The drama of In Cold Blood meets the stylings of a Coen brothers film in this long-lost manuscript from musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick, whose research on blues icon Robert Johnson's mysterious life and death became as much of a myth as the musician himself
When blues master Robert Johnson’s little-known recordings were rereleased to great fanfare in the 1960s, little was known about his life, giving rise to legends that he gained success by selling his soul to the devil. Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey is musicologist Mack McCormick's all-consuming search, from the late 1960s until McCormick’s death in 2015, to uncover Johnson's life story. McCormick spent decades reconstructing Johnson's mysterious life and developing theories about his untimely death at the age of 27, but never made public his discoveries. Biography of a Phantom publishes his compelling work for the first time, including 40 unseen black-and-white photographs documenting his search.
While knocking on doors and sleuthing for Johnson's loved ones and friends, McCormick documents a Mississippi landscape ravaged by the racism of paternalistic white landowners and county sheriffs. An editor's preface and afterword from Smithsonian curator John W. Troutman provides context as well as troubling details about McCormick’s own impact on Johnson’s family and illuminates through McCormick’s archive the complex legacy of white male enthusiasts assuming authority over Black people’s stories and the history of the blues.
While Johnson died before achieving widespread recognition, his music took on a life of its own and inspired future generations. Biography of a Phantom, filled with lush descriptive fieldwork and photographs, is an important historical object that deepens the understanding of a stellar musician.
Robert "Mack" McCormick and John Troutman
ROBERT "MACK" MCCORMICK (1930–2015) was an American musicologist and folklorist who researched the lives of blues musicians while supporting himself by writing, census taking, and in 1968 and 1971, working with musicians in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. JOHN W. TROUTMAN is curator of American music at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.