With Preston Lauterbach
Foreword by Elijah Wald
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“[Brother Robert} book does much to pull the blues master out of the fog of myth.”—Rolling Stone
An intimate memoir by blues legend Robert Johnson's stepsister, including new details about his family, music, influences, tragic death, and musical afterlife
Though Robert Johnson was only twenty-seven years young and relatively unknown at the time of his tragic death in 1938, his enduring recordings have solidified his status as a progenitor of the Delta blues style. And yet, while his music has retained the steadfast devotion of modern listeners, much remains unknown about the man who penned and played these timeless tunes. Few people alive today actually remember what Johnson was really like, and those who do have largely upheld their silence-until now.
In Brother Robert, nonagenarian Annye C. Anderson sheds new light on a real-life figure largely obscured by his own legend: her kind and incredibly talented stepbrother, Robert Johnson. This book chronicles Johnson's unconventional path to stardom, from the harrowing story behind his illegitimate birth, to his first strum of the guitar on Anderson's father's knee, to the genre-defining recordings that would one day secure his legacy. Along the way, readers are gifted not only with Anderson's personal anecdotes, but with colorful recollections passed down to Anderson by members of their family-the people who knew Johnson best. Readers also learn about the contours of his working life in Memphis, never-before-disclosed details about his romantic history, and all of Johnson's favorite things, from foods and entertainers to brands of tobacco and pomade. Together, these stories don't just bring the mythologized Johnson back down to earth; they preserve both his memory and his integrity.
For decades, Anderson and her family have ignored the tall tales of Johnson "selling his soul to the devil" and the speculative to fictionalized accounts of his life that passed for biography. Brother Robert is here to set the record straight. Featuring a foreword by Elijah Wald and a Q&A with Anderson, Wald, Preston Lauterbach, and Peter Guralnick, this book paints a vivid portrait of an elusive figure who forever changed the musical landscape as we know it.
FOREWORD BY ELIJAH WALD
When we listen to a favorite artist, they often seem to understand us better than we know ourselves. As we keep listening in different situations, through our changing lives, we inevitably come to feel we know them in similarly deep ways. Robert Johnson’s recordings have a particular intimacy because no other musicians are involved. We are alone with just his voice and guitar, hearing his breath between phrases, the strain in his high notes, the rattle of his slide on the frets, and the occasional murmured comments, as if he were talking directly to us.
For more than eighty years, the only way to experience Robert Johnson has been through those recordings. For millions of people all around the world, he is those recordings. We have listened to them over and over, spent hours, days, and years with them. So it is easy to feel we have spent that time with Johnson, and to forget that he only spent a few days making them and what we are hearing is barely an hour and a half of his life.
Annye Anderson really did spend days and weeks with Robert Johnson, over many years, not as a disembodied voice but as a tall, lanky, handsome, warm, and exciting older brother. She was a little girl and her memories of him are a little girl’s memories. If you ask her about his travels or romantic relationships, about juke joints and rent parties, or about the pleasures and dangers of his life on the road, she tends to say she didn’t know about that part of his life. She knew him when he was staying at her daddy’s house in Memphis, or nearby at their sister Carrie’s. For the rest, she’ll say, “I didn’t have him in my pocket.”
The first memory of Robert Johnson in this book is of a long-legged eighteen-year-old carrying a toddler up a flight of stairs. The last is of him playing at a party celebrating Joe Louis’s victory over Max Schmeling. In between are memories of him taking a little girl to the movies, caring for her father’s horse, teaching her a simple piece on the piano, and sitting outside with his guitar, singing nursery rhymes for her and her friends or playing upbeat tunes that got them dancing.
Annye Anderson’s Brother Robert was not the rambling, blues-singing loner a lot of us have imagined; he was part of a bustling, vibrant household and neighborhood. His musical skills made him distinctive, but their older brother Son was also an exceptional musician and often teamed up with him as a musical duo and for hoboing journeys. They played blues, including songs we know from the records, but also lots of other music. When you ask Mrs. Anderson about their repertoire, she says Johnson would play whatever people wanted to hear: “I remember him asking all the guests, and even the children, ‘What’s your pleasure?’” Maybe late in the evening they wanted to hear a moody blues like “Come On In My Kitchen.” Maybe they wanted Son to liven up the mood with a Fats Waller number. Maybe they wanted to hear about rambling and hoboing, and the two men would harmonize and yodel on Jimmie Rodgers’s “Waiting for a Train.” Or maybe it was Annye’s turn to show off and they’d back her on a song-and-dance routine from the new Ginger Rogers musical.
Johnson is at the center of this book, but he is surrounded by a lot of other people. One striking figure is Charles Dodds, who became Charles Spencer after a lynch mob forced him to move to Memphis. A barber, carpenter, and jack of all trades, he also seems to have been a formidable musician and mentored the young Johnson—the son of his first wife by another man, but welcomed as a son to the Memphis household—along with a changing cast of children, grandchildren, wives, ex-wives, and their various spouses and partners.
Another notable character is Sister Carrie. In the first half of the book she is the “fly” member of the family, the one with a radio and a phonograph, whose home was Johnson’s favored stopping place when he came back through Memphis in later years as a working musician. In the second half she is the one who keeps the family connected as they move north, takes care of the ones who need care—and then, when Johnson’s music is discovered by a new generation of fans around the world, becomes tangled in the increasingly complicated strands of his legacy.
Finally, there is the voice that tells the stories. I would have enjoyed this book under any circumstances but particularly appreciate it because it gave me the opportunity to meet Annye Anderson. Preston Lauterbach invited Peter Guralnick and me to spend an afternoon with them, and we planned to ask her some questions about Robert Johnson and Memphis. Before we could get to that she was discussing her plans to travel when the book comes out: first to England, then South Africa and France. The mention of France reminded her of her friend Archie Shepp, the avant-garde jazz saxophonist, and soon she was talking about Max Roach and Julius Lester, likewise friends in her current hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. Then the conversation moved to her barbecue sauce, which she has marketed to merchants around the state, and to her husband’s laboratory work and meeting Dr. Charles Drew, the African American surgeon who pioneered modern blood banks. Listening to her plans, enthusiasm, and range of interests at age ninety-three, I can only imagine how vibrant and fascinating she must have been as a young woman. And I cannot help thinking about all the stories we will never know—in particular all the African American stories—because they never happened to intersect with a blues legend.
Robert Johnson’s music is timeless and speaks to us today in ways nobody could have imagined in the 1930s. But it was also the music of a particular time and place, and to some extent of a particular family. He spent time in the Mississippi Delta and further south in Hazlehurst, traveled west to Texas, north to Chicago, and east to New York. His musical influences included Son House and Willie Brown at back-country picnics; Leroy Carr, Kokomo Arnold, and Lonnie Johnson on wind-up Victrolas; Jimmie Rodgers on the radio; Gene Autry in the movies; and whatever was hitting on jukeboxes wherever he traveled.
Memphis was one of many places Johnson stayed and played—but it was a special place for him. His mother, Julia, first left him with Charles Spencer when he was seven years old, and that remained the closest thing he had to a permanent home. He joined his mother for a few years in the rural Delta, briefly married and tried to settle on a farm, and stayed with lots of other people in other places. But he never set down roots anywhere else, and till the end of his life he kept coming back to Memphis and the Spencers.
I first read this manuscript hoping to learn more about Robert Johnson, and it was interesting to read Mrs. Anderson’s recollections of the people who raised and nurtured him: Charles Spencer, the closest he ever knew to a father; Son, his half-brother and musical partner; and his half-sister Carrie, who seems to have been something like a second mother to him. As I kept reading, I began to picture Johnson in a new way, as part of that big, complicated, talented household. I see the house, with the barber chair in the front room. I imagine him coming through the door and little Annye jumping up and down with excitement, Sister Carrie telling her to calm down and run an errand while she runs him a bath. I see him in a Stetson hat standing by the piano, strumming along as Brother Son sings the latest Louis Armstrong hit, or relaxing next to the radio with his stepfather, enjoying the Grand Ole Opry.
Obviously that picture is a mix of Mrs. Anderson’s memories and my imagination, but it makes me hear Johnson’s records in a different way. I had always pictured him in the Delta or on the road. I could hear the modern touches in his music, his debt to urban blues stars like Carr and Peetie Wheatstraw and the brilliant way he blended their contemporary sound with the rough power and rhythmic sophistication of the older Delta players—but I imagined him in rural Mississippi, impressing the other young players around Clarksdale with what he’d picked up from records and the road. That is the picture we get from people like his sometime partners Johnny Shines and Robert Lockwood Jr., and admiring contemporaries like McKinley Morganfield, a Delta field hand who would soon move up to Chicago and become famous as Muddy Waters.
Johnson certainly spent time around the Delta in his later years, so that picture isn’t wrong. But his records sound different when I imagine him standing by the piano in Carrie’s house playing the Scrapper Blackwell guitar licks as Son matches Carr’s mellow tenor and understated piano on “Blues Before Sunrise.” Or the two of them walking to Beale Street and busking in Handy Park, playing whatever suited the urban passersby, and maybe getting invited up to a room in the Peabody to play a mix of pop hits and down-home field music for some rich white folks. Thinking of Johnson as a hip, urban musician spicing his music with Delta touches rather than a Delta musician picking up on the latest urban sounds doesn’t make his records sound better or worse—but it adds another layer and changes the way I hear his musical choices.
I am also reminded of all the music we can never hear. I want to know how Son sounded when he did his Louis Armstrong imitations, and how Johnson played on those numbers: did he strum swing chords, like he does in his intro to “They’re Red Hot,” or pick an intricate solo in the style of Lonnie Johnson—or did he play something of his own that I can’t imagine? Was he always the center of attention, or did he sometimes sit back with the rest of the family and enjoy the show? I want to know more about Son, and about Charles Dodds Spencer, who knew his way around a half-dozen instruments but had quit playing by the time Mrs. Anderson was born. And I wish I could see Mrs. Anderson herself at age twelve, trucking across the stage of the Palace Theater, and hear the orchestra playing their Memphis variant of the latest Count Basie hits.
The great pleasure of this book is the way it expands that world, adding small touches that bring it to life. The older generation included Mrs. Anderson’s mother, Mollie Spencer, who had come up from Mississippi and “used to eat her greens and her hot water cornbread with her hands, like the Africans,” and Johnson’s mother, Julia, who insisted on doing her washing outside on a “rub board” rather than using sister Carrie’s washing machine. The younger generation included Mrs. Anderson’s husband, who played with Jimmie Lunceford, then worked as a chemist in Washington and Boston; and her sister Charlyne, who was “always a bookworm, reading, reading, reading,” studied Latin, and became their high school valedictorian.
Less pleasurable are the stories of what happened after Johnson’s records were reissued and he became the most famous name in early blues. Reading Mrs. Anderson’s version I’m struck by how very few of these stories have been told by African Americans who were directly involved. Virtually the entire history of the “blues revival” has been written by white fans and even the most sympathetic are writing from outside that culture, while many have been involved in the sorts of theft and appropriation that Mrs. Anderson details with eloquent anger.
There is much more to be said about all of that, but it’s time for me to get out of the way. I came to this project hoping to learn more about Robert Johnson and ended up learning about a lot of other people, including an extraordinary nonagenarian who has been quiet long enough. I am forever grateful that before moving on she decided to have her say.
MRS. ANNYE C. ANDERSON
By Preston Lauterbach
In April of 2018, I heard from my agent that a relative of Robert Johnson wanted me to write her book—Annye C. Anderson. Her name rang a distant bell. Still, folks had wanted me to write their life stories before, and I hadn’t done one of those yet.
I called her up. Her voice almost instantly assured me that this book needed to happen. She sounds unmistakably, beautifully Southern. Clear, though. She told me she’d soon turn ninety-two. The voice sounded vital. I never doubted that she is who she claims to be, “Baby Sis” to Robert Johnson. The voice settled that. After all, they learned to speak from some of the same people.
She told me that she’s not a first-name person. I would refer to her as Mrs. Anderson, and she to me as Mr. Lauterbach. I offered to go and meet her.
Mrs. Anderson did not invite me inside of her home on that first visit. I picked her up outside of her place. She wore a turban, as she often does. I folded up her walker and stuck it in the trunk of my car. We headed into town. She gets out just about every day, and is known on the streets. She told me she disguises herself as a bag lady so that nobody will knock her over the head. With her bag-lady disguise and insistence on using titles, Mrs. Anderson is both familiar and formal.
She’d found us a place to sit and talk, at a workspace in a former bank. The guy who ran it gave her the space for free, so he stuck us in what must have been a phone booth near around the time Mrs. Anderson was born. As we discussed how to collaborate on her book, Mrs. Anderson made it clear that she wouldn’t be doing any typing. I’d interview her, transcribe her words to the page, put the story in proper order, and give it to her to fix the way she liked. We figured we’d start right away.
Mrs. Anderson made the point, early and often, that family has been marginalized in Robert Johnson’s story. I believe that, and I think the fact that Mrs. Anderson has come forward at this late date seems all the more surprising and exciting because of that discrepancy. I don’t think that many Robert Johnson fans are aware that a person this close to the mythical man still lives among us.
I’ve been around historical figures who’ve exaggerated their roles or expertise, but I never felt skeptical towards her. I wish I had a nickel for every time I asked Mrs. Anderson what I thought would be the crucial Robert Johnson question only to hear, “Honey, I didn’t have him in my pocket.” Mrs. Anderson was twelve when Robert Johnson died, and even though she has a strong memory, she says that she and Robert lived different lives. As much as her memories tell us about Robert Johnson, more so, they illustrate what he saw, whom he spoke with, and what was discussed—precious gritty little details of life.
One aspect of Robert Johnson’s way of thinking that stood out to me, listening to her, is how he compartmentalized. He kept his road life quiet around his family, and he kept his family life quiet on the road. He came from a complicated background, like history torn from the pages of William Faulkner, an innocent child born of violence and adultery. His secretiveness about his different lives reminds me of how children of divorced parents learn to avoid talking about mom’s family in front of dad and vice versa. Until now, fans have mostly had the recollections of Robert Johnson’s traveling buddies, and so, only that side of him. Mrs. Anderson knew Johnson as few people ever did, and certainly as no one else living does. She brings us that other side.
On the second day of our collaboration, we met at the workspace, but this time got sent to “the vault,” a large conference room. I set out my tape recorder, notepad, and computer on a rectangular table. Mrs. Anderson tottered in wearing the bag-lady disguise. A number of plastic drugstore sacks hung from the handles of her walker.
I had my recorder rolling for our interview, and on the playback, can hear my voice tighten as I react to seeing what she carried in those plastic bags. First, she handed me a sheaf of family death certificates and marriage licenses, which I looked through and made notes from. Next came a pile of photographs, showing her father, Robert’s mother. Finally, she removed a little box that had once carried a bottle of sewing machine oil back in the 1930s, the kind Mrs. Anderson had picked up on errands for her sister, a seamstress. “This is the highlight,” she said. “This photo has never been out.”
I remember the air thinning and my heart beating rubbery. But there’s something soothing about Mrs. Anderson’s dignity, and I sound composed as I look into the little blue box, saying, “If you put this on the cover of your book, it’ll help sales tremendously.”
She picked more items out of the shopping bags and placed them in front of me. On the recording, you can practically hear the lump fill my throat and the tears brim in my eyes, as I say, “that’s worth a million dollars.”
After that day at the office, I went back to my properly shabby motel room, and, sipping on a cold beer, noticed the date, May 8—Robert Johnson’s birthday.
Mrs. Anderson sent me home with a jar of her homemade barbecue sauce. “It’s high end,” she said. “All organic.” For a label, she’d stuck a nametag to the jar that read HELLO MY NAME IS: Mizz Annye.
Our next meeting took place in Memphis on the eightieth anniversary of Robert Johnson’s death, August 16, 2018. We stood and talked in the overgrown yard of the abandoned house where they used to live. We looked around at the spots where he used to sit and pick his guitar. The mosquitoes got fierce and we fled for the air-conditioned car to continue her reminiscence.
We were sitting in the car on her old street when a couple of guys walked up to her window. They asked in a not unfriendly way who we were and what we were up to. Mrs. Anderson gave them a fake name. When they wandered off, she told me one of her pet phrases. “If everything somebody says to me ends in a question mark, they can forget it.” I told her that put me in a strange position, and she replied with another one of her favorites. “No honey, I’m on your time.”
We drove down a main avenue of South Memphis and saw a massive mural of Robert Johnson painted on the side of a brick building in a vacant parking lot. We stopped to look, and asked a guy to take our picture in front of the mural. He said he knew who the man with the guitar was, he had just watched O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Mrs. Anderson hasn’t reached the age of ninety-three by worrying about what she eats. In Memphis, we went out for fried catfish, fried green tomatoes, and fried chicken, sometimes at the same meal. For something un-fried, we had pork barbecue. At the Blue and White Diner in Tunica, Mississippi, the bill came to $32.20. I flashed the receipt to Mrs. Anderson and she laughed.
She remembers a time in Memphis when only African Americans cooked barbecue, and the craze hadn’t yet swept the city. Three barbecue kings in particular stood out—Johnny Rivers, Johnny Mills, and Mr. Culpepper. I took Mrs. Anderson to my favorite spot, a world-renowned hole-in-the-wall that I thought harkened back to the three barbecue kings of the ’30s. We dug into shoulder sandwiches. I held my breath and waited for her review. After an extended period of chewing, she matter-of-factly remarked, “They have a low overhead.”
I finally built up the courage to ask about her first name. That label on her barbecue sauce and her formality about proper titles had made me wonder. She told me she changed the spelling from Annie to Annye as a teenager, and she now prefers the African pronunciation, On-yay. That was that. I still can’t say it, and when I call her on the phone, I always identify myself as Mr. Lauterbach. I don’t mind it. I find that I’m pretty susceptible to old-fashioned ways. I’d wear a wide-brimmed hat everywhere, no problem. She got into my head to the extent that I called other people Mr. or Mrs., but found it doesn’t sit right with anyone else.
After meeting in Memphis, we got together every few months to work on the book, once for an interview Mrs. Anderson gave to two of Robert Johnson’s distinguished biographers, Elijah Wald and Peter Guralnick. Their Q&A is included in this book, and as you’ll see, humorous anecdotes and a musical breakthrough ensued.
I have to mention the person who helped bring me to this project—Mrs. Anderson’s eldest daughter, Hughia. Mrs. Anderson wanted to hire a writer who knows 1930s Memphis, where she grew up with Robert Johnson. Hughia found out about my books and helped to connect me with her mother. I never had the chance to meet Hughia, though, as she passed away in February 2019. Hughia had said that Mrs. Anderson is every bit as important as Robert Johnson. I agree. Much more than her treasure or her association with Robert Johnson, I cherish Mrs. Anderson’s voice. It’s been my top priority to share her lovely figures of speech, witty turns of phrase, and warm, charming diction, along with biting commentary on race in America. Though I omitted her frequent use of the word “honey” as punctuation, I think the sweetness remains. It’s not every day that you have the pleasure of listening to a person who’s spent nearly a century keenly observing this world, a person whose father was born the year after slavery ended, and can tell us how far we haven’t come.
A Rolling Stone-Kirkus Best Music Book of 2020
Winner of the Audiofile Earphones AwardPublishers Weekly, "Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2020"
No Depression, "Best Music Books of 2020"
Best Classic Bands, "Best Music Books of the Year"
OnMilwaukee, "10 Great Books from 2020"
- "Anderson offers vivid, personal glimpses of her stepbrother ... providing a colorful picture .... [An] earnest and enlightening memoir."—Publishers Weekly
- "An illuminating portrait of an artist lost in the mists of history and mystery."—Kirkus
- "Annye Anderson's lush, vivid memories from Robert Johnson's home base give the bluesman a personal dimension like never before. How he walked, the pomade in his hair, his protection of his guitar. The aura of mystery remains, but with Brother Robert, Johnson gains character and context, and becomes more of a person than we've ever known this specter to be."—RobertGordon, author of Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Watersand It Came From Memphis
- "Cutting through the mythos that has long surrounded this iconic artist, this is an intriguing addition to the history of 20th-century blues."—Library Journal
- "Although it's been more than 80 years since Anderson last saw Johnson, her memories are vivid and personal, as she recalls a well-loved older sibling who entertained his family and community with his guitar and vast repertoire of songs. [...] Anderson's account debunks myths about Johnson: he had a loving family; he was exposed to all kinds of popular music; he was not illiterate; and he did not go to the crossroads and sell his soul to the devil. Consider Anderson's heartfelt chronicle an earnest attempt to set the record straight."—Booklist
- "Anderson's a charming storyteller, and her stories provide a fresh perspective."—No Depression
- "A breathtaking look into the provenance of one of the 20th century's great musical minds, the social warp and woof of Black Memphis in the 1920s and '30s, and, in spite of racial violence that continues to this day, the persistence of family and the power of music."—Memphis Flyer
- "[This book reveals] "new details about everything from Johnson's birth to his romantic history to his life at home with family - even his favourite foods and brands of tobacco and pomade. The book also arrives with a new photograph of Johnson - just the third confirmed image in the world."—CBC
- "Mrs. Anderson summons up poignant memories of the young man she so admired... If Johnson has become an idealised figure, Anderson's book helps us to see him as a flesh-and-blood individual, an entertainer rather than some tortured mystic."—The Times (UK)
- "A remarkable book, one which so richly complements those that came before it documenting Robert Johnson's life and legacy."—Under the Radar Magazine
- "Rich... there is an intimacy that fires the story to life.”—New York Review of Books
- “[Brother Robert} book does much to pull the blues master out of the fog of myth.” (A Rolling Stone-Kirkus Best Music Book of 2020)—Rolling Stone
- "Intimate and warm."—No Depression
- "[This book] paints a lively portrait of the African American community in Memphis in the 1930s.”—Daily Hampshire Gazette
- "Brother Robert is, by my count, the twelfth book about Johnson, and it’s one of the best, because after decades of stories of the musician as a dark blues lord, Brother Robert, which featured a new photo of him smiling on the cover, humanizes Johnson, showing the musician from the perspective of a young girl."—Texas Monthly
- On Sale
- Jun 9, 2020
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Hachette Books