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Smithsonian Readying a New Robert Johnson Biography and a Trove of Unheard Field Recordings

The releases are the first based on material from the collection of storied folklorist Robert “Mack” McCormick

A new Robert Johnson biography and a box set of previously unheard field recordings are among the first releases the Smithsonian and Folkways are planning from the collection of storied folklorist Robert “Mack” McCormick.

The Johnson book — Biography of a Phantom — will be released on April 4, with the new box set titled Playing for the Man at the Door out August 4. The National Museum of American History will also start exhibiting items from McCormick’s collection on June 23, with the display running for two years. More releases and events centered around the McCormick collection will be announced soon. 

Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey promises to offer “new insights” into the life of the legendary blues musician. McCormick spent decades researching Johnson, starting in the late Sixties, but the folklorist never shared any of his findings, with the biography remaining unfinished and unpublished at the time of his death in 2015. Biography of a Phantom will include 40 unseen black-and-white photos documenting McCormick’s work and research over the years.

As for Playing for the Man at the Door, the three CD/six vinyl LP collection features 66 never-before-heard performances from an array of Black artists, including legendary figures like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. The recordings were made between 1958 and 1971 across what McCormick referred to as “Greater Texas,” a region that encompassed Western Louisiana, East Texas, and parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas. 

Folkways has shared one of those performances, “Train Roll Up” by Leroy “Country” Johnson and Edwin “Buster” Pickens.


The music will be accompanied by liner notes from musicians and scholars Mark Puryear and Don Flemons that will dig into the marginalized communities McCormick spent his life documenting. There will also be essays from producers Jeff Place and John Troutman, as well as McCormick’s daughter Susannah Nix. 

The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History announced its acquisition of McCormick’s collection last November. The self-trained folklorist began documenting and collecting material in the 1950s, amassing 590 reels of sound recordings and a cache of unpublished manuscripts, original interviews and research notes, photographs and negatives, and an array of other ephemera. 

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