Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey By Robert Mack McCormick, John Troutman (Editor) Cover Image

Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey (Paperback)

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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

"This is a human and humane book, an insightful exploration of the biographer’s craft. [...] McCormick’s book makes you feel what we lost when Johnson died young." —New York Times

"Reads like noir fiction. It's a detective story riddled with fatalism and ambiguity carried out by someone who, like the archetypal noir hero, isn't a detective but an ordinary guy in a dismal, often violent setting searching for what can't be found." Wall Street Journal

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.

About the Author

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.

Praise For…

"This is a human and humane book, an insightful exploration of the biographer’s craft. [...] McCormick’s book makes you feel what we lost when Johnson died young."

"Reads like noir fiction. It's a detective story riddled with fatalism and ambiguity carried out by someone who, like the archetypal noir hero, isn't a detective but an ordinary guy in a dismal, often violent setting searching for what can't be found. In another sense, Biography of a Phantom reads like Moby Dick—as voiced not by Ishmael but by Ahab, the obsessed sea captain seeking an outcome that is doomed from the start."

"It's a completely engrossing exploration of the South, one that only elevates and deepens what Robert Johnson achieved as an iconoclastic musician who was said to have sold his soul to the devil for his mastery. McCormick's book also has the added gift of revealing how a great biography can be assembled."

"This edited version of the manuscript could stand on its own as a revelation, but the contextual material adds to the intrigue. [...] A worthwhile investigation into a true legend of the blues."

"This page-turner, crime-thrillerlike odyssey leads readers through the American South for details about the blues guitarist. [...] VERDICT McCormick conveys a wild enthusiasm for his research and the music of Robert Johnson that readers will find contagious." 

"This volume is a significant contribution to scholarship on Black culture and the blues, told by a  flawed man whose perseverance, patience, diligence, and methodical methods provide valuable insights into Robert Johnson and the milieu from which his music sprang."

"McCormick shaped those findings into this incisive, empathetic, and insightful musical spy tale. Biography of a Phantom is as much about his dizzying pursuit of Johnson than the fragmented portrait he found at its end. Beautifully rendered and unabashadely probing...Phantom is folklore as both fable and action-adventure novel."

“McCormick had grand ambitions for Biography Of A Phantom. Inspired by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, he writes it like a crime thriller. He has a novelist’s eye for scene-setting [and his] criticism comes in poetic blasts.”

"Revelations abound within Biography of a Phantom. The foremost revelation is how good the book is: Almost nobody would have expected to see something so well-crafted, with such command of voice and tone, seemingly finished and fully realized. The posthumous publication of the book, which the author himself insisted would never be published, provides us an opportunity to reflect on two strange legacies: not only Robert Johnson’s but also Mack McCormick’s."

"Mack McCormick was a peculiar American hero: a searcher driven to go places no one else went, where he found, interviewed, and recorded guitarists, pianists, and singers who still stir us today. To Mack, scholarship wasn’t everything, not compared with curiosity, moxie, and old-fashioned hustle. Often more interested in telling a good story than in getting his facts straight, he perhaps had more in common with the artists he loved than with the journalists, historians, and academics with whom he now—finally—shares bookshelf space. If you love music, you have to feel some sort of unsettled affection for Mack and his beautiful, damaged mind."

"Ultimately, the resulting biography manages to offer new insights for Johnson obsessives as well as the merely curious."

"Biography of a Phantom creates a fascinating portrait of Johnson that is mostly unresolved and contains several dark and deeply personal undertones."

"Biography of a Phantom is far more compelling for what it shows about McCormick, from the way he approached strangers as a White man traveling through the rural South to the way he tried to throw others off his trail."

"What comes through loudest in Biography of a Phantom — for me, the book’s real takeaway — is McCormick’s tenacity, resourcefulness and creativity. His inspired fieldwork makes for inspiring reading. He persevered despite failure after failure, returning six and seven times to the same spot, often with a new angle of approach, new conversational gambits to try out on his suspicious informants."

"When in 1973 Mack McCormick first told me about Biography of a Phantom, he called his search for the facts of Robert Johnson’s life 'a detective story,' and it is. But what McCormick really found and brought home is a gorgeous intimacy with Johnson’s works and days, all culminating in a 1970 Mississippi listening party where people who knew Johnson more than thirty years before, who heard him play, who played their now long-gone Johnson 78s until they wore out, gather to hear King of the Delta Blues Singers. McCormick’s research may have been superseded by other books; the spirit in his book, a thing in itself, has not been. Not even close." —GREIL MARCUS, author of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music

"One of the most coveted books in blues scholarship, Biography of a Phantom is truly a brilliant firsthand account by Mack McCormick. While it is a book about Robert Johnson, it is also a window into Mack’s idiosyncratic method of folkloric research. In a world without reference books dedicated to the blues, one can’t help but be drawn into Mack’s search through a sea of small southern towns for a specter of a blues singer." —DOM FLEMONS, The American Songster

"At long last, a legendary manuscript sees the light of day. In the half century since Mack McCormick began his Biography of a Phantom, Robert Johnson has become much less phantom-like, with numerous books, articles, and films devoted to illuminating his life and legacy. It is instead McCormick who has become a mystery—and who is this book’s most compelling revelation. Through Smithsonian historian John Troutman’s editorial framing and McCormick’s own narrative, we understand for the fi rst time the real life of a phantom, just not the one McCormick intended. —PRESTON LAUTERBACH, author of The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ’n’ Roll

Product Details
ISBN: 9781588347817
ISBN-10: 1588347818
Publisher: Smithsonian Books
Publication Date: February 6th, 2024
Pages: 264
Language: English