A Deal With The Devil? The Robert Johnson You Don't Know
In her 2020 book "Brother Robert," Robert Johnson's stepsister provides a portrait of the seminal blues music figure from a different perspective - out of the juke joints and away from the crossroads.
Robert Johnson died in 1938, in relative obscurity, virtually unknown except to the predominantly Black audience who would have heard the itinerant musician in the streets, house parties and juke joints of Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, and occasionally points beyond. That same audience also may have heard one or more of the eleven 78-rpm records by Johnson that were released during his short lifetime.
Johnson's stepsister Annye C. Anderson was twelve years old when he died, and she has fond memories of growing up in Memphis in an extended family that included the man she knew as "Brother Robert." "Brother Robert" is also the title of the book Anderson wrote with coauthor Preston Lauterbach, published in 2020 (Hachette Books.)
If you know anything about Robert Johnson, it's probably that he acquired his guitar expertise by making a deal with the devil at the crossroads. That's the myth that has persisted through the years, seemingly made more plausible by bluesman Son House's remarks about Johnson inexplicably going from a terrible to a remarkably skilled guitarist in a matter of months.
Anderson's account of Robert Johnson isn't about that (not directly, anyway), but rather it's about her family and the older stepbrother that she literally looked up to. "I can't relate him to any lowdown stuff," she writes.
Anderson tells of two ministers in the family and their tent revivals where Robert would have been present. There are different interpretations of the "crossroads" that Johnson sings about. One is the crossroads where a Black man doesn't want to be found after sundown. The ministers preached about the crossroads as the Biblical concept of a place of decision.
Johnson's mother was very religious, and Anderson writes that Robert must have been baptized, implying that this would prevent him from making a deal with the devil. She also admits that belief in hoodoo and spells was not uncommon in Johnson's time.
Anderson's father, Charles Spencer, was Johnson's stepfather, and Brother Robert would sometimes stay with the family in Memphis. Robert's older sister Carrie, whom Anderson describes as "fly," and "the backbone of the family," also lived in Memphis. Carrie bought Robert his first guitar, and was a confidant who supported him in many ways. (Previously, there were only two verified photographs of Robert Johnson, and both were originally provided by "Sister Carrie." A third has now come to light, provided by Annye Anderson, and gracing the cover of her book.)
Worldly and hard-working, but uneducated, Sister Carrie could have told us much more about the life of Robert Johnson, but never had the opportunity that Anderson has here. Anderson is the last surviving family member who knew him. Coauthor Lauterbach does an excellent job of preserving her plainspoken, yet spirited voice as she recounts her memories and opinions. She's observant, honest, and clear-eyed about growing up in the South of the 1920s and 30s. Anderson portrays her working poor family and community as being resilient and resourceful during those years of the Great Depression.
Although she did manage to hear him perform (she was sent to the forbidden Beale Street to find the musician on one occasion), Anderson's memories of Robert Johnson are much more along the lines of going to the movies with him, and of together enjoying the popular music of the day. They would listen to the radio, or to records on Sister Carrie's phonograph.
The movies included "Showboat" with Paul Robeson, and "Follow The Fleet" with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Robert liked westerns, and his favorite cowboys were Buck Jones and Tom Mix. Anderson mentions that Robert, like "all of the young men in our family," wore a big Stetson hat. He saw singing cowboy Gene Autry in "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and added a song from that film ("That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine") to his own repertoire.
Both Anderson and her stepbrother were fans of Jimmie Rodgers, a huge singing star of the era. She recounts how she and Brother Robert would often sing the Rodgers hit "Waiting for a Train" together. They loved to listen to The Grand Old Opry on the radio. They saw the bands of Count Basie, Cab Calloway and others perform in Memphis "for a small price." Robert Johnson knew and played not only the blues, but all sorts of popular music of the day.
He also knew all of the popular dances; he did the shimmy, the snake hip and the dance called "truckin'." Anderson relates that she and Brother Robert used to buck dance.
Anderson makes it clear that her story is about the Robert Johnson that she knew as a child, and that she didn't know where he went or what he did when he was away from the family. She observed the adults drinking, but never saw Johnson drunk. She observed him often rolling his own cigarettes, because "you smoked what you could." She describes him as "clean-cut" and as someone who didn't associate with "underworld figures in the neighborhood."
According to Anderson, Robert Johnson was not a country boy. He didn't like farm work. He didn't launder or cook. "Brother Robert was tied up in his music." At one point she makes the very interesting comment that "nobody else was playing like Brother Robert." He knew the music played by jug bands, and he knew the blues, but "he wanted modern...He worked to distinguish himself."
The first part of the book ends with Robert Johnson's death (probably by poisoned alcohol) in Greenwood, Mississippi. The family didn't even find out about it until two weeks later. Anderson reveals some bitterness about this, and also about the story some people told of Brother Robert crawling around like a dog in the end. She writes that the family was sent some of Johnson's possessions, including a scrap of paper with a death-bed confession of faith in Jesus. They recognized his handwriting. Those cursive lines are now reproduced on Johnson's gravestone, erected many years after his death.
Famed record producer John Hammond was responsible for the first album release of some of Robert Johnson's songs (Johnson recorded 29 songs, plus 13 alternate takes) in 1961. The bluesman's fame steadily increased from that point onward, with people like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan singing his praises, and Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones recording his songs. Johnson's family knew nothing of this until Anderson stumbled upon a magazine article in the late 60s.
In the second part of her book, Anderson gives a detailed account of "how my family lost Brother Robert again." She blames "money grabbers" for appropriating Robert Johnson's legacy. She disagrees with a court ruling that declared an illegitimate son to be Johnson's legal heir. An entirely different family now controls the Robert Johnson estate.
In the end, Annye Anderson is proud of her Brother Robert. His innovative guitar style and songwriting provided the bridge between the Delta blues that formed him, and the electric blues and rock 'n' roll that he influenced. Anderson could see it as a child. "He wanted modern."