By Bruce Sylvester
The '60s British Invasion's blues revival turned Robert Johnson (1911-38) into a cult hero and a legend – allegedly a haunted man with rambling on his mind, a hellhound on his trail, and a soul he'd sold to the devil at midnight at a crossroads in exchange for guitar wizardry. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton (solo and in Cream), and Peter Green (solo and in Fleetwood Mac) were among the acts leading lots of us to Johnson's music.
Bookwise, the past 12 months have been good for his devotees. Last June, Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow 's admirably researched Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson (Chicago Review Press) did a heroic job of tracking down facts to challenge the fables, fictions, and contradictions. This summer, half-sister Annye Anderson released Brother Robert, her eye-witness account of his Memphis years in an African American household that nurtured his wide-ranging musical interests, resourcefully saving him their beef bones to use for guitar slides. The two books occasionally make contrasting points. More often Anderson's conversational, a bit rambling text adds flesh to the bones of Conforth and Wardlow's volume in showing us his everyday human side.
Obviously a foodie, she tells us of Robert's favorite meals and even shares her mother's homemade brandy recipe. Lauterbach muses in the book's start, “Mrs. Anderson hasn't reached the age of 93 by worrying about what she eats.”
Mississippi native Robert Leroy Johnson had only two recording sessions. A 1936 session in San Antonio yielded 16 tracks plus six alternate takes. A year later in Dallas, he put down 13 tracks plus seven alternates. Considering how few blues acts were recorded during the Great Depression, we're lucky that he got to do any sessions at all.
Back then, blues players were encouraged to do their own compositions (not covers they liked), which furthered fans' present-day image of Robert being haunted by demons. Anderson knew how much broader his tastes were. “I came from a black family that loved country music.” They routinely listened to Grand Ole Opry. He and his siblings enjoyed Mae West, Bette Davis, and western movies. Though he usually performed solo, duets with his half-brother Charley Leroy Melvin Spencer (“Brother Son” to Anderson) included Gene Autry's “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine.”
Recalls Anderson, “He was blues, he was folk, he was country. Jimmie Rodgers was his favorite, and he became my favorite. Brother Robert could yodel just like he did. We did 'Waiting for a Train' together.” Here's a side of Robert his records never hint at. She remembers him singing “Loch Lomond” and “Auld Lang Syne.” He'd do a “Hokey Pokey” variant for neighborhood kids to dance to.
His personality emerges: “Brother Robert kept himself clinically clean.” “I saw him go from wearing patches to pinstripes, clodhoppers to Florsheims.” “He was razor sharp when he dressed.”
We find her takes on specifics in his songs. Being a foodie, she fondly recalls the street vendor's hot tamales that inspired “They're Red Hot.” She thinks the reference to Ethiopia at the end of “I Believe I'll Dust My Broom” stemmed from his readings on Haile Selassie. His girlfriend Bernice (West) in “Walking Blues” took Anderson under her wing when she was orphaned as a teen. “She was a social worker. She had a Studebaker with the rumble seat.”
Retired after winding up teaching in the Boston school system, Anderson now lives in Amherst, MA. Fifteen years Robert's junior in their close-knit family, she didn't always understand or even know about her older siblings', half-siblings', and stepsiblings' issues. “I understand he had a broken heart when he lost his baby, but that was grown-up talk, nobody told me.” (Conforth and Wardlow assess his devastation when his first child and wife died in childbirth.)
The last time she saw him was June 22, 1938, when he returned to Memphis to join his family by the radio for a joyous event for African Americans – iconic prize fighter Joe Louis's bout with Max Schmeling. Within two months, he'd die in agony after drinking a jealous husband's mothball-laced homebrew, which had a toxic effect on his ulcer.
Basically, Brother Robert has five sections: Lauterbach's introduction to Anderson; five-chapter Section 1 (“Growing Up with Robert Johnson”); seven-chapter Section 2 (“The Afterlife of Robert Johnson”); an interview with Anderson; and Lauterbach's Afterword (“Brother Robert's Beale Street”).
“The Afterlife” relates the sorry tale of his family being taken advantage of by people they trusted to handle his legacy and estate. Anderson points out discrepancies in claims on behalf of the late Claud Johnson (purportedly Robert's son by a teenaged girlfriend), though a court named him the sole heir. The legal struggle was compounded by Robert (like Hank Williams) dying intestate. He couldn't have known that his estate would grow hugely decades later.
Like Conforth and Wardlow, Anderson looks askance at his fellow bluesmen's stories about him. (“I know Johnny Shines embellished everything he said.”)
There are few photos of Robert. One vanished after half-sister Carrie entrusted it to the wrong Robert devotee. One that's indisputably Robert appears on the cover of Up Jumped the Devil and elsewhere. It was taken in a Beale Street do-it-yourself photo booth that he, Carrie, and Annye visited one day. Actually, he did a second photo there – that time holding his guitar and without a cigarette in his mouth. Carrie and then Annye held on to that one, storing it in their father's trunk and entrusting it to no one until now. We see it on Brother Robert's dust jacket.
In Annye's words, “He's had a life after death longer than his life on earth.”