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.

He remembers hanging around with Tennessee Williams outside another playhouse on Main. Williams was in town staging a production, and McCormick the aspiring playwright would attempt to pick the master's brain while Williams smoked outside. "He was a sweet guy, he had that Southern accent and he acted like he didn't know he was famous," McCormick remembers. He further recalls that Williams always seemed distracted. "For some reason in that part of town, there were always lots of muscular young men around, and Williams was always trying to make eye contact with them."

With or without any meaningful input from Williams, McCormick seemed to have a bright future as a dramatist at the time. He recalls that after a chance meeting with an English ballerina here in Houston, one of his plays was shipped to London and staged there by one of the top companies — the same one that won fame for many of the works of England's "Angry Young Men" movement. McCormick says that his play was trashed. "One of the critics called it 'the fag end of American neo-expressionism.' Do you know what 'fag end' means? A worthless piece of rope."

Since then, none of his plays has ever been staged.
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"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.

Dramatic setbacks aside, McCormick was doing well as a cultural historian. He tracked down Hopkins in 1959 and got him recording again after a hiatus of several years. When Chris Strachwitz came to town looking for talent to record for his nascent Arhoolie label, it was McCormick who took him to Mance Lipscomb and Hopkins. (Hell, it was McCormick who named it "Arhoolie".) He married Mary Badeaux in 1964 (they would have a daughter in 1971) and he recorded numerous albums, ranging from two volumes of his field recordings to an album by Fourth Ward barrelhouse pianist Robert Shaw to another of bawdy songs, poems and recitations called The Unexpurgated Folk Songs of Men. (Full disclosure: my late grand­father delivers a raunchy recitation on that last record.)

Both to bankroll these pursuits and also to engage in them more directly, McCormick took day jobs that enabled him to talk to large numbers of ordinary Houstonians. The taxi-driving gig was one such. Another was his job with the Census Bureau, which he took in 1960.

"Nobody wanted to do the 'Negro' or 'colored' sections," he recalls. He eagerly volunteered.

McCormick would ask the questions he was instructed to ask, and then others of his own devising, such as "Who plays the music here? Where do you go to dance? What did you do there?"

There he stumbled on what he regards as one of his most impressive feats of scholarship. He has always been fascinated by points of origin, and here he found the whole shebang of an entire style of blues and boogie-woogie piano playing.

Armed with what he had learned from his census job, and aided by Edward "Buster" Pickens, McCormick started zeroing in on a clear point of origin — ground zero in Fourth Ward for what came to be known as "the Santa Fe" style of piano playing. (It owed its name to the railroad that then cut through Fourth Ward.)

"At that time, grocery stores and drugstores liked to have people hanging around," he says. "That's why you hear about the cracker barrel. This is what this store called Passante's was like — the owner had a cracker barrel on the front porch, checkers, he had kids hanging out. And then one day he got a piano and put it on the porch."

Sooner or later that piano was commandeered by one Peg Leg Will, a New Orleans-trained survivor of that city's ancient, rough-and-tumble whorehouse/gambling joint milieu.

"He was from an earlier generation — this was the '20s, and he was from the turn of the century. He started hanging around there and playing, and then the kids started hanging around, watching him. The same kids who might have just left the baseball field. Peg Leg Will would let them take over and he would watch while they would compete against each other."

Eventually, McCormick would connect 212 full-time or part-time professional piano players back to Peg Leg Will's front-porch academy. "I have never heard of any cultural outburst like this. Fourth Ward had about 10,000 people then, so you had 212 of them go on to play music professionally. Think of the Renaissance, where you had millions and millions of people and 20 or 30 were outstanding artists. Here you had 212 out of 10,000."

But in typical McCormick fashion, answering all those questions only brought on more.

"What that doesn't explain is where these kids got all that talent," he says. "That's the problem. You and I could have walked down the streets of New Orleans in 1900, and little kids would have come around begging pennies, and that would have been Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton, who I guess would have been fully grown then. But where the hell did they get so much talent? I'm talking before it developed, where did it come from? Where did they get that innate ability in one locality? Is it true in other localities? Does it take someone like Buddy Bolden to come along and influence them? Is the talent that develops there also elsewhere but not developed?"

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