Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey

Smithsonian. Apr. 2023. 264p. ed. by John W. Troutman. ISBN 9781588347343. $29.95. MUSIC
The Smithsonian has posthumously released musicologist McCormick’s (1930–2015) long-lost, much-anticipated book about blues icon Robert Johnson (1911–38). McCormick conducted this research over several decades, starting in the late 1960s, but never made his findings public. This page-turner, crime-thrillerlike odyssey leads readers through the American South for details about the blues guitarist. McCormick unearths some critical information about Johnson’s mysterious life when he interviews guitarist Houston Stackhouse and finds Johnson’s son Claud. McCormick experiences an epiphany when he gets on the rolling store bus (which is exactly what it sounds like) operated by Jack Hudson, who vividly remembers Robert Johnson by his stepfather’s surname, Spencer. The author follows Hudson to Robinsonville, MS, where residents gave the author a treasure trove of details. He locates two of Johnson’s stepsisters and ends his search in Greenville, MS, near where Johnson died at the age of 27. The circumstances around his death remained unreported for 30 years, and there was no formal autopsy. Still, the book offers some theories about Johnson’s alleged murder. A preface and afterward by Smithsonian curator Troutman provides needed context about McCormick and this book.

CORRECTION: The review’s statements about Johnson’s death have been clarified.

VERDICT McCormick conveys a wild enthusiasm for his research and the music of Robert Johnson that readers will find contagious.
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