BIOGRAPHY OF A PHANTOM: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey, by Robert “Mack” McCormick
“There is no tyranny,” Robert Hughes wrote in 1990, “like the tyranny of the unseen masterpiece.” He was talking about painting but his observation also applies to literature. Anatole Broyard and Harold Brodkey are among the sovereign examples — writers who were said, in their time, to be working on epic novels that would flatten the competition. People gave them a wide and fearful birth. Broyard’s never appeared. Brodkey’s (“The Runaway Soul”) arrived after nearly 30 years and was judged to be less than flattening. So it goes.
In the obsessive world of blues scholarship, the tyrannical figure has long been Mack McCormick and the unseen masterpiece his biography of Robert Johnson (1911-38), some five decades in the reporting and writing.
Johnson is a titan of American music, though he died at 27 and recorded only 29 songs. Facts about his life were initially hard to come by, and myth rushed in to fill the void. You know the folk legend: Down at a crossroads, Johnson bartered his soul to the devil for mastery of the blues guitar. When you heard the songs, like “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Cross Road Blues,” the myth wasn’t hard to buy into. It didn’t even seem like a bad trade.
The fever over McCormick’s long-anticipated biography broke a long time ago. His work has been superseded by several well-reported and myth-busting biographies of Johnson, and a memoir by the singer’s stepsister. But seven years after McCormick’s death, at 85, here comes his book, in a modest and expurgated form, under the title “Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey.”
Where has it been? Part of the story was explained by John Jeremiah Sullivan in a much-discussed 2014 New York Times Magazine article. Sullivan described how McCormick gathered and hoarded mountains of esoteric knowledge, about Johnson and other vernacular American musicians, and sat on his archive for decades while publishing almost nothing. Other scholars became so frustrated that they began to debate the ethics of forcibly taking the stuff away from him.
McCormick’s story is further explained by John W. Troutman, the editor of “Biography of a Phantom,” in a preface and afterword. The short version: McCormick was a sensitive and painstaking researcher who slowly, over the decades, grew paranoid and came unglued. He never finished his book and prevented others from writing theirs.
Like a carton of cigarettes, “Biography of a Phantom” comes wrapped in advisories. Whether because of mental illness or moral turpitude, McCormick did bad things, it is explained. He’s the guest of dishonor at his own banquet.
He kept enemies lists. He threatened people with physical violence. He lied about nonexistent contracts. He forged documents to throw others off the trail. He treated Johnson’s survivors poorly. He held up reissues of Johnson’s songs, which influenced dozens of rock musicians and permanently altered our sense of American music and culture.
Troutman situates him within the “small group of white male enthusiasts” who “assumed an extraordinarily outsized impact on national, even global conversations about Black music.” Troutman considers the ways that “racism, greed and the instruments of white supremacy in the legal system and corporate structure” play a role in the tangled stories of white scholars and Black musicians.
No doubt all this is true, and these conversations matter. The funny thing about “Biography of a Phantom” is, after you wade through the trigger warnings, how earnest and low-key and appealing McCormick’s manuscript is.
The book draws from early drafts, written in the 1970s, not long after McCormick had completed his fieldwork. He’d wanted to write it as a kind of thriller, in the manner of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” about his search for the truth about the life and death of a musician who thrilled him. He just about succeeded.
We follow McCormick as he travels down back road after back road in rural Mississippi, knocking on doors, talking in barbershops, hanging out in pool rooms, hitting dead ends, turning his car around. He has little money and eats canned food in cheap hotels. He creates maps, crisscrossed with information, that resemble the evidence boards detectives use.
He is liberal of politics, deploring of racism and excruciatingly aware of himself as an outsider. Many Black people in the rural South think he’s a cop or a debt collector. “Ain’t you the fellow that comes just before trouble breaks?” one man asks. But he is persistent, and charming in his way.
The Robert Johnson we meet in this book remains somewhat blurry and indistinct. He wasn’t a big personality, people tell McCormick. He was soft-spoken; he held people’s attention only when he played.
Johnson grew up in the Mississippi Delta with his mother and stepfather, an illiterate sharecropper. He hated farm work and fled to Memphis whenever he could. Early on he played a drugstore harmonica and a jaw harp, then annoyed older musicians by noodling on their guitars when they weren’t around. He got pretty good.
He was a slender man with tapering fingers. He was said to be shy, but sometimes recklessly bold around women. There was a strong music scene in the Delta and in Memphis, and he thrived in it, playing on street corners and in juke joints. People tend to remember him playing the popular songs of the time, more so than the somber and stabbing work that came to define him.
His legacy is based on two recording sessions, one in San Antonio in 1936 and one in Dallas in 1937. Some of the songs were released as 10-inch, 78-r.p.m. singles. But it wasn’t until their re-release in 1961, under the title “King of the Delta Blues Singers,” that the world took notice. Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton are among the musicians who have cited Johnson’s lyrics and guitar playing as vital influences.
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. “Everything about these records,” McCormick says, “made one curious to know more about the man who’d created them.”
This is a human and humane book, an insightful exploration of the biographer’s craft. McCormick gets tired and lonely. He sighs on his couch and gloomily watches daytime television. He’s perspicacious but also a bit hapless. He reminded me of the wised-up but melancholy narrators of Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes” and John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
Late in “Biography of a Phantom” he begins to get some breaks. He finds a cluster of people who knew Johnson well. There’s a moving scene in which McCormick holds a listening party for friends and neighbors who hadn’t heard Johnson’s songs since his death (probably at the hands of a jealous husband) 30 years earlier. About the party, he writes: “I had to stumble over half of Mississippi, wind up here, get all these people together, and then — maybe for the first time — really listen to Johnson’s music.”
McCormick’s book is no longer unseen, nor is it a masterpiece. But, reading it, you feel as though you’ve met a real writer, one who had a lot going for himself and let it all slip away.
Ray Charles said that singers don’t reach their full potential until 50, because a whole life shows up in the voice. McCormick’s book makes you feel what we lost when Johnson died young.
BIOGRAPHY OF A PHANTOM: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey | By Robert “Mack” McCormick | 232 pp. | Smithsonian Books | $29.95