John Jeremiah Sullivan Versus the Blues Hunter

I spent last evening utterly absorbed in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s account of his search for two long-dead blues singers, “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie,” which takes him through blues history and the history of blues history and then some more layers after that. I hope to write more on this later, for the story raises all sorts of issues about the scope and limits of magazine journalism; about how the writer can claim certain rights and set certain terms early in the piece, such as the right to write in long paragraphs, to use vernacular structures, to rough up the language a bit; I’d love to see the exchanges Sullivan had with the Times Magazine’s famously careful copy editors.

In the meantime, here’s one of favorite passages, occurring about a fifth of the way into the piece, in which Sullivan pivots from the pencilled outline of his supposed quarry, the singers Geeshie and Elvie, and introduces the figure who is in many senses the subject’s real and most mysterious figure: an ingenious but flawed historian named Robert McCormick:

There was, in those early days, another individual, one less easily slotted into the Wikipedia story line of blues history. A young man named Robert McCormick, who went by “Mack.” In Ohio as a teenager, he fell under the wizardry of jazz, listening to the bands at a nearby amusement park. The musicians, he learned, were invariably curious about the availability of certain species of contraband; he knew where to get it and found that this could put him pretty much anywhere, into any room. He had a mind bent in the direction of curating undervalued things. In his teens, he went to burlesque shows, presumably the only one in the audience with a notebook, and wrote down accounts of the comedy skits, stock bits with vulgar names, the Pickle Caper, things no one would have thought to remember, and possibly no one did, but they’re in McCormick’s files.…

Searching for records led to searching for the people who made them, and McCormick had natural gifts when it came to approaching strangers and getting them to talk, or if they could, to sing and play. He had a likable, approachable face, with pronounced ears and intelligent eyes. He took a job with the census, expressly requesting that he be assigned the Fourth Ward, the historic African-American neighborhood in Houston settled by freed slaves who migrated there from all parts of the South, where he knew he would find records and lots of musicians, going house to house. The fables of his research are legion. He drove unthinkable miles. At one point he started traveling county by county or, rather, he started moving in a pattern of counties, from east to west, marking a horizontal band that overlapped the spread of slavery west from the Atlantic colonies. He investigated 888 counties before he was finished. He asked about everything, not just music but recipes, dances, games, ghost stories, and in his note-taking, he realized that the county itself, as an organizing geographical principle, had some reality beyond a shape on the map, that it retained in some much-diminished but not quite extinguished sense, the old contours of the premodern world, the world of the commons, how in one county you would have dozens of fiddle players, but in the very next county, none — there everyone played banjo. He began to intuit a theory of “clusters,” that this was how culture worked, emanating outward from vortices where craft-making and art-making suddenly rise, under a confluence of various pressures, to higher levels.

Elaborating that theory would be his great work, or part of it. He never elaborated the theory. It’s frank, but I don’t think unfair, to say that he won’t. He’s in his mid–80s; his health is shaky. His archive of tapes and transcripts is a labyrinth even to him. He calls it the Monster. He has been open, too, about a lifetime’s battles against psychological obstacles, specifically a sometimes paralyzing bipolar disorder. The mania that drove him to those superhuman exploits of cultural questing could turn on him and shut him down when it came time for the drudgery of organizing facts and notes. You can find a very moving “open letter” from him, published in Blues Unlimited in 1976, saying, essentially, “Help”; saying, “I’ve gathered this material, this data, and it has swallowed me.” In one letter he mentions having been made aware, at a recent meeting of the American Folklore Society, that certain people in the community were upset with him, because he was hoarding so much knowledge. He’d uncovered more than almost anyone, about this music they worshiped, yet he had published less than almost anyone. It was holding them back, holding the discipline back. But what did they want him to do? Give it away? It was his work.

It gets plenty more complicated after that. More later, I pray, as time allows.


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