan number three (the collected essays of Mack McCormick) and suggested we pursue plan four. This project was called “Conversations with Mack McCormick.” I told Mack that I would fly back to Houston, and book a hotel conference room for a week, and every day he and I would have conversations about American music and culture. We would capture it all on tape, have it transcribed and release it as a book.
I was convinced that this was a brilliant idea. Mack was an amazing conversationalist. Once you got him started, he had so much to say. If I had to, I would pay to keep the steaks and drinks coming—after all, didn’t Alan Lomax do that when he interviewed Jelly Roll Morton? These taped conversations would finally give Mack McCormick a chance to share all his knowledge and wisdom with the world.
I’m still convinced it was a great idea.
And so was Mack—at least at first. But as soon as I tried to set up dates to actually do this, he kept delaying. This was the same syndrome all over again. You just couldn’t pin this man down, although I didn’t give up.
So now I moved to plan five—I would do whatever it took to preserve Mack’s archive. I would save “The Monster,’ no matter how much effort it required. And once again, Mack expressed willingness to help. He absolutely wanted his life’s work to be preserved.
I will spare you all the details, but I worked tirelessly behind the scenes, and eventually convinced one of the largest libraries in the world to write a big check to Mack McCormick for his archive. They would preserve it for posterity for future researchers, and Mack would have a huge payday in the process.
But there was just one catch. The head of this library wanted to fly to Houston to meet with Mack and see his archive. And, once again, I could never get Mack to agree to a date for the meeting. He never said no—just as he didn’t say no to my other ideas. He just couldn’t follow through.
Even so, I kept pushing. And the more I pushed, the more I understood Mack’s reasons for delay. The simple fact is that Mack had a huge archive but much of it needed work before he could send it to an institutional library. He admitted to me that he had taken huge amounts of rough notes during his field trips, but never properly transcribed them—instead of putting them in good shape, he simply went off on another field trip.
“After six weeks of field work, you should really spend 12 weeks organizing and indexing the material,” he explained. He had failed to do that, and now had to live with the consequences. The end result was that Mack feared his working notes would be of little value to anybody except himself.
I was horrified by all this. I began working with Mack on a plan to put his field notes in good shape. “We can hire transcribers,” I told him. “We can set them up in an office in Houston, near your home, and you can help them decipher your handwriting.”
I told Mack that I would try to find grant money to pay for this, but he needed to tell me how many pages of notes needed transcribing. I don’t recall the exact numbers, but it turned out that he had thousands and thousands of pages filled with priceless information on blues and traditional American music—compiled over the course of many years of trips throughout the South and Southwest.
I did some calculations, and realized that preserving Mack’s field notes was going to be a huge undertaking. But I was willing to do whatever was necessary to make it happen.
Alas, even this plan—my sixth project to preserve the wisdom of Mack McCormick—came to nothing. He simply didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm for managing a team of transcribers. Even if I found the money to hire them, they would sit in their office with nothing to do.
A few days ago, I learned that Mack’s archive is heading to the Smithsonian. I must say that I’m delighted this is happening. But I worry that just saving the papers won’t be enough. We needed Mack’s guidance in reading and interpreting them, and we will never have that.
I eventually wrote my own book on the Delta blues, and I’m greatly indebted to Mack McCormick and the other pioneering blues researchers who helped me on that work. But I still regret those six missed opportunities. You can’t say I didn’t try. But it’s also true that I tried and failed.
My only hope is that other scholars have better results in wrestling with “The Monster” than I did. It will soon be sitting in Washington, D.C., where the archivists can try their luck with it. They’re used to tackling big problems in DC, but I suspect this one will be larger than they realize.
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