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.

Two of those unfinished works — the two-volume History of the Texas Blues (which grew to incorporate every form of Texas music) and Biography of a Phantom, a Robert Johnson biography — have been as eagerly anticipated by the scholarly music world as Guns N' Roses's Chinese Democracy has been by the hard rock crowd, albeit in Mack's case for decades longer.

In McCormick's possession are piles and piles of papers, lore organized in ways only he can understand. There are thousands of photos and negatives only he can place, stories only he can snap into context, origins only he can pinpoint. A vast swath of Texas culture lies in state here in his house, and there's another hoard in another home of his in the Mexican mountains, and still more treasure cached in storage in town.

And right now he doesn't know where it will all end up after he's gone.
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The King of Dowling Street: Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins striding through his Third Ward domain. McCormick rediscovered Hopkins in the late '50s and intermittently managed his career later.
Ed Badeaux
The King of Dowling Street: Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins striding through his Third Ward domain. McCormick rediscovered Hopkins in the late '50s and intermittently managed his career later.
Navasota "songster" Mance Lipscomb was one of the national treasures McCormick unearthed in his exhaustive, mid-20th century travels around Texas.
Jim Marshall
Navasota "songster" Mance Lipscomb was one of the national treasures McCormick unearthed in his exhaustive, mid-20th century travels around Texas.

That his eyes are going seems an especially vindictive twist of fate. It wasn't that long ago that McCormick finally got control of a bipolar disorder that cost him a decade or so of productivity, the weak third act of his life, and now the dark is at the door.

"Years ago, I went crazy," he says simply. "I got in the habit of going down to the Dunkin Donuts on Long Point where the cops drink their coffee and I would get in arguments with them. I used to bring in this big can of spray paint and tell the cops that they needed to paint their bumpers with their car number in huge numbers so people would know who they were when and if the cops were misbehaving.

"Poor cops," he continues. "They were just trying to drink their coffee. You have several tracks in your mind, and part of me could tell they hated to see me come in: Here comes that guy with the spray paint again. It irritated the shit out of them."

McCormick says decades of his life were warped by the illness. "There would be days I would spend 20 hours a day in bed," he says. "And then other times I would be on top of the world. ON TOP OF THE WORLD! Everything would be great. And I'd start up another book and I'd get pretty far along in that book. And then I'd crash back down. It was never a regular cycle. It was always unpredictable — I'd go back down in the ditch for a while and then come back with I GOTTA GREAT IDEA! Not that old book, that's tiresome."

McCormick would ride that endless merry-go-round for over two decades — all or part of the '80s and '90s. "I went 25 years waiting for them to invent the medicine that would make me get better," he says.

And yet, even before his eyes started failing him, he still had a hard time finishing his projects.

Part of it stems from a relentless drive to perfect every detail. A current project — the Dickinson/Whitman play — hit snags when McCormick had to determine if people in that time could strike matches or enlarge photographs, and each of those problems resulted in researching the history of those technologies. Then he needed to track down and read a copy of an 1860s short story called "Life in the Iron Mills," because Dickinson read it and thus he had to as well.

"He is such a perfectionist about tiny little points of historical detail," says Dr. Roger Wood, a professor of English at Houston Community College, folklorist and the author of Down in Houston and Texas Zydeco. "He is a better writer than I am in the sense of his attention to detail — I would just gloss over it and move on. But he gets really hung up on whether or not you could strike a match and light it in 1860, or could you blow up a photograph in 1855.

You could call it an attention to detail, but no doubt some psychologists would see symptoms of attention deficit ­disorder.

McCormick might not disagree. It would put him in pretty good company, to his way of thinking.

"Da Vinci never finished his paintings," he adds. "He got bored by the time he got to the corners."
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"Here's this 78-year-old self-reliant Bohemian guy who is in his own weird way a real Renaissance man," marvels Wood. "He's been involved in drama not only from the theatrical end, staging end, but also as a writer of drama. He's very much into food and what anthropologists call foodways — how people make and eat food and use it in unique contexts. He's done field recordings, he helped name zydeco (see "The Collector: Going Backwards"), he managed Lightnin' Hopkins for a while — any one of those things would make him significant in our city's history."

Robert Burton McCormick was born in Pittsburgh in 1930. Gregg and Effie May McCormick, his parents, were pioneering X-ray technicians, among the first in the world to be trained in the technology. McCormick says his father had little trouble getting well-paid work. His mother was not so lucky — she met with ­Depression-fueled gender discrimination, and as a result, McCormick says he became a feminist. What's more, his parents' divorce propelled McCormick on a gypsy-like childhood, as his mother traveled from place to place seeking work — Pittsburgh, Denver, Ohio, New York, Alabama, Texas.

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