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Two new books take an unusual approach to music history and blues appreciation

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has been reading two unusual books about music history. Robert "Mack" McCormick's "Biography Of A Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey" is a long-awaited study of blues pioneer Robert Johnson's life, written during the 1970s but never published until now. And in Robert Mugge's "Notes From The Road: A Filmmaker's Journey Through American Music," Mugge reminisces about directing more than 25 music documentaries, his subjects including Robert Johnson, jazz great Sonny Rollins and soul singer Al Green. Here's Ken's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLHOUND ON MY TRAIL")

ROBERT JOHNSON: (Singing) I got to keep moving. I got to keep moving. Blues falling down like hail. Blues falling down like hail.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Mack McCormick spent three decades trying to get to the bottom of the bottomless mystery of Robert Johnson, the blues innovator about whom little was known after his death in 1938 at age 27. McCormick's "Biography Of A Phantom" isn't a conventional biography. It's as much about McCormick's own journey. He speaks to the reader in the first person, taking you along with him as he visits small Southern towns, beginning in the late 1960s, sitting on dusty porches, eating in greasy spoons, interviewing anyone who'll talk to him about their memories of Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KIND HEARTED WOMAN")

JOHNSON: (Singing) I got a kind-hearted woman, do anything in this world for me. I got a kind-hearted woman, do anything in this world for me. But these evil-hearted women, man, they will not let me be

TUCKER: In part because McCormick kept tinkering with the manuscript until he died in 2015 at age 85, his work wasn't published until now and has been superseded in simple research by a couple of more recent biographies. But what they lack is something important, the feel, the atmosphere of McCormick's so-called blues odyssey. It's a completely engrossing exploration of the South, one that only elevates and deepens what Robert Johnson achieved as an iconoclastic musician who was said to have sold his soul to the devil for his mastery. McCormick's book also has the added gift of revealing how a great biography can be assembled.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONES IN MY PASSWAY")

JOHNSON: (Singing) I got stones in my passway, and my road seem dark as night. I got stones in my passway, and my road seem dark as night. I have pains in my heart, they have taken my appetite.

TUCKER: In 1992, director Robert Mugge released "Deep Blues," a filmed road trip that explored the Delta blues via some then living and still vital musicians, including R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Mugge followed this up in 1999 with "Hellhounds On My Trail: The Afterlife Of Robert Johnson," tracing the influence of Johnson on subsequent generations. Both films contain interviews that provide firsthand context that demystifies the creation of the blues, music that, at its best, can sting your soul and bring clarity to your darkest thoughts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROSS ROAD BLUES")

JOHNSON: (Singing) I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees. I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above, have mercy, now - save poor Bob if you please. Yeah, standing at the crossroad. Tried to flag a ride.

TUCKER: In his new book, "Notes From The Road," Bob Mugge chronicles the making of these blues films, as well as ones exploring jazz, gospel and soul. But the stories he tells go well beyond anecdotes about musicians. He opens up the whole world of documentary filmmaking - how they're financed, how they're recorded and edited. He relates startlingly honest stories about unscrupulous producers and difficult artists, never sparing himself for his own flaws or naivete. "Notes From The Road" is the best thing I've read about what it's like to direct films since Sidney Lumet's 1996 classic "Making Movies." One thing these two new books prove is that it's not only hard to carve out a career as a musician, it's hard to carve out a career as a professional appreciator of musicians. Mack McCormick as biographer and Robert Mugge as filmmaker suggest it's not just artists who have to occasionally make deals with the devil.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the books "Notes From The Road," by Robert Mugge, and "Biography Of A Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey," by Robert Mack McCormick. Next month, Smithsonian Records will be releasing a boxed set of blues music called "Playing For The Man At The Door: Field Recordings From The Collection Of Mack McCormick, 1958-71." A new sequel to the series "Justified" premieres tomorrow. Like the original, it stars Timothy Olyphant. We'll hear our TV critic David Bianculli's review after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP") 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.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.