New book reveals the true story of legendary blues icon Robert Johnson
In Brother Robert, Johnson’s stepsister shares details of Johnson’s family, influences, death and mystique
It's one of the most mythical stories in American music. A young musician named Robert Johnson travels to a local crossroads and makes a deal with the devil: sell his soul, and he will achieve untold musical success.
That musical success never did happen during Johnson's brief lifetime. For the most part, he played street corners, juke joints and Saturday night dances, and received almost no recognition. He had two known recording sessions — one in San Antonio in 1936 and one in Dallas in 1937 — and produced 29 songs. He died tragically from poisoning when he was just 27 years old.
But Johnson's incredible music survived, and a 1961 release by Columbia Records brought it to the fore. Some of the biggest names in music went on to cover his songs, among them the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton, who called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived."
Still, almost nothing was known about the singer himself — but a new book is about to change the way the world sees Johnson's life and his musical legacy.
Written by his now 94-year-old stepsister Annye Anderson, who grew up with Johnson, along with author Preston Lauterbach, Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson 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.
'New light on the mythology'
The book also arrives with a new photograph of Johnson — just the third confirmed image in the world.
"The new photograph on the cover of of the book shows him smiling. He's clearly very warm, very generous, very open. He looks like he's having fun. And it's just one shot away from the cigarette photo," says Lauterbach, speaking about a more serious photo of Johnson with a cigarette in his mouth, in a q interview with Tom Power.
"So just like this new photograph puts the previously known photographs in a new light. This new version of Robert Johnson, this new perspective on his character, really throws new light on the mythology."
According to Lauterbach, Johnson's family has long been frustrated by the mythology surrounding the musician, and the way his music and the false narratives around it had been exploited by others who never knew him. As a result, Anderson resisted sharing his true story.
"She felt like, 'Well, if they're going to turn him into this mythical figure and focus on his sex life and his drinking and his brawling, screw them. They can't have the real story," says Lauterbach. But then Anderson changed her mind.
"I think in her age, having made it as far as she has, she had a little bit of a change of heart. And she realized, 'When I die, the real human being that nobody knows goes with me.' And I think due to that burden, she decided it was time to tell her story."
'A caring and patient cool older brother'
Anderson was 15 years younger than Johnson, and was not a blood relative, but they lived in the same home and he was like a "cool older sibling." Anderson remembers the musician helping her learn to read, teaching her how to play music, and helping her prep for an amateur competition.
"So she learned a Ginger Rogers song that they had seen in a movie together, her and brother Robert. And he sat down and helped her learn the number, learn how to dance. And she got her little white linen dress all ironed up and ready to go," says Lauterbach.
"So I think that's a beautiful look at what a what a caring and patient, cool older brother this guy was."
So where did that soul-selling mythology come from? Lauterbach says it was a combination of people seeing how quickly Johnson acquired his exceptional guitar skills — he was somehow able to play the walking bass and the lead simultaneously — and the lyrics of his songs, among them Hellhound on my Trail, Me and the Devil Blues and Crossroad Blues.
At the time, people who played secular music, as opposed to church music, he adds, were seen as selling their souls to the devil.
"Just simply that view of playing the blues was looked at, metaphorically, as selling your soul to the devil," says Lauterbach.
"And then when you get into the literal aspect of it, I just find it a bit weird and racist that so many people can run with this idea that this talented, ingenious guy must have been endowed with these powers supernaturally instead of being great and working really hard at it."
I just find it a bit weird and racist that so many people can run with this idea that this talented, ingenious guy must have been endowed with these powers supernaturally instead of being great and working really hard at it.- Preston Lauterbach
Anderson says the family lost Johnson twice — once when he died, and again when the mythology surrounding him was created.
Brother Robert, says Lauterbach, is an effort to reclaim that history — and the co-author makes clear that he's not joining string of strangers who have profited from his legacy.
"I did the work for a portion of the advance. All of the royalties go to Mrs. Anderson. So if you are committed to supporting Black artists, and a great first-time Black author at the age of 94, buy this book. It benefits her … and there is a justice element to that," says Lauterbach.
"But more than anything, you're just going to love being able to immerse in her voice and in her stories."
— Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Matt Amha