Mack McCormick, a folklorist who spent a lifetime searching out forgotten or unrecorded blues singers all over Texas, helped revive the career of Lightning Hopkins and unearthed a trove of historical material on hundreds of blues singers, including Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lead Belly, died on Nov. 18 at his home in Houston. He was 85.
The cause was complications of cancer of the esophagus, Susannah Nix, his daughter, said.
Mr. McCormick found his calling as a music researcher in 1946 on a trip to New Orleans, where he fell into conversation with Orin Blackstone, a record store owner who was compiling a four-volume discography, “Index to Jazz.” On the spot, Mr. Blackstone recruited his young visitor to be the Texas editor of the index’s final two volumes, and sent him forth to hunt down old records.
As a teenager in Ohio, Mack had haunted carnivals and local burlesque shows, taking notes on comedy skits. His interest in vernacular culture in all forms easily transferred to music. As his focus turned to the blues in the 1950s, he talked to people on the street, followed leads, made shrewd guesses and, traveling countless miles on local roads, crisscrossing nearly 900 counties across the country, made discovery after discovery, accumulating material that grew into an archive he called the “monster.”
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.
He located Mance Lipscomb, a blues singer from the 1920s working as a sharecropper in Navasota, Tex., and persuaded Chris Strachwitz, who had just founded Arhoolie records, to record him for the first time.
After seeking out Mr. 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.
“Mack set out to live his life on his own terms with all the passion of someone who has made a vocation of his avocation,” the music historian Peter Guralnick told Texas Monthly in 2002. “He pursued it in territories where there were no maps and no rules.”
Robert Burton McCormick was born on Aug. 3, 1930, in Pittsburgh. Both his parents, who divorced soon after he was born, were X-ray technicians. He grew up in Alabama, Colorado, West Virginia and Texas, as his mother, who raised him, traveled looking for work.
A jazz buff, he worked as a teenager in a ballroom in Cedar Point, Ohio, running errands for Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton and other musicians in town to play a local radio show that was broadcast nationally.
Over the years, Mr. McCormick, who did not finish high school, worked a variety of jobs: electrician on a barge, short-order cook, carnival worker, taxi driver. In 1949, living in Houston, he became Down Beat magazine’s Texas correspondent. Along the way he kept his ears open and took notes on local customs and rituals, games, tall tales, dances, songs.
“In each job, I found myself intrigued by the virtually unknown, unexplored body of lore that characterizes a working group,” he told Texas Monthly.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a granddaughter.
In 1960 Mr. McCormick signed on with the Census Bureau, asking to be assigned to Houston’s Fourth Ward, a black neighborhood. With a foot in every door, he found his way to an entire population of professional pianists who played “Santa Fe style,” a local variant of the roadhouse style known as “fast western piano.” The name came from the Santa Fe Railroad, whose tracks cut through the ward.
All of them, he found, could trace their musical roots to Peg Leg Will, a New Orleans native who used to play on the porch of Passante’s Italian grocery store in the early 1900s. He later recorded one of his finds on the album “Robert Shaw: Texas Barrelhouse Piano,” the first and only release from Almanac records, which he founded in 1965.
The folklorist Alan Lomax invited Mr. McCormick to bring a group of prison singers from Texas to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, a creative idea vetoed by the attorney general of Texas. Mr. McCormick assembled a group of former convicts and, because they had never performed together, tried to get them on stage for a run-through. Bob Dylan, rehearsing with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, refused to yield the stage.
“I was trying to tell Dylan, ‘We need the stage’,” Mr. McCormick told Texas Monthly. “He continued to ignore me. So I went over to the junction box and pulled out the cords. Then he listened.”
Some music historians theorize that this episode gave rise to the apocryphal tale that Pete Seeger, incensed at Mr. Dylan’s use of electric guitars, attacked the cables with a fire ax.
In the early 1970s, Mr. McCormick became obsessed with an obscure artist from the 1920s, Henry Thomas, known as Ragtime Texas, whose music straddled the boundaries between the blues and older forms like reels, ragtime and gospel.
By visiting the towns mentioned in a railroad song of Thomas’s, “Railroadin’ Some,” and analyzing his accent, Mr. McCormick found his way to Upshur County, Thomas’s birthplace, and, interviewing people who had known him, put together a rich, evocative history of his life and times. It was included as the liner notes for “Henry Thomas: ‘Ragtime Texas,” a collection of Thomas’s 23 known recordings, released by Herwin records in 1974.
Mr. McCormick, who had bipolar disorder, often threw himself into projects with ferocious energy, only to abandon them. For years he collaborated with the British blues scholar Paul Oliver on an encyclopedic work, “The Texas Blues,” which was abandoned when the two had a falling-out. He tried his hand at playwriting, with little success.
Over time, the archive became a burden. “In 1958 when I began serious documentary recording and field research it was not my plan to acquire such a mountain,” he wrote in an open letter to the magazine “Blues Unlimited” in 1976.
For years, he followed the trail of Robert Johnson, planning to write a definitive account of his life, tentatively titled “The Biography of a Phantom.” He began to have doubts about his own evidence. The book never materialized.
“Da Vinci never finished his paintings,” he told The Houston Press in 2008. “He got bored by the time he got to the corners.”
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