Me, Mack and the Blues

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By Jay Brakefield

Robert Johnson

Many white researchers of the blues genuinely loved the artists and their music and helped them to record and perform at home and abroad, thus earning badly needed cash and acclaim from fans. But there was a darker strain to these relationships. For instance, one musicologist and blues researcher named Mack McCormick initially lionized Lightnin’ Hopkins as the prophet and jester of Houston’s Third Ward. However, Mack (who suffered from bipolar disorder, also known as manic depressive illness) later came to despise the singer.

Many agree that Hopkins was a scoundrel, recording for anyone who’d pay him $100 per song and contracts be damned. But McCormick’s attitude was no doubt also shaped by his failure to manage the man. Mack signed an exclusive contract to represent Hopkins in 1959, the same year the bluesman was recorded by Sam Charters, author of the seminal book The Country Blues. Charters, who apparently was the first to record Hopkins in his second career, characterized McCormick as a “leech” on Lightnin’ in a letter to Moe Asch, founder of Folkways Records.

McCormick also produced records, including some of Mance Lipscomb’s. At one session, Mack demanded so many takes of one song that the Navasota-based songster declared, “I’m never going to play that goddamn song again!”

Like many others, McCormick became obsessed with Robert Johnson, the Mississippi musician who, as legend has it, sold  his soul to the devil at a lonely Delta crossroads and died barking like a dog after being poisoned by a jealous husband. While traveling on projects for institutions such as the Smithsonian, McCormick made phone call after phone call to Johnson in local phone books until he finally found Johnson’s half-sister. He conducted exhaustive research for a book tentatively titled Biography of a Phantom. It was never published, though Peter Guralnick published much of McCormick’s material, first in Living Blues magazine and later in a slim book called Searching for Robert Johnson.

McCormick’s relationships tended to be fraught. He would become angry at someone and stop speaking to that person, then months or years later resume the conversation as if nothing had happened. I interviewed him in 1986 when the movie Crossroads, based on the Johnson legend, was released.  He told me that he was almost certain that the Dallas recordings had taken place at 508 Park, and I wrote a story for the Dallas Morning News that was, as far as I know, the first publication of this information. (Years later, another researcher found documentation establishing what Mack had told me was true.)

For several years, McCormick cut me off, though I never knew what I had done or said to offend him. Then toward the end of his life, he invited me to his home in Houston and we discussed issuing the Johnson book and other long-buried material that existed only as typescript on cheap paper he called “railroad bond.” We were on the verge of signing an agreement when a cloud passed across his face and he again quit taking my calls. At his memorial service in 2015, lots of people shared such memories.

Mack yearned to be a “serious” writer and put the blues projects aside while laboring on plays. One, which may have been unfinished at the time of his death, consisted of an imagined dialogue between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Meanwhile, another researcher, the late Steve LaVere, followed in Mack’s footsteps and got Johnson’s half-sister  to assign him the rights to his recordings, photos and other material. They were to split any royalties. McCormick told Columbia Records that his agreement with the family predated LaVere’s, and this delayed for years the release of a box set of Johnson’s recordings that ultimately sold at least 500,000 copies and earned LaVere a Grammy. He was quick to threaten legal action over any unauthorized use of the Johnson material, which may have helped earn him his nickname, The Weasel.

My own experience with LaVere was odd, to say the least. When researching my Dallas News article, I interviewed him by phone. He was civil enough. Soon thereafter, I was in Mississippi for a festival and saw him shooting photos. I introduced myself as the guy who had recently interviewed him. Without a word, he registered alarm and literally ran away. Ultimately, after a protracted legal battle, Johnson’s estate, worth over $1 million, was awarded to his son Claud Johnson.

Eric Clapton, who did much to popularize Johnson’s music, holds an annual Crossroads Guitar Festival. An early one, in 2004, was held in Dallas, and Clapton and guitarist Doyle Bramhall recorded in the room where Johnson made his records in 1937.

Today, I live in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where one can hear live blues every night, played by both black and white performers. Many in the audience are white or Asian, drawn to the place by the music. Many come from other countries to hear the music, and some move to the city or buy homes in which to stay when visiting.

Crossed guitars mark an intersection called The Crossroads, where one can buy liquor or furniture or wash clothes at stores and a laundromat that bear that name. The menu at Abe’s Bar-B-Q jokes that Johnson might have stopped in for a sandwich before selling his soul. Downtown, near the Ground Zero Blues Club, whose owners include actor Morgan Freeman, a large painting of Robert Johnson adorns a wall. A few blocks away, another wall bears the image of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti Western days.

I enjoy the place and the music. As Robbie Robertson, the Canadian guitarist with The Band, noted, when you listen to people talk here, you understand where the music came from.

Mack McCormick passed away in 2015; he was 85.

Steve LaVere also died in 2015; he was 72.

american roots music

Selena

What does “American roots music” really mean? PBS explains: “At the beginning of the 20th Century, the term ‘folk music’ was used by scholars to describe music made by whites of European ancestry, often in the relatively isolated rural South. As the century progressed, the definition of folk music expanded to include the song styles – particularly the blues – of Southern blacks as well. In general, folk music was viewed as a window into the cultural life of these groups. Folk songs communicated the hopes, sorrows and convictions of ordinary people’s everyday lives. Increasingly, music made by other groups of Americans such as Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Cajuns came under the umbrella of folk music.” This can be confusing as folk music and roots music labels are often used interchangeably.

Let’s take a closer look at the Mexican-American group in Texas. Before Texas became a republic in 1836, Anglo residents of what was to become the U.S. state of Texas in 1845 were called “Texians.” Spanish-speaking colonials were called Tejanos, or Tejano Texians. It would be more accurately classify them as “Spaniard Texans,” “Spaniard Texians” or “Spaniard Americans.” These non-Anglo residents played their own form of music that did not resemble that enjoyed by white settlers. We will focus on two predominant styles, Tejano and conjunto, both of which are genuine roots music.

Tejano music is related to and sounds more like the folk music of Louisiana known as “Cajun” music. It also resembles the music of northern Mexico, rather than the folk music of central and southern Mexico, such as Mariachi and other Latino music. With the abundant use of the accordion, genuine Tejano music is part of the foundation of Country Western music. 

Closely related to Tejano is conjunto, “a roots music, similar to blues or country, that began on the farms and ranches of southern Texas at the end of the 19th century. As they worked the land together, Mexican, Czech and German immigrants shared their musical traditions, blending accordions and polkas with classic Mexican folk music. This fusion yielded an irresistible, danceable beat with infectious melodies set to lyrics expressing themes of love and loss,” explains an article in the British publication The Guardian (formerly known as The Manchester Guardian).

Both styles represent the Tex-Mex rhythms of the southern United States, bearing messages of blue-collar love, frustration and anxiety seeping through the peppy accordion and horn ensembles, much like the guitar-laden songs of blues bands. The Guardian article also pointed out that Texas and New Mexico’s roots music was having a revival [in the 1990s] with an explosion of young groups playing festivals, and bringing a new focus to the work of Flaco Jiménez and Selena Quintanilla-Perez.

Unfortunately Selena, a Tejano idol, was shot in the back and killed in 1995 by Yolanda Salivar, the manager of Selena’s boutiques, who had been embezzling from the young singer. The breakout movie performance for a young singer named Jennifer Lopez (of Puerto Rican heritage) was portraying Selena in the 1997 biopic about the Tejano sensation.

The still-living Jiménez is a force to be reckoned with in Latino music. “What B.B. King is to the blues, or George Jones is to traditional country, Grammy-winning accordionist Flaco Jiménez is to the world of Tex-Mex conjunto,” says music critic Ramino Burr in The Billboard Guide to Tejano and Mexican Music. Jiménez doubles as the accordion player for a Tex-Mex band called the Texas Tornados, which has played at the inauguration ceremony for Bill Clinton and at venues around the world.

“But these are just two [Selena and Jiménez] among hundreds of performers who have created a rich, soulful musical identity for millions of Americans over more than a century,” explains The Guardian. What the British publication did not say was that both styles, like the blues, are slipping in popularity these days. Whether they can make a comeback is still an open question.

What is not in question is Selena’s enduring popularity. On April 17, 1995 then Texas Governor George W. Bush declared April 16 (her birthday) as Selena Day. The day may now become official in 2019. “Tejano star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez may be getting an official day of recognition, thanks to a bill filed in the state House on February 26. Authored by Dallas Democrat Ana-Maria Ramos, House Bill 2492 would designate Selena’s birthday on April 16 “Selena Quintanilla-Pérez Day,” states the Texas Monthly magazine.

blues capital of texas

Navasota is known as the “Blues Capital” of Texas, mainly to honor a legendary black songster named Mance Lipscomb, who literally put the small town on the blues map. The central Texas town had been on historical maps for a different reason: it had been cleaned up by a legendary sheriff and former Texas Ranger named Frank “Pancho” Hamer (1884-1955). He is remembered now largely for leading the posse that tracked and killed outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow near Gibsland, Louisiana, in May 1934. Interviewed in Houston by western cowboy writer Zane Grey, Hamer became the model for the tough Texas Ranger hero of Grey’s 1915 novel called Lone Star Ranger. The story was made into a radio program and later into a television program, both named “The Lone Ranger.”

Hollywood has, once again, discovered the Hamer story, this time starring Kevin Costner in the 2019 movie called “The Highwaymen.” Praised by white viewers for “finally telling the truth” about the often violent lawman, Latinos beg to differ. Monica Munoz Martinez, in Made by History, states, “Frank Hamer started his career in the early 20th century when the Texas Rangers helped enforce new Jim Crow and Juan Crow segregation laws targeting black and Mexican Texans and intimidating labor organizers and anti-lynching activists. These state police officers blurred the lines between enforcing state laws, practicing vigilantism and inciting racial terror.”

According to The Washington Post, the Texas Rangers were “originally formed to protect white Americans from Mexicans and indigenous nations, advocated chattel slavery and were patently racist—a detail underplayed in ‘The Highwaymen’ that has since sparked disagreement.” The debate over whether Hamer was a good man doing bad things or a bad man doing good things rages on.

The town fathers hired the 6’3”, 193-pound Frank Hamer in 1908 to tame the wild and woolly place that was Navasota. The legendary lawman recruited a black youth right out of the cotton fields, the 12-year-old Mance Lipscomb, to drive him around in a wagon. Lipscomb called Hamer “Mr. Hayman,” saying he was a “bad man – not evil, but tough as a boot.” This, then, was the violent, racist atmosphere in which Lipscomb became a man at an early age.

What the budding young bluesman learned from Frank Hamer no doubt colors the story lines in Lipscomb’s songs. One song in particular – “Tom Moore’s Farm” – seems to sum up Mance’s feeling about social injustice. It’s about the notorious owner of a huge farm near Navasota who was known to mistreat his black workers. For his own safety, Mance always denied having anything to do with writing the song. Numerous musicians, including Lightnin’ Hopkins, have produced their own versions of this classic blues protest song.

Mance took to music as a child, and liked to recount his acquisition of his first guitar, about the time Hamer came to town. Around Navasota at that time, banjos and fiddles were the primary instruments, but Mance’s brothers had guitars, and he wanted one. When a gambler came walking through the field one day and offered to sell an old beat-up instrument for $1.50, Mance’s mother, Jane, agreed as long as she could pay the man when she got the money. Mance said he sat under a tree and “whammed away,” without any idea what he was doing, and at night could hardly sleep for dreaming of guitars.

Mance learned songs from itinerant musicians and, on a cotton-picking trip to North Texas around 1917, saw the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson singing along Central Track in Dallas. He admired Jefferson’s playing and singing but decided that, rather than imitating anyone, he would “estimate my own style.” Many other musicians admired Jefferson’s music and Jefferson Airplane even named their band after him.  

The Blues Capital of Texas contains statues of both men. Hamer, who was not a native of Navasota, is not buried there but Lipscomb, who called the town home, is. For years, a blues fest was held there to honor Mance’s memory, but it closed down in 2017 for lack of funds and not enough volunteers to keep it running. What a shame.

arhoolie records

Chris talking to Mance

Something magical happened to the blues during the 1960s; it was rediscovered in a big way by white American Baby Boomers hungry for a new sound. “The blues revival, which spanned the decade of the 1960s, attempted to resurrect indigenous African American music styles within a modern context,” states the Sam Houston State University website. In other words, old black men playing acoustic guitars and singing the early blues suddenly became all the rage. Many were searched for, and found, sometimes in the most remote locations.

In Texas, this movement launched the careers of such aging black songsters as Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Black Ace and Lil’ Son Jackson, to name a few. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic in England, new bands like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Animals and others started fusing roots blues into the new rock ‘n’ roll and bringing their style to the U.S. market, producing the so-called “British Invasion.” The new sound from England was blowing American singers off the musical charts, while it was taking the whole musical world by storm. As Mississippi bluesman Muddy Waters aptly put it: “The blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.”

Being popular is one thing; preservation is quite another. It took a young white immigrant from Europe to put the two together by forming an independent recording label to preserve the early, mostly obscure, blues songs from the elderly, but still-living masters. These early blues songs had not gone completely unnoticed, however. Texas-born John Lomax and his son Alan had been making field recordings of blues and other roots music for the Library of Congress for decades, but an immigrant taking a leading role in this type of recording, and paying for it himself, should definitely be noted.  

Chris Strachwitz was that man.  He had immigrated with his family from Germany to the United States in 1947 and they eventually settled in the bay area of northern California. Chris founded his own label there called Arhoolie Records in 1960 specifically for the preservation of early blues, conjunto [south Texas Tejano music employing button accordions] and other ethnic music, such as Louisiana zydeco. Arhoolie comes from the field holler “hoolie,” used by black workers in cottonfields and other work places.

Chris knew he had to go looking for surviving blues masters, so he took his first field trip to Texas in 1960 to find a singer and guitarist he had heard tales about – Lightnin’ Hopkins, a resident of Houston. Ironically, Hopkins was on tour in California at the time, so the two were not able to connect then, but later hooked up in a small beer joint in Houston where Strachwitz recorded Lightnin’ while he strummed his guitar and made up songs on the spot. Listening to Hopkins play and sing “was like the opening of the Pearly Gates,” the stunned music recorder said.

“I never had my own studio,” Chris explained. “I just took my recorder to places where music was being played and turned it on.” Reflecting deeper, “My main aim was to document the best authentic downhome blues singers and try to sell the albums to a new, mainly young white ‘folk music’ audience,” he told the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA).

Traveling some 80 miles north of Houston, Chris discovered an aging black sharecropper living near the huge Tom Moore farm, who had unusual singing and playing skills – Navasota-based songster Mance Lipscomb. Chris was very impressed with the singer’s wide range of songs: “Most of his repertoire seemed to be on like a computer disc in his head.” Not surprisingly, Arhoolie’s first LP recording was called Texas Sharecropper and Songster, a collection of Mance’s songs. 

Chris Strachwitz’s many achievements are chronicled in the 2013 documentary This Ain’t No Mouse Music! Interestingly, the film never explains what “mouse music” is, or maybe we can only assume what it is not. Webster’s definition for the slang term “Mickey Mouse” is “childish, oversimplified, unrelated to reality.” Some musicologists have been more specific, calling Chris’ recordings “down home” music.

“The documentary illustrates the dramatic impact Strachwitz’s efforts have had on the music world — and on ‘world music.’ Notably, it shows how the Arhoolie recordings greatly helped popularize Cajun, Tex-Mex, bluegrass and other regional music styles while bringing some much-needed attention to some significant musicians,” writes Jim Harrington for the Mercury News.

Some 70% of all recorded blues music is now sold in Europe, especially in Germany. The Bear Family of Germany still holds the lion’s share of these sales. The company describes itself as “a collector’s record label” due to its primary business, which is reissuing rare recordings in CD format in small amounts. 

In May 2016, the Smithsonian Institution announced it had acquired Arhoolie Records from founder Chris Strachwitz and his business partner Tom Diamant for the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.