That unofficial knighting launched one of the postwar period’s most storied careers in American cultural fieldwork. 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.—An incredible introduction to the life’s work of Robert “Mack” McCormick, buried in this NY Times feature on the search for the roots of Americana.
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