'Playing For the Man at the Door' Showcases Legendary Mack McCormick Collection
In the 1950s and 60s, the blues was the dominant form of Black vernacular music throughout Texas and the surrounding areas. In segregated neighborhoods, community members gathered in saloons, dancehalls, and each other’s homes to hear their neighbors sing their stories of sorrow, heartbreak, jubilation, and triumph. Robert “Mack” McCormick, an academically untrained but fanatical devotee of the blues, stepped into this world and became one of its most devout advocates and documentarians. By photographing Black and Latino Texans and their neighborhoods, as well as recording and interviewing musicians—many of whom never stepped foot into a proper recording studio—McCormick endeared and eventually embedded himself into these communities. By the time he died in 2015, McCormick had amassed a collection of 590 reels of sound recordings and 165 boxes of manuscripts, original interviews and research notes, thousands of photographs and negatives, playbills, and posters. Because McCormick never published or released most of these materials, his collection became a thing of legend and intense speculation among scholars, blues aficionados, and musicians alike.
On Aug. 4, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings will release Playing for the Man at the Door: Field Recordings from the Collection of Mack McCormick, 1958 – 1971, a three CD/six LP box set of previously unheard field recordings from McCormick’s archive that includes a 128-page book of photographs from the collection and essays by leading blues scholars from the Smithsonian and beyond.
Playing for the Man at the Door is the first compilation of music drawn from this fabled collection, which indelibly documents a pivotal moment in African American history. It features never-before-heard performances not only from musicians who became icons in their own right—including Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb – but also, crucially, performers whose names may be unfamiliar to even the most devoted blues fans and scholars. Newly mastered recordings and accompanying photographs bring to life many of these forgotten figures: offering insight into their lives and illuminating in new, enlightening ways their joys and anguish, deep social connections, distinctive voices, and cultural networks. The collection spans gospels, ragtime, country blues dirges, the unclassifiable music of George “Bongo Joe” Coleman, and more, showing that no community, no matter how tight knit, is monolithic.
The accompanying book contains breathtaking photographs by McCormick and his associates, as well as contextual essays by producers Jeff Place and John Troutman on McCormick’s life, and by musicians Mark Puryear and Dom Flemons on some of the marginalized communities throughout “Greater Texas” to which McCormick devoted his life’s work. This release is a partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which will exhibit items from the collection beginning June 23. On April 4, Smithsonian Books will release Biography of a Phantom, a book on the life and legacy of blues musician Robert Johnson that was left unfinished and unpublished at the time of McCormick’s death. The publication offers new insights into the life of one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
The holdings in this collection offer a glimpse into a rarely discussed time and place in African American history, and these upcoming projects give voice to often overlooked communities and individuals while acknowledging the problematic elements of how the recordings and objects were collected. “McCormick’s field recordings allow us to ponder the possibilities, power dynamics, problems and promise associated with interactions between ‘folklorists’ and ‘the folk,’ between a white collector and mostly Black artists, at a time and in places where Jim Crow traumas continued to prevail,” said John Troutman, curator of music at the National Museum of American History, co-producer of Playing for the Man at the Door and editor of Biography of a Phantom.
“As McCormick sought to find the next commercially viable Huddie 'Lead Belly' Ledbetter or Mississippi John Hurt, what he found was far more sublime – a rich tapestry of voices by people who had entertained their families, neighbors and communities long before and long after folks like McCormick came knocking. Although many of the people featured in McCormick’s collection were little known beyond their intimate circles of family, friends, co-workers, fellow buskers, nightclub patrons and church congregants, the musical traditions they nurtured and sustained, cultivated and innovated, will continue to nourish and prompt contemplation for all who hear their voices.”
Playing for the Man at the Door: Field Recordings from the Collection of Mack McCormick, 1958 – 1971 is out on Smithsonian Folkways on August 4, 2023 and is available for pre-order now.