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Smithsonian releases an unheard treasure trove of blues music

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

For decades, one of the most legendary private collections of early blues music was just that - private. Now it's available for everyone's ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOM FLEMONS: This is the collection that was just - it was known as The Monster.

DETROW: That's blues musician Dom Flemons.

FLEMONS: You know, you always hear that for each musician that recorded, there were, you know, dozens, if not hundreds that didn't record. This is the first time that you're seeing an archive that proves this point.

DETROW: The archive is a collection of 590 reels of sound recordings and 165 boxes of manuscripts, interviews, notes, photos, playbills and posters, all of it collected by a man named Mac McCormick, a blues researcher and ethnographer who spent years zigzagging through Texas and the American South in search of great artists to record.

FLEMONS: People like Joel Hopkins, who was Lightnin' Hopkins' brother. There's some amazing recordings of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MATCHBOX BLUES")

JOEL HOPKINS: (Singing, inaudible).

FLEMONS: And then there's also another fellow, Bongo Joe or George Coleman, who was a very eccentric - he called himself the original rapper.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGE COLEMAN FOR PRESIDENT, NOBODY FOR VICE PRESIDENT")

GEORGE COLEMAN: You vote for me, we have no more White House. We'll have a Black House.

FLEMONS: That's what's - something that makes this archive so worthwhile is it just opens up a whole new world.

DETROW: A whole new world that's now accessible to everyone - well, a sampling of it, at least - on a new box set from Smithsonian Folkways called Playing For The Man At The Door: Field Recordings From The Collection Of Mac McCormick, 1958-1971." Flemons wrote an essay for the album, and John Troutman of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History helped produce it. I asked Troutman how Mack McCormick was able to find and record all of these incredible artists.

JOHN TROUTMAN: You know, Mack documented everything. And his archive, The Monster, as Dom referred to it, because everyone did, especially Mack, is filled with thousands of pages of interview notes and comments to himself about his process and his collecting. And often, in some cases, when he was officially working as a census taker or as a cab driver, would just begin to knock on doors. And this was a really remarkable and challenging interaction because he was visiting these segregated neighborhoods and people in these neighborhoods. And that interaction is filled with power dynamics. And in the 1960s, you know, at the height of the tensions around that period of the civil rights movement, for a white stranger to knock on Black folks' doors was a moment that could be filled with a great deal of tension.

DETROW: And not just a white stranger, sometimes in his role as a census taker, a white stranger in the role of of a federal official, somebody with some power.

TROUTMAN: Exactly. And so it really created a circumstance where he was creating a vulnerability, essentially, by knocking on their doors in an official capacity, to your point. And then the folks who were answering the doors had to make decisions, you know. And at this time in particular, they did not have the backing of law enforcement when strangers were coming around. And they needed to be vigilant. And in many cases, people came up with with excuses to - just to get rid of this guy as quickly as they could. And he talks about - he writes about that in his notes.

But he also really recognized exactly this dynamic. I mean, he understood it. He often spoke of his repulsion for these Jim Crow protocols that were mapping out the landscape of what he called greater Texas, Texas and Louisiana and Arkansas, where he was primarily working at this time, and also had a great deal of respect during this period for these musicians. He knew of them and knew as much about them as he could before he knocked on their doors. And in many cases, folks gave him a chance and let him in.

DETROW: Dom, what do you make of all the layers that that go into the way that Mack McCormick assembled all these recordings?

FLEMONS: Well, you know, you have to think about it. And I tell people this all the time, that very rare is the moment when you just put a microphone in front of somebody and you can get amazing folkloric information and cultural information from them. You know, I have to say, I have to tip my hat to him for going out to the neighborhoods and taking the time to find the music from the people. And it's something that not everybody would do. Not everybody would have the the gumption or the know-how to get to all these neighborhoods, and also think of going through census records and taking forensic evidence to try to find musicians that, up to that point, are only relegated to a piece of shellac.

DETROW: Yeah. You've both mentioned that this was this legendary collection that loomed over the folklore scene, over the blues scene. You knew it was out there, but not many people had heard it. I'm wondering if you could pick out one of the musicians that we hear from in this collection and why it was so exciting to hear this person and hear this music.

FLEMONS: Well, one of the musicians that I found to be so exciting to hear was one of the songwriters that was so well known, a fellow by the name of Mance Lipscomb.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO DIFFERENT BLUES")

MANCE LIPSCOMB: (Singing) Mama hears my...

FLEMONS: And while there are many recordings of Mance Lipscomb out there, one of the songs that really just sort of moved me was hearing a recording of the song "So Different Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO DIFFERENT BLUES")

LIPSCOMB: (Singing) Called my (inaudible) and left me with the walking blues.

FLEMONS: And after playing the song on these recordings on the box set, he plays the song, and then you hear Mac talk to Mance a little bit afterward. And Mance says that, no, nobody's ever heard this song before, and you're the first guy to ever hear this song. I'd never recorded it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAC MCCORMICK: How long ago did you write that?

LIPSCOMB: Oh, I've been had that, oh, maybe five years ago. Nobody hasn't got it, I think, on the recording yet.

MCCORMICK: Really?

LIPSCOMB: Ain't nobody got it on recording.

MCCORMICK: Glad we got it. That's the best thing I've ever heard you do.

LIPSCOMB: There's a lot of (inaudible) in it.

FLEMONS: So you take a song that Mance would become a little bit more well known for during the folk revival, and this is the first moment when there's someone that puts a microphone in front of this man and collects the song so that it could be saved for posterity.

DETROW: I want to ask about the one other big complicated aspect of of all of this here, and that's the fact that for so many years, McCormick kept these recordings to himself. Do you think McCormick owed it to the musicians he recorded to to make some of this public earlier? Or do you think once he had that recording, it was his right to keep it to himself if he wanted to?

FLEMONS: Well, the thing you have to think about is that Mack McCormick has to - he collected all of this material in a very linear fashion based on the experiences he was having. So I don't know what he thought about each of the individual recordings or if he felt an obligation to have to release all of them. We do know that he had a very high standard in which he kept his materials under wraps. I don't necessarily think he had an obligation because he as an individual went out there, recorded it, and it was his right to do whatever he pleased with the recordings. But I think that now that it's out of his hands, we can now interpret the recordings and release them and and use them for documentation's sake. And I think that that's something that - I don't think that's something that Mack could have done by himself.

TROUTMAN: I think that's right. And in terms of him doing it by himself, that ended up being one of his great challenges in life. Mack had great ambition to to write about these encounters, these musical encounters with these extraordinary musicians that he was meeting. He had great ambition to release recordings as well. And he released several. He had a, you know, very short lived label called Almanac Records. But Mack also lived with depression and paranoia. They seem to be clearly manifestations of a bipolar disorder. And that - evidence of that aspect of his life is found throughout the archive. And in some cases, it was a great challenge for him to pursue these releases and to pursue his writing, you know, pursue the publication of his writings as well.

DETROW: A lot of big, ambitious writing projects that he just never quite got to the finish line.

TROUTMAN: The archive is filled with them, really extraordinary writings. And, you know, to his daughter Susannah Nix's credit, she always saw the value of of this archive. She recognized the value of these recordings, and it was her ambition through donating his archive to the Smithsonian that they would begin to see the light of day and that the public would gain access to the archive and to the recordings.

DETROW: John, I'm going to give you a challenge to end this interview. I think there's 60-something songs in this collection, right? There's probably thousands of thousands of songs overall that you have been spending the last few years digging through and thinking about. Can you pick one for us to end the segment on and to listen to? And tell us why it jumps out to your head.

TROUTMAN: That is hard.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: Take your time to think about it.

TROUTMAN: You know, I think I would love to end on a song with Buster Pickens.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDWIN PICKENS AND LEROY "COUNTRY" JOHNSON'S "TRAIN ROLL UP")

TROUTMAN: He was a barrel house pianist from the, you know, who had performed regularly in the early 20th century on the Santa Fe circuit, which kind of was one of many train lines in Texas. And he performed for laborers working on the trains and the tracks and then others who were kind of working the neighborhoods that those trains would would travel through.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAIN ROLL UP")

BUSTER PICKENS: (Singing) Hey, little mama. You know I love you.

TROUTMAN: And his music is so raucous and beautiful on the piano. And he spent hours and hours with Mack sharing stories with him and recording. And he's - he, you know, at one time, Mack captured some recordings at Buster's place with his friend Leroy "Country" Johnson on guitar. And they played a song called "Train Roll Up," which really conveys just this rollicking world.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDWIN PICKENS AND LEROY "COUNTRY" JOHNSON'S "TRAIN ROLL UP")

DETROW: That's John Troutman of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and a producer of the new album "Playing For The Man At The Door: Field Recordings From The Collection Of Mac McCormick, 1958-1971." We've also been speaking to blues musician Dom Flemons, who contributed an essay to the collection. Thanks to both of you.

TROUTMAN: Thank you, Scott.

FLEMONS: Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.