I tried and failed six times, and now the Smithsonian has taken control—but even that may not be enough to preserve this unique repository of American music and folklore.
I was a US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee staff attorney during the Carter administration, and my staff director and I went to the Bahamas for a secret meeting with the infamous con man Robert Vesco, who was at the time a fugitive wanted in the US for what was then the largest securities fraud in US history. Your description of your conversations with Mack sound identical to ours with Vesco. I’m not suggesting Mack was a fraud or a con man, but the brilliance, charisma, elusiveness, allusiveness, and need to control the conversation are similar. Curious.
I had the good fortune to know Mack quite well during the last few years of his life.
I was also interested in seeing his archive preserved and am confident the Smithsonian will be a great caretaker of Mack's work. His archive was actually very well organized and maintained (to a degree), but I am glad his tapes will be in a climate-controlled environment. Together, Mack and I organized a good number of his writings, including jazz articles, liner notes, and Smithsonian programs.
I was in close contact with Mack when the Geeshie Wiley/NYT article appeared and the circumstances around its publication had a devastating impact on Mack's health and spirit. I was always astounded at the notion that Mack owed the public, or any fawning neophyte researchers, anything at all, including his time. The expectations forced upon Mack by others were often unseemly.
Mack never sought publicity. The Texas Monthly articles painted the public's perception of him, but that was not a complete picture of the Mack I knew. One of my most memorable interactions with him was when he was describing the greatness of Duke Ellington and I said something silly like, "Mack, I just don't get that guy." He looked at me with complete incredulity, as if he were talking to an idiot. His expression quickly morphed into a smile when Mack realized he had an audience to now share his knowledge of Duke Ellington, which he did.
The Mack I knew was kind, generous, and answered any questions I ever had. I still miss him.
This rings of OCD and hoarding issues. Perfectionism. It’s truly maddening. I like very brilliant people and so I’ve had one, two of these people. I would tear my hair out in efforts to help them and everything you describe is a shade of things I’ve experienced. It’s such a downer but you didn’t fail. There’s no winning. It’s super aggravating. I felt the punchable frustration in every sentence. I’ve been there, brother. Man. You tried. An excellent read as usual. Thanks
He was an unusual character, for sure, although one aspect of his character, curiously, is not. I know a good number of researchers in both the arts and technology fields who are bright, motivated, and compelled to compile information, yet never assemble or release it. One, to whom I was quite close, likened his work to that of a mouse, hungrily gathering bits of cheese and feeling a rewarding rush with every morsel, but never really dining upon it, saving it all up for an imaginary something that gave him more pleasure in anticipation than maturation.
What a great story.
In 2005, I had a series of meetings at Foothill College about expanding a course taught by Mike Sult and Janis Stevenson about the blues, using Wyman as a text, into the possibility of a blues archive, and the fact that John Lee Hooker had recently died and lived in the area. A dean named Mr. Graham took the idea and wanted to dovetail it with grant money that would have turned a classroom into an installation that would have looked like a juke joint in Mississippi.
Two: in 2009 for the first “world music day” — based on “Fete de la Musique” —in Palo Alto I commissioned a local artist to copy the most famous picture of Robert Johnson — but the committee chair and event founder, who had two degrees from Harvard — nixed the poster design for fear of being sued by the R—— Johnson Estate. I later repurposed the image and published and circulated it as a poster promoting the city’s event with a Doors cover band— and falsely claimed that a sponsor of the event was the Stanford Fair Use Project.
Is there a “three strikes rule” for being a blues interloper?
That is an amazing story. Mack was an interesting and frustrating man in equal measure. His mental problems with starting and not finishing anything tugs at my own conscience a bit since I've been very guilty of procrastinating at key points in my life. But his problem sounds more like a serious syndrome rather than a temporary thing.
I hope some knowledgeable people can go through that archive mountain and find the gold within. I really enjoyed this post. AS a blues fan who has met a few of the people mentioned in the article, like Dick Waterman, you are right on point about their selflessness and willingness to put their own often meager resources in play to find the truth and honour the music makers in this incredible genre known as the blues.
Disappointing but not overly surprising. Blues has a long oral history base and not always conducive to the need for synthesis and structure needed for completing a comprehensive, unified manuscript. My own 50+ years in blues as a promoter, festival director, radio show host, writer and fan might be best described as a long series of shows, conversations, and stories about blues artists, family and associates. Hats off to those who have narrowed their focus to complete informative books. Those skills are entirely different than collecting bits of information.
“It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.” The Honest Broker Sutras
I hope someone is going through Sonny Rollin's papers at the Shomburg Center, while Sonny is still with us.
Some McCormick minutiae: his introducing Chris Strachwitz (Arhoolie Records) to Mance Lipscomb was a seminal moment in the 1960s blues and folk revival. In fact, McCormick was in the studio when Strachwitz recorded Lipscomb's first album. Arhoolie's burgeoning catalog of studio performances in dozens of genres brought life to the existing folk/blues canon of field recordings of artists long thought dead. Musicians like Fred McDowell began earning performance fees and record royalties that seem paltry in an age of multimillionaires who go platinum by splicing together samples of some other guy's samples, but it gave dozens of musicians the recognition they deserved, and a comfortable old age.
Interesting that you'd say that about the Smithsonian. 78s collectors are extremely skeptical of the Smithsonian and like organizations (universities, etc.).
thank you for this story. i look forwArd to reading your book. Also following youf series regarding the magical and healing power of music ehichbhas been my field of interest for over twenty years aa a poet of the oral tradition. I am a singer and blues harp player with a repertoire of primitive soul anc blues which I inhereted from my mother...
So if i die and my soul be lost aint nobody’s fault but my own... love the depth of your work
Fascinating profile - I first heard of Mack McCormick via the NYT article by John Jeremiah Sullivan about Geeshie Wiley, an article which I thoroughly enjoyed but for which Sullivan was excoriated for his deceptive practice around getting some key information from McCormick. A moral dilemma I'm sure, thanks for your work in trying to preserve his legacy ... N
That's quite a story. Reminds me of interviewing folks in Appalachia years ago for historical information. Results-wise it some wheat, lots of chaff. But the process was always interesting an often its own reward. Cheers.
Superb article, Ted - a fascinating insight into a complex person who did invaluable work but wasn't able to bring it to any kind of fruition and I think his bi-polar disorder was a big factor. As a good friend of Paul Oliver I was astonished to read that Mack was angry at him over the Texas blues book and can't begin to imagine what reason he would have. I had several conversations with Paul about the book and he told me that he and Mack would send the manuscript back and forth adding and correcting and, at some point, Paul had sent the latest iteration to Mack but never heard back from him and after several attempts to contact Mack about it basically threw up his hands in despair and didn't do any further work on it. I have absolutely no reason to doubt that what Paul told me (and others) was the absolute truth. Fortunately Paul kept a carbon copy which was what was used as the basis for the book that was eventually published. The manuscript used was almost 50 years old and since he told you that he had a manuscript of the book I wonder if it was the same 50 year old manuscript or whether Mack had updated it with later research. Hopefully, if it exists, the Smithsonian will find it and can determine if it is more up to date or not since there are some obvious errors in the book - most obviously, the Little Hat Jones story.
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