Mack McCormick has been principally known for different things at different times of his life. In the 1960s, during the folk, blues and rock and roll boom, he was best known nationally as the man who brought both Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb out of the shadows.
As their images have dimmed with the passage of time, it has been his connection with Robert Johnson, the doomed James Dean of the blues, that has, fairly or unfairly, retained its luster. Johnson's hoodoo-drenched life and death has now fascinated hipsters worldwide for four of five generations, and continues to do so to this very day.
McCormick succumbed to this great American mystery long ago. Though McCormick refuses to speak much on the record about Johnson, his tortured, tangled role in the saga is recounted in the November edition of Vanity Fair.
"[The article] mistreats me a little more," McCormick says, with a wry, hard-to-read smile. "It confuses things a little more."
Back in 1972, when McCormick was working with the Smithsonian, he managed to track down two of Johnson's surviving half sisters outside of Washington D.C. The women gave McCormick a number of photos of Johnson — all of which are yet unseen by the wider world — and, reportedly, also assigned McCormick publication rights to them. Around the same time, McCormick went to Johnson's hometown of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and claimed to have talked to the man who murdered Johnson.
All of this information, including the photos, was to have gone in McCormick's life story of Johnson, tentatively entitled Biography of a Phantom. Before that book could be published, however, another collector/historian by the name of Steve LaVere also visited Carrie Thompson, one of the two Johnson half sisters, who allowed him to make copies of two more photos — the one of Johnson in the natty pinstriped suit and the one with the cigarette hanging from his lip — that she had dug up since McCormick's visit.
For a 50-50 split of any future royalties, Thompson signed an agreement with LaVere that gave him "her right, title and interest, including all common law and statutory copyrights" to the photographs, not to mention the rights to Johnson's music. (Whether she was truly the next of kin to Johnson at the time, and thus authorized to enter into this deal, is still being debated.) The deal also made LaVere the agent responsible for collecting royalties and granted him the right to "to use whatever means at his disposal to make such collections."
In 1975, LaVere approached Columbia Records with the idea of reissuing Johnson's music, accompanied by the photos he had unearthed. The project was moving ahead when McCormick heard of the deal and notified Columbia of his prior deal with Johnson's sisters. The project was stymied for 15 years, until after the birth of the CD, when Columbia released Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. LaVere's name is all over the record, while McCormick's is nowhere to be found.
Roughly ten years ago, the notoriously litigious LaVere attempted to sue McCormick to gain possession of the photos the half sisters had given him. McCormick prevailed. Few people have seen these photos, one of which is of Johnson together with his nephew, a Navy man wearing a sailor suit. And for his part, McCormick told Texas Monthly journalist Michael Hall in 2002 that he had abandoned work on Biography of a Phantom.
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The Vanity Fair article ushers McCormick out of the story by quoting an anonymous source which said that McCormick ditched the book because he was afraid of LaVere's litigation.
"I'm not scared of litigation," he says. "I've found out one thing about litigation: All it is is a game that lawyers and judges play to expand their incomes."
Instead, he says, he abandoned the project out of a sense of disgust that an intellectual pursuit and labor of love could inspire such greed.
And you also get the impression that McCormick is just flat tired of Robert Johnson. The bluesman's myth — the since-disproven account of his selling his soul to Satan in the Mississippi moonlight — has outshone not just his own music, but also that of equally talented contemporaries like Son House and Skip James. And now McCormick has likewise met the fate of James and House: much of the vital work he has done in other areas is overshadowed by the doomed young bluesman's hoodoo-drenched myth.