For a blues researcher, particularly one who specializes in Texas Blues, a “lost” treasure trove of research materials suddenly coming to the surface is like stumbling into El Dorado. But that is exactly what happened in late February 2019 when Texas A&M University Press published The Blues Come to Texas by Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick, a work that was intended to be published decades ago. “Make no mistake — this is not some dusty tome, but rather a vibrant piece of research…it will be a source for blues researchers and aficionados to dip into with wonderment for years to come,” gasped a Texas Observer article. Some blues researchers say this book may indeed be the “holy grail” of Texas blues history.
“From October 1959 until the mid-1970s, Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick collaborated on what they hoped to be a definitive history and analysis of the blues in Texas,” states the book’s promo on Amazon.com. But somehow the book never surfaced, that is, until after both collaborators had passed. Let’s take a closer look at the extraordinary lives and careers of these two men, from different continents, but both possessing a common interest in the history of Texas Blues.
Paul Oliver (1927–2017) was professor at Oxford Brookes University in England and was a leading authority on American blues history as well as an expert on domestic architecture. Brett Bonner, the editor of the magazine Living Blues, said in an interview: “Paul was one of the founders of blues scholarship. He and Sam Charters set the template for everything that followed. They also set the stage for the blues revival of the 1960s. Without them, people like Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and Skip James would not have had second careers.” Oliver’s The Blues Fell This Morning (1960) was probably the seminal work on Texas Blues before the publication of the Blues Come to Texas (2019). “The former book and LP inspired a generation to discover this music, some to make it themselves, others to listen and develop their own ideas. Later books included Conversation With the Blues (1965), interviews from an American field trip in 1960; The Story of the Blues (1969), the first attempt at a comprehensive history; and Songsters and Saints (1984). They were accompanied by a constant flow of sleeve notes, articles, reviews, lectures and broadcasts,” states The Guardian obituary (8.31.17).
Robert “Mack” McCormick (1930–2015) was a folklorist and blues researcher widely acclaimed for his field interviews, extensive liner notes, and recordings with Texas blues musicians all over the state. “He found and interviewed relatives of Blind Lemon Jefferson, talked to acquaintances who knew Lead Belly before he came to New York in the 1930s and tracked down two of Robert Johnson’s half-sisters, who gave him previously unknown photographs of the most celebrated and mysterious Delta blues singer of all time,” claims The New York Times obituary (11.25.15). Maybe Mack’s greatest discovery was locating Mance Lipscomb, a blues singer from the 1920s, who was working as a sharecropper in Navasota, Texas. McCormick then managed to talk Chris Strachwitz, who had just founded Arhoolie records, into recording him for the first time. “After seeking out Mr. [Lightnin’] Hopkins in Houston in 1959, he brought him to the recording studio to make Autobiography in Blues, an album that put him at the center of the folk music revival,” says the The New York Times article.
So when Paul and Mack teamed up to write the definitive history of Texas Blues, researchers and aficionados all over the world held their collective breaths waiting for its publication. But the always suspicious McCormick was difficult to work with, claim many who tried. For decades the book languished in obscurity. But thanks to the tremendous organizing and compiling efforts of blues writer Alan B. Govenar (Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound) and ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell, the long-awaited The Blues Come to Texas finally saw the light of day.
If you are a blues researcher or just a fan interested in the music you cannot afford to ignore this massive work.