Book Review | Hachette Books | Review by Liam Wilkinson
The mythology associated with Robert Johnson will, most likely, never be shaken off. Whenever we hear those beautifully haunting recordings of “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Terraplane Blues” and “Come On In My Kitchen”, it’s so easy to let that unique voice and slide guitar carry us off into the realm of legend. How else can such an exquisite talent be bestowed upon a human being than via a blessing from the Devil himself?
Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson gives us a much needed glimpse of Johnson the man and the musician, rather than the ethereal figure from the tall tales. It’s the memoir of Johnson’s stepsister Annye C. Anderson, the little girl who remembers watching her brother’s slender fingers moving along the fretboard of a guitar she was not allowed to touch, written with author Preston Lauterbach in her ninety-third year.
Lauterbach has allowed Anderson to tell her story in her own voice, complete with her warmly magnetic accent and dialect, which helps in ushering us closer to the man behind the myths. We hear, in this brief but engaging book, how Robert talked, how he dressed, how he wrote, and of the affectionate relationships he had with his family and friends. We also hear of the hardships Johnson and his family faced in 1920s Mississippi and Tennessee, where money was tight and racial tensions were even tighter. It is this candid aspect of the book – the kind of wonderful candour you’d expect from a forthright woman of a certain age – which places it firmly amongst the must-reads of these new Twenties.
Whilst the first part of Brother Robert provides blues fans with an enticing glance at our hero, the second part reveals the horrors of Johnson’s legacy at the hands of white fraudsters, money-hungry music companies and the many shadowy figures who have jumped at the chance of exploiting the bluesman’s family and fame, not to mention the lengths Annye herself has gone to in order to protect her brother’s reputation. And however we choose to remember Robert Johnson, whether its as a poor black musician with an unequaled skill or the troubled artist who sold his soul at the crossroads, there’s one thing that no one can dispute; this is the last chance we’ll get to read a first-hand account of the greatest bluesman of them all.