In Search of the Blues
McKune would go on to become the Blues Mafia's Svengali figure, known not for having the largest record collectionMcKune's collection numbered about 300, all his room and the Y could accommodatebut the best, most thoughtfully assembled collection. It was McKune's taste that made him unique and he was respected for that. The majority of this biographical information was culled from interviews with members of the Blues Mafia years after McKune's death with precious little published material left by McKune. All this phantom left in print were letters with the Blues Mafia and contributions to record collecting magazines like The Record Changer and the British VJM Palaver.
This situation further endorses the vision of McKune as Hamilton's record collecting Robert Johnson, both phantom and flesh. Like those 29 sides recorded by Johnson in 1936-37, all that exists for McKune are a few cryptic words in dusty, defunct periodicals devoted to musical minutia and the slightly (and sometimes not so slightly) romanticized recallings of acquaintances. McKune's death is one of the only things known of him and it, like his final years, was sordid, mirroring Johnson's own demise in 1938.
Sometime after 1965, McKune moved out from the YMCA and became essentially homeless, often seen walking the streets of Lower Manhattan, "sockless...and seemingly brain damaged from alcohol." He bounced from hostel to hotel until September 1971, when his naked body was found bound and gagged in a Lower East Side flop-house, the victim of an apparent sexual liaison gone horribly wrong. Some stories simply could never be written as fiction.
It is after her discussion of McKune that Hamilton begins her most penetrating analyses of blues scholarship and, indeed, the anthropology of racial thought. She deftly integrates the early voices of blues scholarship, tying them in the observation that:
"Out of that journey of the imagination was created what we know as the Delta blues, the music of archaic and uncompromised voices captured on commercial recordings and yetmagically, paradoxicallypristinely untouched by the modern world."
Students of quantum mechanics know that the mere observation of a system essentially changes the system. In this case, it is impossible to record music without changing it, thus the germinal essence can never be captured regardless of what McKune thought he heard on that old Charlie Patton record in the mid 1940s.
Hamilton explains that as late as 1993, in Alan Lomax's crowning achievement, The Land Where The Blues Began (Pantheon), Lomax abandoned any focus on the academic, instead promoting the romantic ideal of the Negro bluesman, the rootless drifter, the rural Ulysses in search of self. She summons the research of Barbara Ehrenreich's male "flight from commitment" as an explanation for the phenomena, already magnified by years of romantic consideration. She even calls upon Norman Mailer's notorious "White Negro" as a social justification for the bluesman's ostensible search of the seminal life source, only then to shoot these and the revivalists following the Blues Mafia down with:
"Revivalist channeled that search for life sources into the blues and in the process remade the tradition. At their most positive, they enriched the understanding and broadened white horizons. At their worst, they fed on a faintly colonialist romance with black suffering [after William Nye's "Imperialist Nostalgia"], an eroticization of African American Despair."
Hamilton's book would have been more informative and valuable had it begun with McKune and went on to capture the influences of Nick Perls, John Fahey, Stephen Calt, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Joe Brussard, Steve Lavere, Mack McCormick, Jim and Amy O'Neal, Phil Spiro, Alan Wilson, Dick Waterman and John Hammond, Junior and Senior, in the development of our image of the blues. This is the book that remains to be written, hopefully by the likes of a Peter Guralnick, Elijah Wald or Ted Gioia.