Folklorist’s Collection Gives New Voice to the Blues

Smithsonian exhibits rare recordings of unknown blues history from a Texas archivist.
Folklorist’s Collection Gives New Voice to the Blues
The Smithsonian’s “Treasures and Trouble Exhibit.” (Laura Duff/Smithsonian)
Dustin Bass

The blues is an American creation. The somber tones of the Deep South found their rhythms and voices in the genre. It is a category of music that has long been overwhelmed by the surge of mainstream tunes—tunes that lack the one thing blues has always and must always possess: soul. Robert “Mack” McCormick was a blues enthusiast who, perhaps more than anyone else, captured the soul of the blues.

McCormick was born in Pittsburgh in 1930, but moved to Houston at 16. Introduced to Texas blues at a young and somewhat impressionable age, McCormick was completely impressed, going so far as to drop out of high school to pursue a career as a folklorist. Over the course of several decades, he delved deep into the world of the blues and the lives of its artists to produce a treasure trove of American musical heritage. That treasure trove now resides at the National Museum of American History in Washington.

Scads of Archival Material

According to the museum’s recently opened “Treasures and Trouble: Looking Inside a Legendary Blues Archive” exhibit, this archive boasts “100 linear feet of unpublished manuscripts, original interviews and research notes, thousands of photographs and negatives, playbills, posters, maps, booking contracts and business records” along with 590 reels of field recordings.

“McCormick’s collection is sprawling and runs deep,” said John Troutman, curator of American Music for the National Museum of American History. “Much of this material focuses on the lives of blues musicians operating in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in periods ranging from the early 20th century through the 1970s.”

McCormick covered the gamut of musicians, but he, being from Texas, preferred those from the Lone Star State, from high profile blues artists, like Mance Lipscomb and Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins, to lesser-known singers, pianists, and guitarists. His passion hinged on obsession, as there were times McCormick would spend years tracking down an artist or their family members just to interview them.

“Once finding them, he excelled in building rapport and often spent hours interviewing people about the music that made them tick,” Troutman said.

New Insight Into the Blues

Troutman noted that McCormick’s collection gives insight into a part of American history that is relatively unknown. He said that it allows researchers, blues enthusiasts, and visitors to the museum to understand the blues in several ways.

“The archive includes many of [Hopkins’ and Lipscomb’s] original booking and recording contracts, tour schedules, correspondence, promotional materials, and many more unique documents that shed new light on the business of the blues in the late 1950s and 1960s,” he said.

“Likewise, his chronicle of lesser-known artists, including interviews with and recordings of virtually unknown semi-professional musicians, reveals the larger, community-based phenomenon of how the blues was performed and how it resonated locally throughout the neighborhoods, pubs and pool halls, street corners, and other locations that he visited throughout the Deep South. It also provides unique insight into the nature of the relationships between white managers and critics and black artists during the rise of the modern civil rights movement.”

McCormick’s musical library is not just important for the posterity of these individual artists, but for the posterity of this scarcely practiced musical genre. The blues itself, especially the songs of the era McCormick was recording, plays a large role for American posterity, as these tunes help tell part of the American story.

“First developed by African Americans living in the South in the late 19th century, its songs can convey great sorrows, and sometimes quite explicitly the horrors of living in the Jim Crow South,” Troutman said, “while they can also celebrate freedoms—the freedom felt by musicians traveling on the open road, the freedom to love and to revel in the company of friends and family.

“The blues is central to any understanding of American music,” he added. “It is a uniquely American genre that provides the base from which so many more genres soon emerged—jazz, rhythm n blues, country music, rock n roll, modern gospel, even hip hop. You can find the blues in the heart of all of those definitively American musical genres. The blues as a messenger of intimate sentiment, of personal sorrows, of social critique, as well as social and even spiritual revelry—all rooted in uniquely American experiences—continue to flourish in those genres, while audiences for the downhome traditional blues still support a healthy community of new guitar heroes, songsters, and vocalists, from Celisse Henderson to Dom Flemons and Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram.”

One wall of the Smithsonian’s “Treasures and Trouble Exhibit.” (Laura Duff/Smithsonia
One wall of the Smithsonian’s “Treasures and Trouble Exhibit.” (Laura Duff/Smithsonia

Publishing the Archive

For some reason, this 20th-century folklorist was drawn to the Southern blues. Through the many years, his indigo Texas roots sprawled across the region, touching the lives of many by his interest in their talent and their stories. Although McCormick suffered from depression and paranoia, according to Troutman, the music of the blues may have “provided some sort of a salve for him.”

A few years after McCormick died in 2015, his daughter Susannah Nix and the Smithsonian connected. She wanted a place where her father’s work would be most appreciated. When the Smithsonian expressed interest in housing the archive, the massive collection made its way to the museum. Troutman and other museum creators and researchers have only just begun exploring the collection.

Recently, the museum, through its Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, released “Playing for the Man at the Door.” This first album compilation pulls from McCormick’s 590 reels of field recordings, which span from 1958 to 1971. The artists range from blues legends, like the aforementioned Hopkins and Lipscomb, to many unknown artists. There are 66 songs on the album that cover gospel, ragtime, country blues, dirges, and other genres, some even considered “unclassifiable.”

“While [McCormick’s] illness came to stifle his efforts to publish much of his work, the archive includes all of it,” said Troutman, who was a producer on the album, “and I imagine that we'll see more and more of it published in the future.”

Would you like to see other kinds of arts and culture articles? Please email us your story ideas or feedback at [email protected]
Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.
Related Topics