A remarkable older brother: Amherst woman pens family memoir about fabled bluesman Robert Johnson

  • The memoir of Annye Anderson about her stepbrother, the famous bluesman Robert Johnson, features a previously unseen photograph of the guitarist — one of just three photos known to exist of him. The memoir of Annye Anderson about her stepbrother, the famous bluesman Robert Johnson, features a previously unseen photograph of the guitarist — one of just three photos known to exist of him.

  • Annye Anderson outside her old family home in 2018 in Memphis, Tennessee, where she once lived with Robert Johnson. Photo by and courtesy of Preston Lauterbach

  • Historian and co-writer Preston Lauterbach with Annye Anderson by a mural in Memphis that celebrates her beloved stepbrother, bluesman Robert Johnson. Photo courtesy of Preston Lauterbach

  • Robert Johnson’s music was revived for a larger audience in the 1960s by British rockers such as Eric Clapton, then was snatched up by white publishers, leaving Johnson’s family with litte to nothing.

  • The back cover of Anderson’s memoir, which also paints a lively picture of the African American community in Memphis in the 1930s.

Staff Writer
Monday, December 28, 2020

He was the mysterious guitar player who, at some deserted crossroads in the Mississippi Delta, sold his soul to the devil one night to become the greatest bluesman ever known.

He was the unlettered man from Mississippi, a loner who traveled parts of the South under different names, a sorcerer who used his music to seduce women wherever he went.

Those are just some of the myths that have grown up around Robert Johnson, the seminal blues singer and songwriter of the 1930s who died under uncertain circumstances at age 27, leaving behind a few recordings that would catapult him to fame decades later when a new generation of musicians began to perform his music.

But to Annye C. Anderson, Johnson was simply Brother Robert, her beloved older stepbrother who helped her learn to dance, played his guitar for her and other family members, and accompanied her around her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee on walks and errands.

Anderson, who lives in Amherst and was born almost a century ago — she’s 94 — writes of her relationship with the famous musician in “Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson,” a memoir that also paints a lively portrait of the African-American community in Memphis in the 1930s.

The book, co-written with Memphis-based historian Preston Lauterbach, also recounts the ugly battle fought between Johnson’s estate, including Anderson and her half-sister, Cassie Thompson (“Sister Cassie”), and various people in the music business who beginning in the 1970s looked to profit from the hazy circumstances surrounding the copyrights to Johnson’s music.

Anderson’s book has grabbed the attention of music and cultural historians not only because of its inside look at the mysterious musician but for its front cover: It features a previously unknown photo of Johnson holding his guitar and smiling at the camera. The image, taken in a photo booth and until now a family heirloom that Anderson has had for years, is one of only three known photographs of the bluesman.

The heart of the story gives substance to a figure who’s long been something of a specter, which in turn fed the legends that grew up about him. Anderson’s earliest memory of her stepbrother was of him scooping her up and carrying her up “the big staircase” of her family’s new home in Memphis. It was 1929, and she was 3: Johnson was about 18, with “long, lanky legs” and a ready smile.

“He was a good man, and he was always good to me,” Anderson said during a recent phone call. “When I read some of the things that have been written about him, I don’t recognize him.”

Anderson has a certain formality to her — she goes by Mrs. Anderson, insisting that first names be reserved for family and close friends — but she’s also a natural raconteur whose own story has plenty of highlights.

She grew up in the segregated South, in the midst of the Great Depression, and dealt with racism not just there but in places like Washington, D.C., she writes. She held a wide range of jobs — coat-check girl, short-order cook, maid — before moving to Maryland and then Massachusetts and becoming a high school business teacher and guidance counselor.

“You name it, I’ve done it,” said Anderson, who in Amherst grows garlic, greens and other produce that she sells at regional farmers’ markets; she also sells her own bottled barbecue sauce.

The star of the show

She says she’s long wanted to tell her story about her relationship with Brother Robert but until the last few years didn’t have the time to get to it. Then she found out about Lauterbach’s work, such as his two books on Black music and cultural history, “Beale Street Dynasty” and “The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll.” With the help of her late daughter Hughia, Anderson got in touch with Lauterbach and asked him to help write her memoir.

In a phone interview, Lauterbach said he had read a lot about Robert Johnson over the years and was intrigued when he heard from Anderson, though he had not written someone’s personal story before. But the subject matter, Anderson’s voice, and her “natural storytelling” ability quickly reeled him in, he says.

“I was in hook, line and sinker,” he said with a laugh.

Lauterbach made a couple of visits to Amherst to meet with Anderson and tape their interviews; they also spent time visiting some old landmarks in Memphis from Anderson’s time here, including her family home, which is now abandoned.

Seeing the unknown photo of Johnson, as well as other photos Anderson shared of her (and Johnson’s) extended family, left him “completely blown away,” he added. “I mean, here were some precious pieces to the puzzle that’s always surrounded this story.”

Anderson’s book is also important, Lauterbach notes, because it re-examines what he calls “the worst case of cultural banditry that’s been brought against the African American community” — that of white publishers, record companies and others making millions off of Johnson’s music, while his family received little or nothing.

The book offers numerous scenes from Anderson’s childhood — she and Johnson were 15 years apart — that recall their relationship. She would dance to his guitar playing, and one time he helped her get ready to perform in a talent show at the legendary Palace Theater on Beale Street, which was the heart of Black life and culture in Memphis.

Anderson, then known as Annie Spencer, prepared to dance and sing “Let Yourself Go,” a song popularized in “Follow the Fleet,” a 1936 Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire film that brother and sister had seen together. Anderson notes that her mother, Mollie, looked askance at much of the popular music of the day, including Robert’s blues, but that she was likely “kind of proud” of her daughter’s performance.

With his guitar, Anderson writes, Johnson “was the star of the show.” He could play his ax behind his back, she says, and he could blow some pretty good harmonica; he also played a wide range of music, such as country tunes and Irish ballads. Her father, Charles Dodd Spencer, actually taught Johnson some of his earliest licks on the guitar, she says.

The only time he ever scolded her, she writes, was when she ran her fingers across the strings of his guitar one time: “I never did it again.”

And though he sometimes hopped freight trains to go play in distant, rural places, Anderson notes, Brother Robert was also at home in the big city, a sharp dresser who kept himself “clinically clean.” He read the newspaper and kept up with current events, including race relations; he was a fan of the singer Paul Robeson, who spoke out against segregation and white mistreatment of African Americans.

Anderson doesn’t claim to know everything her stepbrother did. “I didn’t have him in my pocket” is the way she puts it. But she says she never saw him drunk, or shooting dice, or getting into trouble: “I can’t relate to him any low-down stuff. To me, he was clean cut.”

The last time she saw him was at a big family party in June 1938, when everyone gathered to listen on the radio to the boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. When Louis, the great Black heavyweight, knocked out Schmeling, the pride of Nazi Germany, in the first round, the “whole street was cheering,” Anderson writes, and Brother Robert was ecstatic.

“I wish you could have seen him jump for joy in his white suit. It looked like his legs about went up to the ceiling.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.