Since he was nineteen, Mack McCormick has pursued the answers to two questions. He is now forty-seven, and although he is much closer to the answers than he was when he was nineteen, he would be the first to agree that those two questions remain unanswered, elusive, and tantalizing enough to devote another lifetime to answering them. Yet those questions are very simple: where did blues music begin and why did it begin there?
McCormick’s interest in the blues began when he was growing up. His parents were separated and he lived part of the year in Dallas and the rest in Sandusky, Ohio. Listening to the radio in each place, he became fascinated with the regional differences in music. By his late teens, when he was living permanently in Houston, this fascination had become his main interest. He had already contributed an article to a New Orleans jazz journal named “Playback” when a street corner meeting on a winter afternoon sealed his future. He was waiting for a light to change at a corner near the old Union Station in Houston when he saw a very tall old man with an odd, elongated head, wearing layers of ragged coats and jackets and carrying a guitar. McCormick parked his car and caught up with the man a block or so away. “I’d never done anything like that,” McCormick remembers now. “I was basically a shy kid and didn’t really feel at home in Texas, but I’d been reading and hearing about street singers and wandering bluesmen, and when I saw him I was so curious it overcame my shyness.”
The meeting itself was disappointing. McCormick could understand only occasional snatches of what the man said—he had slept under a bridge the night before, he’d come into Houston on a freight, and once he’d made some records—and when the man sang, his lyrics were no more understandable than his speech and he banged away on guitar strings that were dead and far out of tune. He also played a flat metal instrument of his own devising, something rather like a kazoo, that he held in his mouth even while he sang. Still, the man’s voice was memorable, however ravaged it had been by time, and he showed a certain hard-won nobility of bearing that McCormick found almost awesome.
Eventually the man wandered away leaving McCormick excited by the encounter, and now more curious than ever who the hobo musician might have been. That was in 1949, and at that time there was not much interest in America in early jazz and blues. The old 78s and the artists who made them were lost and forgotten, and except for the Index to Jazz compiled by an eccentric scholar from New Orleans named Orin Blackstone, there were no American discographies which would give any clues to what records had been made. Europeans, however, had always found jazz and blues fascinating and given that music serious scholarly attention. To McCormick’s surprise, he discovered that the greatest collections of early American jazz records were in England, France, and Belgium. He began corresponding with these critics and collectors and was a bit bewildered at first by their replies. They weren’t sure who the man on the street corner might have been, but they asked him in return, could he tell them about Texas bluesman like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Texas Alexander, “Funny Paper” Smith, Bessie Tucker, Son Becky, and many others. Except for Blind Lemon, McCormick had never heard of them.
He began to search for bluesmen in order to satisfy not only the Europeans’ curiosity but his own; very quickly those two questions about the origins of the blues began to nag him. During his search for their answers, he has become one of the most prominent folklorists in the country (despite his lack of academic degrees), a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution, the author of numerous articles, a tireless field researcher who has studied folk ways and folk music in over 800 counties across the country, and the producer of a handful of records which are among the most important of their kind ever to come out of Texas. And—finally—he discovered the name of the hobo musician who had first inspired him on that Houston street corner.
Although McCormick has spent much of his life searching out small dives, honky-tonks, and backwoods roadhouses where he could hear raw, authentic, original blues, he does less of that now. Instead he spends most of his time on what will be the culmination of his career: a definitive, two-volume study called The Texas Blues. He works in a large office in the front room of the ranch-style house in northwest Houston that he shares with his wife and young daughter. Around him are his tools: shelves of record albums and tapes, more shelves of books, music periodicals, and scholarly journals, and a wall of stereos, tape decks and recorders. Immediately to the right of his desk, taped to the side of a gray filing cabinet, is a map of the United States marked with blocks of red that he ponders from time to time. The blocks represent the black population throughout the country in 1910. “The common assumption,” he says, staring at the map, “is to think that blues music originated in areas with large black populations, but that’s not necessarily true. When I started researching in Texas, I was amazed to discover that sometimes there would be a number of singers from a certain area, say three or four in each county in a four county area and then I would go for twenty or thirty counties with the same or greater black population and there wouldn’t be a single musician to speak of. Now, take the whole southeast coast”—it was virtually a solid red on the map, a far greater density than anywhere else—“with all that population they didn’t produce much of anything in the way of blues.” He leaned closer to the map. “There’s only three important places, really. Atlanta