The Collector: Mack McCormick's Huge Archive of Culture and Lore

A great American folklorist has spent a life squirreling away bits and pieces of Texas culture. Now time is running out on him and his inventory.

An evening at Mack McCormick's house in Spring Branch always has the same structure, if vastly different forms. First things first: drinks. At 78, the widower is not getting around like he used to, so he asks his guest to fetch them. In his freezer there are Tupperware bottles filled with precisely measured cocktails of McCormick's own mixing — margaritas, martinis, gin and tonics.

Gin in hand, he leans back in his easy chair, cane by his side, Post-it note-­festooned books in easy reach all around him, beloved spaniel Charles at his feet, and the tales start spilling out of him, not as a torrent, but more like a mighty, bending river of lore.

"Old people live to the end of their money," Mack McCormick says. "I lost about $40,000 on the markets last week, so I figure that's about three years gone for me."
John Tennison
"Old people live to the end of their money," Mack McCormick says. "I lost about $40,000 on the markets last week, so I figure that's about three years gone for me."
Author Dr. Roger Wood says McCormick takes a jazzman's approach to life: stubborn independence and self-reliance rule.
Daniel Kramer
Author Dr. Roger Wood says McCormick takes a jazzman's approach to life: stubborn independence and self-reliance rule.

He explains where he got that New Mexican wood-carving of San Rafael, the explicit Kama Sutra candle and the Inuit carving that are all nearby, and then he reminisces on the origins of the Alley Theatre, where he was a stagehand in the earliest days. Next he will swerve toward his travels on the trail of Delta blues phantom Robert Johnson (an endeavor which recently saw him discussed in a Vanity Fair feature; see "The Hoodoo Curse"), and then he'll switch back sharply through his chance meeting of Ted Williams in the Lamar Hotel coffee shop downtown in the late '40s. That story will veer into an account of his conversations with Tennessee Williams outside another playhouse on Main. Eventually he will end up back where he started, at the nascent Alley Theatre, which, as he can tell you by experience, really was once accessible only through an alley, and seated about 80 people.

"You could see the nose hairs on the actors in there," he says. "It was ­mesmerizing."

His Audubon Society kitchen clock will chime on the hour: Since it is seven o'clock, it will chirp a cardinal's call.

And then he will impart how he codified the spelling of the word "zydeco," how he met the hobo Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas (one of the earliest-born and most scholarly-vital African-­American musicians ever to record) on the street near Annunciation church downtown on a blustery winter's day.

Then there was his out-and-out discovery of Mance Lipscomb on the front porch of his Navasota cabin, and his rediscovery of Lightnin' Hopkins in 1959. (By that time, African-American audiences had passed Hopkins by and the musician was leading a life of obscure dissolution.)

Or the times, when, as the local correspondent for Down Beat magazine, he interviewed giants of American song including Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, face to face.

"Never ask them a question they've been asked before," he will advise. "Never."

The bird-clock chimes again, this time as a chickadee.

Or maybe he'll get rolling on the places he's lived and the jobs he's had — the chicken ranch he worked on in south Alabama, his gig wiring airplanes, his stints as a Houston taxi driver, Fourth Ward ­census-taker, Ohio record store clerk, associate of the Smithsonian Institute. And then there was the time he pulled the plug on Bob Dylan at the legendary 1965 Newport Folk Festival, not because Dylan famously went electric, but because Mack's act — a singing work gang of Texas ex-convicts he managed and brought to the festival — was next and he needed the stage.

All of that plus learned discourses on poet heroes Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, the eight plays he has finished (one of which was staged in London to disastrous reviews), the eight books he has not, and the play about Whitman and Dickinson he has likewise not finished.

"In the 20th century you had screen stars," he'll say. "Walt Whitman was a still-star. He was the first guy to figure out how to look good on camera."

And there again goes the Audubon clock, this time with the melancholy moan of a mourning dove.
_____________________

Time is running out for Mack McCormick. He'll look at you from under his shock of snow-white hair and tell you so, with his characteristic black humor. "Old people live to the end of their money," he says. "I lost about $40,000 on the markets last week, so I figure that's about three years gone for me."

Of more immediate concern, Mack McCormick's world is already dimming around the edges. His eyes are failing him. He suffers from both macular degeneration and a condition called Fuchs' dystrophy, a malady of the corneas in which the eyes lose the ability to drain themselves of water. If untreated, the disease causes progressively indistinct, blurry vision.

Today, McCormick reads with a powerfully lit magnifying glass and wears an eye-patch to shroud his overly sensitive left eye. He's dithering about when to have an eye surgery his doctors are urging on him. After all, he's got that play to finish.

"My third act is weak," he says. "It really needs some work."

It's a particularly cruel condition for a man like McCormick, whose eyes are his all. His voracious reading and voluminous writing have been curtailed, and what's more, much of his life's work remains unfinished. There's that play and the manuscripts, some needing only nips and tucks, and others needing drastic ­overhauls.

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