By Jay Brakefield
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.