On an undistinguished block in Brooklyn, New York, a few minutes walk from the Williamsburg Bridge, near a synagogue, a Portuguese grocery, and a Muslim community centre, stands an unrecognised landmark in American music. The building gives no sign of historic importance: its front door is boarded, its brick walls scarred and pitted, its windows encased in metal and grime. Yet decades ago it was a lodging house run by the Williamsburg branch of the YMCA, and it was here, in a single room on the uppermost floor one unknowable day in the mid-1950s, that the Delta blues was born.

Robert Crumb's sleeve art for The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, a compilation of early blues and country music (Yazoo Records)Born, that is, in the imagination of one of the YMCA’s long-term residents, a record collector named James McKune. A journalist turned postal worker, reclusive, homosexual and alcoholic, McKune conducted his life as a long downward spiral: moving into the Y around 1940, losing job after job as his drinking intensified, and eventually ending up on the streets, where he died at the hands of a violent stranger in 1971. Yet during his years at the Y he scavenged junk shops and used record stores to build up an extraordinary collection of blues 78s. In time that collection became the driving force behind the 1960s blues revival, when white Americans and Europeans discovered – one might say invented – a tradition that they called the Delta blues, constructed out of scraps of old recordings that African-Americans had long left behind.

I stumbled across McKune’s story while writing a book about the Delta blues, and his life intrigued me as a means to untangle a musical form too long enveloped in misperception and myth. For the last forty years the Delta blues has been revered by its largely white fans as a music of transcendent spiritual power, echoing with the voices of the huddled black “folk” and the harsh, anguished truths of the African-American past. As the eminent historian Leon Litwack puts it, to listen to the searing voices that comprise the tradition – Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James – “is to feel – more vividly and more intensely than any mere poet, novelist, or historian could convey – the despair, the thoughts, the passions, the aspirations, the anxieties, the deferred dreams, the frightening honesty of a new generation of black Southerners and their efforts to grapple with day-to-day life, to make it somehow more bearable, perhaps even to transcend it”. For filmmaker Martin Scorcese, Robert Johnson was a “haunted prophet” condemned to roam the blighted landscape of the Mississippi Delta and voice his people’s pain and privation, “possessed” as he was by “the spirit of the blues”.

Yet that vision of the Delta blues as a – perhaps the – primal form of African-American music sits uncomfortably alongside the facts. The awkward truth is that Delta sounds were never embraced by black listeners: in the twenties and thirties when they were recorded, Charley Patton’s discs sold only moderately; those of Son House, Skip James, and Robert Johnson sold not at all.

Even in the Mississippi Delta, the so-called Delta bluesman had limited appeal. A survey of the black bars of Clarksdale in the early 1940s found no local musicians on the jukeboxes; the most popular tracks were by Louis Jordan, Count Basie, and Fats Waller, no different from Harlem or the South Side of Chicago. Late one night in the Delta in 1941, the song collector Alan Lomax stumbled across a juke joint on the edge of a cotton field and opened the door to find a blaring jukebox and a roomful of people jitterbugging to Duke Ellington.

I wanted to track the hidden tastemakers who pushed those obscure Mississippi singers into the spotlight, and setting out on that trail took me to James McKune. “Jim McKune was like a grand doyen, if you will, a real mentor,” recalls record collector and blues historian Lawrence Cohn. “I mean, he was listening to Charley Patton before any of us even knew who Brownie McGhee was.” Collector Pete Whelan remembers: “He had all his records in cardboard boxes under his bed. And he would pull out one and say, ‘Here’s the greatest blues singer in the world’ [and] I’d say ‘Oh yeah?’, cause I had just discovered this guy, Sam Collins, who was great… Jim pulls out this Paramount recording by Charlie Patton, and, of course, he was right!”

The facts of McKune’s life are hazy. Born sometime around 1910, in Albany or Baltimore or North Carolina, he seems to have moved to New York City in the late 1930s, taking a job (which he soon lost) as a copy editor on the Long Island desk of the New York Times. In 1943, for reasons that are unclear, he began collecting what were then called “race records”, combing the pages of record trading magazines and poring through the bins at used record stores, like the Jazz Record Center near Times Square, where he turned up every Saturday afternoon.

He cut a striking figure: extremely thin, with sandy hair greying at the temples, wearing a white button-down shirt, black trousers, white socks, and black shoes, by all accounts his lone set of clothes. Engaging him in conversation was risky. “McKune had this way of talking,” Whelan remembers “he’d make these abrupt gestures, he was very intense, and everybody that he was talking to would be backing up against the wall, because he’d be, not pushing you back, but you’d be afraid of the hands and elbows coming at you.” In his pocket he carried a wants list that he distributed to other collectors: 1,300 78s recorded in the 1920s and 1930s on the most obscure labels by performers of whom no one else had heard.

At the top of that list was an itinerant Mississippi singer called Charley Patton. In 1944 McKune bought a scratched, worn copy of a 1929 Patton recording, “Some These Days I’ll be Gone”, and from the first notes he was hooked. What transfixed him were Patton’s rough-edged vocals, which to his ears sounded peculiarly delicate, a style at once ferocious and subtle, with “an intensity devoid of dramatic effects”.

He began hunting for records like Patton’s, marked by spare, sparse music, oblique, artful lyrics, and voices supercharged with emotion. From those searches he filled the cardboard boxes under his bed with what he came to call great “country blues” singers.

On principle, and out of necessity, he refused to pay more than three dollars per record, but most of these discs came far cheaper. McKune scorned every form of black recorded music that had any kind of popular following, be it the raucous sounds of Louis Jordan’s “jump jive” that appealed to an urbanising black population or the “hot jazz” of Louis Armstrong, whose recordings many white collectors prized. The records McKune hoarded came from the bottom of the discard pile, “considered worthless,” as one collector put it, “by everyone but McKune himself.”

In time, all that would change, and 78s by Robert Johnson and Charley Patton would fetch thousands of dollars, a transformation due in large part to his fellow collector Pete Whelan. In 1961, at McKune’s urging, Whelan made taped reproductions of the prize recordings from their collections, producing a series of blues LP anthologies (The Mississippi Blues; Really the Country Blues) released on his own Origin Jazz Library label. Almost immediately, the OJL reissues became the bible of a small but highly influential group of enthusiasts, among them the guitarist John Fahey, the rock critic Greil Marcus and the historian Lawrence Levine. For the journalist Robert Palmer, who would later write Deep Blues, a highly regarded Delta blues history, they were “the definitive country blues anthologies”, with their scratched, grainy sound and their unvarnished singers whose very obscurity seemed somehow testament to their integrity, to the raw authenticity of the songs that they sang.

Yet as the buzz around the OJL albums intensified, McKune slipped further into the shadows. He played no direct part in the accelerating blues revival, neither setting up record labels nor opening blues clubs nor writing chronicles of Delta blues history. Instead, he seems to have stopped listening to music altogether. In 1965 he moved out of the single room at the YMCA where he had lived for twenty-five years and began drifting the streets of Lower Manhattan, “sockless”, recalls one collector, “and apparently brain-damaged from alcohol”. In September 1971 his unclothed body was found bound and gagged in a welfare hotel on the Lower East Side. There was no trace of a record collection; he had either sold it or given it away.

Perhaps McKune’s retreat from the blues was inevitable. He had long recoiled from the sounds of popular music, devoting his life to connoisseurship, by its nature cultish, exclusive, even hermetic, whose pleasures lay in creating an alternative universe of aesthetics and taste. By the 60s he had lost control of that universe; his private passion was private no longer. Little wonder that his pride and exhilaration ebbed away, that he descended into frustration, depression and despair.

In its distaste for contemporary black popular music, its obsession with the authentic, primal sounds of black suffering, McKune’s brand of connoisseurship was in many ways troubling. Yet what drove it was the same quest for transcendence that has propelled the histories of religion and art. In a deeply secular age, McKune took refuge in a personal faith, in which poring through record bins in junk shops became a kind of pilgrimage and listening to old recordings became an act of devotion. “Only the great religious singers have ever affected me similarly.” he wrote of Charley Patton. In the end, he should be judged by what he left behind: a legacy of salvaged voices whose intense, mournful beauty has transfixed the world, voices he invested with wonder and reverence, by listening “silently. In awe.” ■