Biography Of A Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey
Robert "Mack" McCormick, Edited by John W. Troutman, Smithsonian Books, 2023, 264 pages
These words echo so loudly throughout this long-awaited biography of blues pioneer Robert Johnson that they drown out any sign of the story surrounding the artist's life. There exists more human failure and frailty in the story of the search for the preternaturally elusive specter to render Robert Johnson and his story, pedestrian and common. Forget about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads one Delta Summer midnight. That is just so much Romantic meringue. No, the only people selling their souls were the ones looking for him.
It is the editor of the biography, the Smithsonian's John W. Troutman who sums up what began as a labor of love before descending into madness thusly (if not overwrought):
"This book, then, ultimately is less about the life of Robert Johnson than it is about the human hellhounds and psychological phantoms that affected everyone involved. Their impact and reverberations seem interconnected and boundless, beginning with the lynchings and other racially motivated violence that terrorized and jeopardized Johnson's family as well as Black communities throughout Mississippi during the early 1900s. They extend to the ineffable consequences of entombing Johnson's humanity in a mythology that ascribed his musical brilliance literally to the doings of the devil, rather than recognizing, the labor of his craft, the allusions and allegory in the poetic wellspring of Black songwriters that Johnson was drawing from and replenishing [My emphesis], They manifest in the historic plunder and exploitation of Black music and musicians by the record industry, and the toll weighed on Johnson's family members as they endured decades of litigation over Johnson's recordings and likeness."
From a folk history point of view, this was exploitation at the hands of McCormick and his anthropological nemesis, Steve LaVere, two white men whose interest and love for the music chased a superstition down the rabbit hole, finding something much darker with little or no resulting self-awareness. Troutman goes on to broaden his point:
"[These human hellhounds and psychological phantoms] manifest in the condition that both fueled McCormick's manic research production and vast assembly of knowledge, and that also relentlessly tormented him, constraining his ability to make good choices, and then expanding the suffering of all those around him when his choices were bad. It is a story of tragedy, suffered by all, where mental health plays a role, but so does racism, greed, and the instruments of white supremacy in the legal system and corporate structure in which the concerns of [Johnson's sister] Carrie Thompson were so easily and consistently dismissed."
Johnson is but an "innocent bystander" in his own story, it having been hijacked first by well-meaning but poorly-directed amateur historians and archivists and then by the simplest of motivations - greed.
I have written elsewhere that the story here is not that of Johnson, but the search for Johnson. No single work has addressed this story, the real story. That story begins with a group of well-intentioned and idealistic folk enthusiasts searching for the indivisible subatomic particle of American music and ends with the development of Tallahatchie Flats.
Should the reader want to read about Robert Johnson and his place in American music, I suggest three books:
Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad Press. 2004)
Bruce Conforth & Gayle Dean Wardlow, Up Jumped The Devil: The Real Life Of Robert Johnson (Omnibus Press, 2019)
Annye C. Anderson & Preston Lauterbach, Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson (Hachette Books, 2020).