Robert Johnson's Stepsister Tells His Story, And Her Own, In 'Brother Robert'

Dec 1, 2020

The first thing to know about Annye Anderson is unless you’re older than she is — and fat chance of that; she’s 94 — you better just call her Mrs. Anderson." class="wysiwyg-break drupal-content" src="/sites/all/modules/contrib/wysiwyg/plugins/break/images/spacer.gif" title="<--break-->">

“People say, ‘Don't you have a first name?’” Anderson said from the couch in her living room in Amherst, Massachusetts. “I say, ‘Yes, I do.’ And they wait for it. But I tell them, ‘Mrs. Anderson will do just fine.’”

Amherst is a long way from the Memphis of Mrs. Anderson’s childhood, where she grew up in an extended family that was steeped in music. Among her older siblings was a singer and guitarist named Robert Johnson, whom she called Brother Robert.

“I knew how to dance,” Anderson said. “And I thought I knew how to sing. And all the popular music you knew, and all the popular songs.”

Here’s a scene: Anderson back when she was Annie Spencer and had just turned 11, in 1936. She’d gone with Johnson to see “Follow the Fleet,” starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

“One of the popular songs was ‘Let Yourself Go,’” Anderson said, recalling her favorite lyrics:

Let the dance floor feel your leather
Step as lightly as a feather
Let yourself go.

Now it was time for Amateur Night at the Palace Theater on Beale Street, Memphis’ renowned center of Black life and culture. Annie had never performed before, but Johnson helped her rehearse “Let Yourself Go,” playing guitar while she danced and sang.

“We always have our little choreography, and so you practice it,” Anderson said. “And Brother Robert had practiced that with me.”

There’s a lot that Annie Spencer couldn’t have known about her older brother back in 1936. That he would die from mysterious causes within a couple years. That his 29 recorded songs would quickly be forgotten. That by the mid-1960s he’d be exalted by the likes of Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and Robert Plant as the prototypical blues artist.

Robert Johnson was anointed by a generation of rock musicians as King of the Delta Blues.

But back on that Tuesday in ’36, all Spencer knew was that her brother was the sort of musician who could pick up any tune off the radio and play it perfectly the first time he tried. She loved dancing with him, too. Memphis Minnie’s "Joe Louis Strut" was a popular song at that time, and that afternoon they worked on the moves for a dance called Joe Louis truckin’. Her older sister sewed her a new dress for the performance.

“That weather was around September,” Anderson said, “because I remember I got chilly in that little dress. It was thin.”

Amateur Night at the Palace was a big deal. It played on the radio, and the competition was heated. Although Johnson helped his little sister rehearse, he couldn't take her to the show, since he was playing at a party that same night. A family friend was supposed to chaperone Annie, but then that friend heard about the party. She wanted to see Johnson play.

“When she found out that they were gonna be a wang dang doodle,” Anderson said, “she couldn't go with me. Well, that broke my heart. I know I boo-hooed. But then something said, ‘Well, you can go by yourself.’”

Let that stand as the motto for a woman who in her long life has worked as a short-order cook, a secretary at the pentagon, a teacher, counselor and school administrator, and — most recently —  a garlic farmer.

“I like the strong garlic,” Anderson said.

Now Anderson is a first-time author. Her book, published in June, is “Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson.” She was, in fact, his stepsister.

“He called me Baby Sis,” she writes. “We weren’t blood. We were family.”

In the book, Anderson takes us from her family’s roots in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, to her first memory of Johnson in Memphis — when she remembers him sweeping her up and taking her up a set of steps “like lightning” — to the decades after Johnson’s death, when a mostly white audience invented a mythology about the musician that was more of a racist caricature than anything having to do with his actual life.

The mythology included rumors that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talent, but the stories were dependent on a lack of knowledge about the rich musical culture in which Johnson was raised.

The second half of Anderson’s book recounts numerous ways in which she and her older half-sister were excluded from Johnson’s estate while various opportunists sought to profit from his legacy.

Anderson co-wrote “Brother Robert” with historian Preston Lauterbach, whose books include “Beale Street Dynasty” and “The Chitlin’ Circuit.”

Annye Anderson, at right, in Memphis with her co-writer Preston Lauterbach. They're in front of a mural of Anderson's stepbrother, blues legend Robert Johnson.
Credit Courtesy Preston Lauterbach / Used with permission

The introduction is written by Elijah Wald, a musician and author of “Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.”

Wald said Anderson is the first insider ever to write about Johnson’s life.

“She felt that the story had been told badly by outsiders for long enough,” Wald said. “And she wanted to tell the story herself.”

“I talked about it for years,” Anderson said. “Everybody knew about that book I've talked about. And I thought it would never exist.”

Wald said Anderson’s book offers a necessary corrective to the image of Johnson as a backwoods loner playing a primal and haunted music.

“Robert Johnson was as much the guy from Memphis, who went out in the country and was the hip city guy, as he ever was the guy from the dark Delta who went up to the cities,” Wald said.

Anderson was only 12 when Johnson died, and she acknowledges there was a great deal she didn’t know about what he did when he was on the road.

“I'm not saying he was an angel, and I'm not saying what he didn't and did do, because I didn't have him in my pocket,” Anderson said. “But people like to be on the dark side. And that's what they paint. He's brilliant on one side, and he's dark on the other. And I deeply resent that.”

Both Wald and Anderson describe Johnson as a man attuned to the newest trends. Rather than being primitive, pure, and unvarnished — as later fans would define him — Johnson’s style and sensibility were distinctly modern.

“He was somebody who was seeing the latest movies and learning the latest hits,” Wald said. “And [he] could coach a little girl on how to do a Ginger Rogers tune.”

When 11-year-old Annie arrived alone at the Palace that September night, the emcee hurried her backstage. She paused, nervously, one foot through the curtain.

“And when the music started,” Anderson said, “I was supposed to come on out. So they had to get me twice to come out.”

She danced her way onto the stage and performed the tune she’d practiced with Johnson. To finish out the number, she did the Joe Louis truckin’ and went offstage with her forefinger twirling.

“My mother didn't know I was going, and I was supposed to be spanked when I got home,” Anderson said. “But my mother didn't spank me. She just told me never to do it again. And I guess the fact that her little daughter sang on the radio — she may have been a little proud.”

In her book, Anderson shows us the actual Robert Johnson living and making music among friends and family, but his Baby Sis is the star of the show.