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.

McCormick has said that he never spent two consecutive years in any one school, and at each one, he was a bookish, picked-on fish out of water. "When I would live in Texas, the other kids would say, 'Here comes that smart-ass Yankee.' When I would live up North, they would say, 'Here comes that Texan. I bet he thinks he's really tough.'"

But all that traveling did serve him well in other ways. It attuned him early to the regional differences — the "varied carols of America" Walt Whitman once praised — that would fascinate him for the rest of his life. And his father, who would take him in from time to time, would infect him with a specific love of all things Texas. "He knew a lot of things that weren't found in books or anywhere else," McCormick says. "You wouldn't call him a folklorist, but he collected Texana."

By 1947, McCormick was more or less settled, living with his mother, who had at last found stable work at an osteopath's office in Houston's East End. Mack attempted without success to finish high school at Sam Houston, which was then located on the tough side of downtown. "Like all downtown high schools, it was really rough," McCormick remembers. "The boys carried zip guns, and years later, after I dropped out and was driving a cab, I would see the girls from my classes out walking the streets. The boys had turned them out. They were all on drugs."

"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.

Dropout or not, McCormick was able to persuade the editor of Down Beat, then as now America's premier jazz journal, to sign him up as a Texas correspondent. Through that job, he scored many an interview. Once he was sent to chat with Woody Herman, who had brought with him Ted Williams as a special surprise. Another time, McCormick scooped the national media by using a subterfuge to score an interview with Frank Sinatra.

"I knew he was staying at the Shamrock, so I called over there and asked to talk to his manager," he recalls. "I told him I had no interest in his personal life, and that I wanted to ask him about Drew Page" — a former sideman of Sinatra's — "and the guy I was talking to said, 'Drew Page?' And then in the background I could hear Sinatra say, 'Who wants to know about Drew Page?'"

When McCormick got into jazz, the music was still considered beneath the contempt of American polite society, which was then still more or less in thrall to British and European art and culture. (Not to mention terrified of the specter of race-mixing jazz, swing and nascent rock and roll brought into view.) McCormick's own involvement in music brought him by extension into the civil rights movement: McCormick once integrated a segregated jazz concert he promoted here by giving the police on duty conflicting seating instructions.

But McCormick was also busy tearing down other ignorant ideas, especially those regarding the superiority of European art over American.

"Back then all these critics, scholars and writers were still trying to get jazz considered as respectable," he remembers. "Just to get it respected was hard; then they would worry about having it classed as art. And then maybe even something that was really American that we should be proud of."

"That's so typical of America. We were still thinking only European art was valid," he says.

The Houston of the '40s and '50s was rife with a cultural inferiority complex. Back then, the "world-class" high art institutions — Jones Hall, the Alley Theatre and the like — were either just coming into being or altogether nonexistent, and as for native-born art, respectable Houstonians regarded the likes of Hopkins, country music Hall of Famer Floyd Tillman and zydeco king Clifton Chenier with disdain, if they even knew of their existence at all.

McCormick has always sung a different tune — if not one of himself, then one of his own country. He was there for the creation when American drama and American music, so-called high and low art, each came into its own.

"Mack has this sense of 'I'm going to express myself and if it doesn't fit with Old World ideas of literature, then so be it. Perhaps that's not what I am,'" says Wood. "I think that kind of stubborn independence and self-reliance really appeals to Mack because it is the story of his whole life."

Wood thinks the impulse that drew McCormick to American music was the same one that drew him to Whitman. "Whitman is to literature what jazz is to music," says Wood. "It's this attitude of 'My job is not to re-create what was passed to me, but to understand that tradition and make it new and mine and individual and to jam.' The real daring musicianship of a jazzman who isn't afraid to rip and isn't afraid to fail, to just follow the impulse with words on paper."

McCormick dove into the worlds of both drama and music. He was there when Nina Vance staged her first plays in the Alley, before it moved into the converted dance studio on Berry Street that was its home before it settled into that bunker-like edifice downtown.

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