First of all, if you have a spare hour today and you haven't read this John Jeremiah Sullivan piece (it came out in mid-April, but I just got around to reading it), do it. It's about the search for two musical ghosts, women who were blues singers and guitarists, who exerted significant cultural influence but about whom relatively little is known. Sullivan sets about describing the context from which they and their recordings arose, saying what we know, and then explains how he came to find out more than anyone had before about the two of them.

At the center of the piece is a man named Robert "Mack" McCormick, who has spent his life doing exhaustive cultural and musicological research, including on such legends like Robert Johnson (who, says Mack, may not even have existed, not the way we understand). His recordings and interviews and travels are stored in an archive that he refers to as "The Monster," in his home in Houston. Sullivan's portrayal of McCormick is frank but kind, sympathetic even — here is a man who accrued more information and knowledge about a culture overlooked in the (white) mainstream than possibly anyone else, but who has become paralyzed by the immensity of his work. McCormick's work will not be completed; the book that everyone wants (needs?) him to write will remain unwritten. What will happen to the Monster when he dies is unclear. Sullivan helps hire a young woman to assist McCormick with his work — it falls apart.

All of this is key in understanding the ethical complications that quietly underlie the second half of the piece: the same assistant has photographed notes from interviews that McCormick had conducted with Elvie (really "L.V.") Thomas. While McCormick had earlier shown Sullivan some letters essentially verifying that L.V. existed and explaining where she wound up, as an old woman, he had not mentioned these. After the young assistant has been fired, she sends pictures of the interview notes to Sullivan — of course, without McCormick's permission. This sets the two of them on a whirlwind trail of investigation that leads to stunning, fascinating revelations — revelations about religion, sex, music, and identity. (Really, read the piece.) They begin to reconstruct the look and feel of the recording sessions — who was there and why. They answer some questions and raise many more. They are given a picture of L.V. Thomas, shortly before her death; her long fingers are entrancing.

Material aside, I think the craft of the essay is impeccable* — particularly, for how quietly it deals with the ethical quandary of using material essentially filched from McCormick. "Mack" is a character in the story, painted with the same nuance and complexity as any of the musicians — a mystery, even, in some of the same ways. Fittingly, the essay seems to argue that "all of this is personal" by its very structure — history, music, investigations into culture. Most of the revelations in the piece come from independent research — impossible without those keystone interviews, yes, but still, this is the story of Sullivan and Caitlin Love (the assistant) on the heels of a legend. Sullivan also builds a strong case that McCormick simply would never have released the information he had, and subtly emphasizes the urgency of the situation — not only is McCormick in his 80s, but the generation that knew some of these people aren't young either. This isn't a project that can be taken up "when the time comes." History is pressing.

I am additionally impressed by the restraint demonstrated in the treatment of McCormick, who, to state things bluntly and less charitably, is a white man sitting on a secreted hoard of knowledge about black culture. This is an undertone in the piece but never a comment in the forefront. I came away feeling that Sullivan was justified in his actions, that McCormick is tragic as well as frustrating, and sympathetic toward essentially all parties. But there is a long tradition of those in power determining the narrative of those who have less of it, and this is an undeniable problem in McCormick's story, and with his legacy. Sullivan spends much of his pursuit of the ghost-women talking to others, letting them speak — a nephew who knew L.V. well when he was a child saying how much he wished his mom had known all the reporters had uncovered has a certain moral weight. This is not just cultural — it's personal. It's both. Sullivan seems to understand that, and the architecture and feeling of the piece reflect it — I think what makes it such a captivating read.


*ETA: Also want to mention that it's interactive — music, video, etc.