Robert Burton “Mack” McCormick, folklorist, musicologist, and historian who documented music and culture, especially that of Texas, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 3, 1930. He was the son of Gregg Manson McCormick and Effie May McCormick. His parents were x-ray technicians who traveled the country and trained doctors to use the equipment. They divorced when he was two years old, and McCormick lived alternatively with each parent in many states, including Ohio, Alabama, Colorado, West Virginia, and Texas. In 1946 when he was sixteen years old and still in high school, McCormick, a fan of jazz and swing music, had the opportunity to work as a gofer with Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, and other musicians who traveled to Cedar Point, Ohio, to perform on a national radio program. That same year, and without finishing high school, McCormick moved to his mother’s home in Houston, where he made a trip to New Orleans and met Orin Blackstone who made him Texas editor for the final two of four volumes of Blackstone’s Index to Jazz: Jazz Recordings, 1917–1944, which was published in 1948.
McCormick’s early jobs included barge electrician, carnival worker, and cook, and by 1948 he was working on the first of many plays he would write but never publish. McCormick became the Texas jazz correspondent for Down Beat magazine in 1949. However, his work as a cab driver in Houston exposed him to the city’s diverse music genres and was the catalyst that piqued his interest in the music and culture of the area. During this time period, McCormick began booking and managing bands and recording, producing, and publishing music. He became known as “Mack.”
McCormick is credited with reviving Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins’s career and recorded his Autobiography in Blues in 1959. The next year, McCormick took a job with the U.S. Census Bureau, where he asked to be assigned to Houston’s Fourth Ward. There he discovered, documented, and recorded more than 200 piano players who played in a style called barrelhouse, “Santa Fe style,” or fast western piano, and who were all trained by pianist Peg Leg Will. This discovery highlighted for McCormick the “distinction between neighborhood and state” and “how a local style will become a regional characteristic.”
In 1960 during the country blues revival, McCormick and Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records discovered Mance Lipscomb, a proto-blues-style guitar player from Navasota, Texas. McCormick produced three of Lipscomb’s albums for Reprise. McCormick also recorded, compiled, and wrote the liner notes for a compilation of blues, folk, and country music entitled The Unexpurgated Folksongs of Men that was released in 1960. That same year, 77 Records released a two-album set of country, folk, and blues recorded by McCormick, Pete Seeger, John Lomax Jr., and others. Called A Treasury of Field Recordings, the album showed the musical richness of the Houston and East Texas area. McCormick composed the voluminous liner notes.
McCormick recorded barrelhouse piano player Robert Shaw in 1963 and started his own label, Almanac Records, in 1965. He released his recordings of Shaw as Texas Barrelhouse Piano on his label Almanac that same year. It was the only album McCormick ever released on his own label. McCormick continued to record musicians in a variety of genres, including blues, Texas swing, conjunto, and zydeco. He recorded prison work songs, folk songs, and cowboy songs. He collected toasts, recipes, and oral histories. Most were never released but instead were absorbed into McCormick’s immense home archives. In 1965 Alan Lomax asked McCormick to bring a group of singers who were incarcerated in the Texas prison system to the Newport Folk Festival. When McCormick was thwarted in his efforts by the Texas attorney general, he instead drove a group of ex-convicts to the festival. In a story often told and mythologized by many, including McCormick himself, McCormick allegedly pulled the plug on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band led by Bob Dylan when they refused to relinquish the stage to make time for his act to sound check.
The Smithsonian hired McCormick as a cultural historian for the 1968 Festival of American Folklife, which profiled Texas as its featured state. While working at the Smithsonian in 1970, McCormick discovered bluesman Robert Johnson’s death certificate along with the names of two people who possibly witnessed his murder. McCormick found the two witnesses, then, according to McCormick’s account to fellow Johnson scholar and author Peter Guralnick, he also found the murderer. In 1972 the search led McCormick to Johnson’s two half-sisters in Baltimore. From them, McCormick received two photos, the first known photos of Johnson, along with first publication rights. Unfortunately for McCormick, in 1973 one of the sisters sold the rights to administer Johnson’s estate to Steve LaVere, who approached Columbia Records with two photos he had received from Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Thompson. Columbia agreed to list LaVere as co-producer on a Johnson recording in return for the use of the photographs. McCormick approached Columbia, and the release of the two-CD set of Johnson’s recordings was stalled for sixteen years. It was released in 1990 with no mention of McCormick.
Very little was known about Texan Henry Thomas, who performed proto or early blues and recorded in the 1920s, until McCormick followed his trail across the state. McCormick wrote the approximately 10,000-word liner notes for the 1974 Herwin Records compilation Henry Thomas: “Ragtime Texas.”
McCormick loved field work and believed that researchers should go into the field with an open mind; he stated, “The way to do field research is always from a standpoint of ignorance. Don’t decide beforehand what you want to find—leave your preconceptions out of it.” McCormick was an active researcher and recorded and collected vast amounts of rich resource materials. However, he struggled finishing longer, book-length projects.
Over his lifetime, McCormick built a massive home archive of field notes, photographs, and recordings he called the “Monster.” He published irregularly, and historians, musicologists, folklorists, other scholars and researchers worried that the rich resources he collected, including approximately 10,000 negatives and hours of unreleased tapes (many of which needed preservation and restoration), were unavailable to researchers. McCormick, who suffered from bipolar disorder, associated his depression with what he called a “destructive block.” He meticulously researched Robert Johnson, particularly the mystery surrounding his death, for a biography entitled Biography of a Phantom. Unfortunately, the project was never finished. By 1971 McCormick and British blues scholar Paul Oliver had completed thirty-eight chapters of Texas Blues, but it was also never finished.
In 2014 a New York Times Magazine article titled “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” rekindled previous accusations that McCormick hoarded his research material. Writer John Jeremiah Sullivan visited McCormick and inquired about early twentieth-century blueswomen “L.V.” or Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley, and McCormick shared the information he could find. A student, Caitlin Rose Love, was hired with Sullivan’s assistance to help McCormick organize his archives. After McCormick fired Love, she shared documents related to L.V. Thomas with Sullivan that she had copied from McCormick’s archives without his permission. Sullivan published Thomas’s words from a transcript, and he defended his actions and asserted that he was “legally in the clear, as one cannot own somebody else’s speech.” Others, including McCormick and his daughter, felt that the research had been stolen. McCormick’s daughter sent a scathing correspondence to the Times regarding its publication of a “story predicated on the admitted theft of a person’s life work.”
McCormick was known as many things—researcher, blues scholar, historian, ethnomusicologist, anthropologist, and folklorist. He documented the blues as well as other genres, mostly from Texas, including zydeco, polka, Texas western swing, and conjunto. A future location for his archive, including his recordings of and research and scholarship on blues greats such as Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Shaw, Henry Thomas, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, and Robert Johnson, was still unsure as of 2017. At that time, writer and filmmaker Alan Govenar was working on the book on Texas blues based on McCormick’s and Paul Oliver’s research from the 1960s.
McCormick married Mary Badeaux, a Houstonian who worked at Baylor School of Medicine, in 1964, and their daughter Susannah McCormick Nix was born in 1971. McCormick lived in Houston during his adult life and died of esophageal cancer on November 18, 2015, in his Houston home. He was buried at Memorial Oaks Cemetery in Houston.