A trove of sound recordings, manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera from the blues and folklore archive of Robert “Mack” McCormick will get a new home at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.
McCormick’s daughter, Susannah Nix, gifted the archive to the Smithsonian, which plans to start making it available to scholars — and displaying some of its items at the Archive Center — in the summer of 2023. Smithsonian Books, as well as the celebrated label Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, will also be releasing projects based on the material in the archives next year.
McCormick was a self-trained folklorist who began documenting and collecting material in the 1950s. Even as he battled mental health problems later in life, he continued his research and collecting before he died in 2015.
If McCormick’s extensive archive wasn’t proof enough of his devotion to traditional folk music and blues, he was also the guy that actually unplugged Bob Dylan at Newport the year he went electric. It’s not exactly the Pete Seeger with an axe legend, but McCormick said he pulled the plug on Dylan during his rehearsal with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band because he needed the stage so a group of former inmate singers he’d assembled, who’d never performed together, could rehearse.
In total, McCormick’s collection comprises 590 reels of sound recordings and 165 boxes filled with material that, as Smithsonian Curator of Music, John Troutman, put in a statement, “yields revelations about the lives of many significant early- and mid-century blues artists,” such as Bernice Edwards, Robert Johnson, Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins, and Mance Lipscomb.
The archive includes unpublished manuscripts, original interviews and research notes, photographs and negatives, playbills, posters, maps, booking contracts, and business records. The Smithsonian will also receive a 1923-24 Washburn Style G guitar that both Hopkins and Lipscomb played, as well as a set of quills — a traditional African-American pan flute — made and played by Joe Patterson.
“McCormick’s archive has long been of near-mythical proportions within research and music history circles, and it lives up to its promise,” Troutman said, adding: “It features a trove of McCormick’s unpublished music writings. Lastly, it documents instances of exploitation perpetrated against many blues artists; in some cases, McCormick contributed to this legacy as well. Researchers studying his remarkable archive thus will illuminate many new and important layers of blues history.”