Mack Mccormick loves to tell the story of Joe Patterson and the quills. Patterson was a musician from Alabama, who had performed at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1964. He played the quills, or panpipes, like the ones the dancing goat-god Pan is always pictured waving. But Patterson, a childlike man who sometimes threw violent tantrums, wound up in an Alabama asylum, where McCormick went to visit him in 1968. He had no quills to play, so McCormick paid two guards to go down to a nearby river and cut some reeds. As rural musicians have done for ages, Patterson trimmed and hollowed the reeds, holding them together with white hospital tape instead of the bright rag strips he once favored. Then he played his quills as he did growing up, just as people had played them for generations. To McCormick, listening to Patterson’s “lovely jumble of sound”—he also whooped and banged a tambourine—was like hearing the first music ever played. “People had to invent music to suit themselves and their community,” McCormick says. “It’s the purest kind of tradition.”
Sitting in his northwest Houston home last September, McCormick pulled out ten reeds held together by faded brown tape. They were Patterson’s, and McCormick handed them to me. Instinctively I held them to my lips and blew a disastrous tune. McCormick didn’t mind; actually, he seemed pleased. For a few seconds I was directly linked to Patterson as well as to Texas quills player Henry Thomas and thousands of unknown pipers. For McCormick, who has spent the better part of his 71 years chasing down singers, songs, stories, games, recipes, and other folklore, it’s all about connections—between citizens, between artists, between ideas, and between the stories that bubble in his brain after a lifetime of collecting: how he wrote songs with Lightnin’ Hopkins, how he unplugged Bob Dylan, how Mance Lipscomb made him weep. One story inevitably segues to another, often in unpredictable ways. At one point McCormick told me about a version of the croquetlike game roque that was played in oil fields with a ball and giant mallets, and before long he was talking about Lipscomb, who had lived in Navasota. Then he paused, as if looking for something in a pocket in his brain, and said, “Oh, I know, this is the connection,” and he was off again.
“Mack is one of the most important Texas vernacular-music historians,” says Arhoolie Records president Chris Strachwitz, himself a collector for forty years. McCormick “discovered” and recorded living musicians, like Lipscomb and Hopkins, and reimagined the lives of dead ones, like Robert Johnson. He’s written dozens of magazine articles and album liner notes. He’s worked for the Smithsonian Institution. He’s knocked on more doors than a traveling salesman, seeking … connections. “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,” says Peter Guralnick, the author of many acclaimed music books, including two about Elvis Presley and several about the blues. “He pursued it in territories where there were no maps and no rules.”
After McCormick’s decades in the field, he has amassed one of the most extensive private archives of Texas musical history in existence. He has hours of unreleased tapes, perhaps twenty albums’ worth of field and studio recordings by Hopkins, piano players Robert Shaw and Grey Ghost, Lipscomb, zydeco bands, and the polka-playing Baca Band. He took pictures everywhere he went and owns some 10,000 negatives, many of famous artists and many more of the army of unknowns he rescued from oblivion. Then there are his notebooks, which are like the Dead Sea Scrolls, holding thousands of pages of field notes and interviews testifying to the amazing diversity of Texas music, not just blues. Maybe the most important thing McCormick did was to document the lives and music of a broad group of some of the American century’s most-influential musicians, people like Lipscomb, Thomas, Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, and Blind Willie Johnson. Much of the archive sits in storage in Houston, much more at a place McCormick owns in the mountains of Mexico. And it’s in danger. The pages are fading, the tapes need restoring, and McCormick is sufficiently hoary to worry about dying suddenly with no home for it all. As Strachwitz says, “It would be a horrible tragedy if all his stuff disappeared.”
McCormick calls his archive the Monster, a term of both affection and fear. Inside the Monster are secrets—on the origin of the blues, on the story of Texas music, and on the lives of some of the greatest musicians in American history. But the Monster holds secrets about McCormick too, about “some destructive block,” as he puts it, that has kept him from completing the many history books he has begun over the past half-century. “I’m the king of unfinished manuscripts,” he told me with a self-conscious, pained laugh. Maybe it was the agony of writing. Maybe it was the seclusion. Maybe it was just the blues.
McCormick shuffles around the home he’s lived in for thirty years with a cane, favoring a bad left knee. Last fall he suffered an aneurysm in his left leg, and it still hurts. He has snowy white hair and big glasses; he looks a little like crime writer James Ellroy, though without the bulldog ferocity. He has a reputation for being a crusty, reclusive old crank, and he rarely sits for interviews. Indeed, it took several phone calls and a long letter expressing my interest in doing a story on his search for Robert Johnson before I received a reply. No, he was not interested in the story I proposed, but he would cooperate on one that called attention to his collection. He was looking for a benefactor, someone to save it, and he invited me to see it firsthand. I jumped at the chance.
I spent several days with him last fall and winter, and though he can be irascible, he