HOUSTON, April 19, 2023 – Smithsonian Books recently released Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey, a book on the life and legacy of blues musician Robert Johnson that was left unfinished and unpublished at the time of famed folklorist Mack McCormick’s death. The publication offers new insights into the life of one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
The book originated from a manuscript written by the late Robert “Mack” McCormick and was part of his blues and folklore archives, which were donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History by McCormick’s daughter, Susannah Nix, an award-winning romance author. For five years, Baker Botts, led by partners Bill Kroger and Roger Fulghum, advised and represented Ms. Nix and the McCormick Estate on a pro bono basis.
Reviews have poured in from a range of media outlets that include The New York Times and Rolling Stone. The New York Times called the book “an unseen masterpiece,” and further stated that “McCormick is a patient writer about why Johnson’s music matters, how his lyrics “stung the mind” and how his performances made the words linger.”
The book was edited by John Troutman, Curator of Music and Musical Instruments at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Troutman’s preface and afterword provide context as well as troubling details about McCormick’s own impact on Johnson’s family. Troutman’s co-curated exhibit on McCormickʻs legendary archive is opening at the museum in June of 2023. He has also co-produced a six-LP box set from the field recordings of McCormick, set for release on Smithsonian Folkways in August of 2023.
When blues master Robert Johnson’s little-known recordings were rereleased to great fanfare in the 1960s, little was known about his life, giving rise to legends that he gained success by selling his soul to the devil. Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey is McCormick's all-consuming search, from the late 1960s until McCormick’s death in 2015, to uncover Johnson's life story. McCormick spent decades reconstructing Johnson's mysterious life and developing theories about his untimely death at the age of 27, but never made public his discoveries. Biography of a Phantom publishes his compelling work for the first time, including 40 unseen black-and-white photographs documenting his search. McCormick documents a Mississippi landscape ravaged by the racism of paternalistic white landowners and county sheriffs.
McCormick, who lived most of his life in Houston, was one of the foremost folklorists in the United States. Starting in the 1950s, he documented and preserved information on the lives and music of musicians throughout the South, and especially Texas. He accumulated a massive archive of unreleased recordings, photographs, interview tapes, research notes, correspondence, essays, and other materials pertaining to Texas and Southern music and folklore. His archive also contains materials from his years managing the careers of famous Texas musicians such as Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, correspondence with musicians and other folklorists like Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax, and research on the lives of important musicians such as Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
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