Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey

Robert “Mack” McCormick
Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey

The legend of Robert Johnson looms large, from his music to the myth of the Faustian bargain made at the crossroads, and his death at 27, ostensibly murdered by poisoning. Author McCormick, who died in 2015, was a musicologist who relentlessly investigated Johnson’s life and was part of a group of obsessed researchers known as the “Blues Mafia.” In their eyes, raw Delta blues was authentic music, unlike urban blues. McCormick wrote – and rewrote – his manuscript on Johnson several times before giving up.

Editor John W. Troutman wrote the fascinating preface and afterword, explaining how the work was published despite hurdles. McCormick had a difficult life; he was arrested for forgery and battled depression and paranoid delusions that crept into his research and writing. While what we know about Robert Johnson mostly comes from recollections and hearsay, some memories remain evocative. A woman in Friars Park, Mississippi, recalls, “They say he went down the country and got killed. He stayed right in this room here and his guitar was always over there in that far corner, if it wasn’t in his hands.”

Truth or myth, Phantom is a beguiling read.

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

No posts to display