If you have zero interest in the blues — the very foundation of American music — I can’t promise you a gripping tale. But if you have even a passing awareness of Robert Johnson, or the impossibly rich tradition that descended from his scant recordings, then you won’t be able to tear yourself away. Discovery, dispute, and deceit: from those three chords Michael Hall composes an unforgettable tune.
On April 4, Mack’s manuscript, Biography of a Phantom, was finally published, more than five decades after he started it. But it’s very different from the pages I held in my hands back in 2016. In parts of the book, Mack’s presence outweighs Johnson’s—and not to Mack’s benefit. By the last page, Mack has become the villain of his own life’s work.
Mack’s favorite Dickinson poem begins, “This is my letter to the World that never wrote to me.” If you’re familiar with the poem, you know that it ends, “Judge tenderly—of Me.” As Mack’s friend, I’m going to try to do that for him. Though he made it really hard, because a lot of what I thought I knew about Mack was all wrong.