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Likely Stories - Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Jonson Blues Odyssey

For someone who's been the subject of more than a dozen books, there's not a whole not that's definitely known about the blues musician Robert Johnson.

He was born sometime around 1911, and died August 16, 1938, though we're not sure how he died. He may have been killed in a fight over a woman, or he may have been poisoned by the husband of a woman with whom he had been flirting. Maybe he sold his soul to the devil somewhere along the line.

But the Texas musicologist Mack McCormick spent more than 40 years trying to fill in the details of Johnson's life. He made numerous trips to Mississippi trying to figure out where Johnson lived, or find someone who had actually seen him play his music live. With the exception of one short article in 1988, McCormick never published his research.

McCormick died in 2015, and his daughter donated his voluminous archives - which eventually became known as The Monster - to the Smithsonian. It was there that John Troutman, the curator of music and musical instruments, worked McCormick's writings into a manuscript, and Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey was published by the Smithsonian in April.

It's a fascinating story of McCormick's relentless pursuit of the story of Robert Johnson, a groundbreaking musician whose guitar playing has influenced Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Robert Plant, Keith Richards and countless others. McCormick eventually tracked down some of Johnson's relatives, and that's where the story becomes problematic. Some of the relatives say that McCormick agreed to share with them any money he made from writing about Johnson. They also claim that McCormick borrowed a photo of Robert Johnson and never returned it. The photo in question wasn't found in McCormick's archives, and this is significant because there are only three photos of Johnson that are known to exist.

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Kevin Tankersley teaches in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media at Baylor. A Senior Lecturer, he has been with Baylor University since 2005. In addition, Tankersley is a prolific writer whose work regularly appears in the Wacoan, where he and his wife Abby, a freelance chef, are food editors. He enjoys good food, music and books.