Playing for the Man at the Door: Field Recordings from the Collection of Mack McCormick 1958-1971 Unveils a Legendary Archive

Music Reviews Mack McCormick
Playing for the Man at the Door: Field Recordings from the Collection of Mack McCormick 1958-1971 Unveils a Legendary Archive

In our current cultural landscape it’s hard to imagine the critic and curator as a figure of much practical power beyond maybe a vague academic prestige. Perhaps a few people have heard of John and/or Alan Lomax, and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music does get revisited at intervals, but the impact and heft of the “Blues Mafia” that John Troutman describes in his preface to the recent release of Robert “Mack” McCormick’s “lost” Robert Johnson opus Biography of a Phantom, was, at least in its moment, very real. While many classic-rock fans know the general outline of the storyline whereby English art school scruffs with names like Jagger, Clapton and Page took American blues music and reintroduced it in the 1960s and 1970s to (white) audiences in this country who were otherwise oblivious to it, it was people like Mack McCormick whose recordings, writings and “field work” a few decades earlier created the pipeline that resulted in the very records that found their way overseas.

Living in what now feels like a bizarre intertidal zone between the forces of pure musicology, old timey anthropology, the commercial demands of the nascent music business, working-class idealism and their own obsessions, this group of mostly white men who dedicated lives to researching, documenting, analyzing and assessing a body of American “folk culture” to varying degrees likely fancied themselves as some measure of Indiana Jones-style archeologists, even if history now tends to shade that as something closer to tomb raiders. But these people were also the reason we still talk about Robert Johnson, and the recordings they captured are undoubtedly deeper cultural patrimony, even if their collection methodology has some tang of questionable aftertaste.

Even among this category of guy, Mack McCormick was a complicated character. Prior to the Smithsonian’s recent acquisition and assessment of his archives, and the attendant release of Biography of a Phantom and this box set, to the extent McCormick was known in broader circles, it was as a spurned collaborator who had engaged in legal battles with Robert Johnson’s family and whose would-be definitive Johnson biography collapsed in a hail of false narratives and bad vibes and was never actually released. While he did write for a variety of outlets, develop and promote concert programs and undertake extensive research, he was also dogged by mental health issues and even had a pattern of inserting fabrications in his notes as a paranoid poison pill against feared misappropriation of his work by others. His daughter Susannah Nix’s introduction to this box’s extensive liner notes gesture at the greater complexity at play–that of a man on a quest that was never fully resolved.

The riches he did succeed in capturing, however, were undeniable. Playing for the Man at the Door focuses on recordings McCormick made throughout what he called “Greater Texas” (sweeping in corners of Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas but not straying much further towards the Delta) between 1958 and 1971 (a particularly productive period in his life in music), and is studded with now-known names like Lightning Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, the latter of whom had found his way to Arhoolie Records through McCormick’s introduction. While Hopkins is the implicit “star,” of the collection, as is often the case in archive dives, the joy comes from the weirder things found in the corners. Particularly unique are the captured performances of George “Bongo Joe” Coleman, a percussive street performer whose idiosyncratic delivery and insistent thump suggests a Gulf Coast Moondog, albeit one more steeped in Caribbean motifs. Blind Lemon’s cousin Dennis Gainus’ only known recordings appear here, as do the earliest known Cedell Davis recordings (Fat Possum enthusiasts take note), all beautifully recorded in some cases in live performance spaces and in all cases as Mack found them. McCormick even succeeded in capturing a rare Joe Patterson recording employing “quills”–a pan-pipe-like instrument cut from local reeds and taped together. Moreover, there’s a tonal variety here that is refreshing, revealing McCormick’s interests expanded well beyond solo guitar country blues to include embryonic zydeco, piano boogie woogie, gospel and, yes, even fully electrified Texas blues.

Those telling McCormick’s story often emphasize his skill in eliciting the trust of those who shared their time with him in interviews and performances–no mean feat for a white stranger imposing himself on black performers in the Jim Crow South, a stage the collection’s title is calculated to set. It’s particularly stunning, then, that the performances here are often so free and energetic–there’s no museum piece air about any of it, a tone set from Lightning Hopkins’ jump with “Mojo Hand” on side one, track one. Even the occasional piece of more self-conscious archeology (be it an auctioneer recording or a medicine show pitch) doesn’t convert Playing for the Man at the Door into a drier piece of academic study or historical curiosity–the music here kicks and rambles, shudders and shakes–it’s the stuff of rural dance halls, raucous bars and impromptu community parties. Whatever more serious trappings we’ve imbued it with, the pulse of classic blues is its raw vitality. Check out “It’s My Life Baby,” a raucous electric recording from an unknown Houston club performed by the almost equally mysterious Blues Wallace–no essays to be had here, just a gut punch.

Other standouts include Robert Shaw’s stomping version of “The Clinton,” a piano song whose lineage followed the Santa Fe Railroad line, a rare R.C. Forest and Gozy Kilpatrick take on “Cryin’ Won’t Make Me Stay,” which features a rambling harmonica line against tight percussive guitar and a pithy Jealous James Stanchell take on “Don’t Do Me No Small Favors (Help the Bear)” urging “if you see me and a bear fighting, help the bear and don’t help me.” While McCormick only ever chased Robert Johnson’s ghost, some of the lesser known artists here could easily have become their own legends in amplified context–while Lightning Hopkins does stand out as a performer, steeped in greater mystery and a harder-won discograpy his cousin Billy Bizor could have turned mainstream heads himself.

Stripped even of all context, it’s the hours of varied and vital music that make Playing for the Man at the Door worth a deeper listen. Fascinating as McCormick’s story may be, he’s really just the frame here, and while undoubtedly a fair amount of thought went into selecting the 66 recordings from his voluminous collection to include here, on a fundamental it remains an inherent grab bag–structure it as you will, the music is the real message. As always!

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