Mrs. Annye Anderson, 94, "baby sis" to the Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, and author of the 2020 book "Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson." She is photographed here on August 16, 2018 at the Robert Johnson home by the book's co-author Preston Lauterbach. Anderson's brother died 80 years prior to the day—August 16, 1938. © 2018 PRESTON LAUTERBACH. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. USED HERE WITH PERMISSION.
When the 2019 "Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson" was released, Grammy Award winning music historian Elijah Wald called it "...the definitive Robert Johnson biography..."
He still stands by those words.
It's just that the 2020 book "Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson" rounds out the story by bringing a tangible humanity to the Delta bluesman that no one else could. Except, perhaps, for someone who actually lived with Johnson, as did author Annye C. Anderson, his "baby sis," for the first 12 years of her life.
When I spoke with Wald on August 14, I wanted to know if Anderson's 2020 book supersedes Conforth and Wardlow's 2019 well-researched "definitive biography." Or if yet another book about Johnson now needs to be written to merge details from both books into one.
His answer was a decisive "no."
"For me personally, it enhances the picture we have," says Wald, who authored the 2004 book "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues."
Wald, who wrote the foreword to "Brother Robert," has a point. To him, it's inconsequential if Anderson, now 94, remembers something as happening when she was nine or 11 years old. "She saw him in very different settings than blues musicians saw him," Wald notes, adding that Johnson surely behaved in one way as one member of a large, talented extended family at their home in Memphis, and another way with on the road with fellow musicians playing jukes, picnics and street corners.
It's the picture Anderson paints of Johnson living at home that we've not yet heard, and that's what makes her story so captivating.
"He's part of a nice, normal and friendly family, playing the latest pop tunes with his half-brother Son Spencer and taking the kids to cowboy movies," is how Wald tells it.
That "ordinary" picture of Robert Johnson dispels a lot of the legend surrounding this elusive Delta musician who died young at age 27. But maybe that's the point.
"The role that black musicians have in white mythology is to be 'fabulous monsters'," Wald contends. "Their job is to be the fantasy of our life, and make our life more exciting."
Wald has spent a good part of his writing career penning well-researched and award-winning books that focus on dispelling myths about musicians with reality checks based in fact. "My mission from the word 'go' has been to counter the myths. And now with Robert Johnson, we've got somebody's stories filling in that picture of him."
As for Conforth and Wardlow's 2019 book, "they did a very solid biography. They did talk with Sister Carrie (though not Annye Anderson). Nothing Anderson says in her book really revolutionize theirs. It just fills things out. It humanizes him."
"It's the extent to which Anderson reinforces the normalcy. We have very few blues artists where we know these backstories written by people who actually lived with them."
Until now. The fact that this new dimension has been found and documented about someone as (formerly) elusive as Robert Johnson is all the better.
Award-winning writer, music historian and American folk blues guitarist, Elijah Wald is author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and The Blues: A Very Short Introduction, for Oxford University Press.
He is a 2002 Grammy Award winner for his liner notes to The Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Box: The Journey of Chris Strachwitz.
He wrote over 1000 articles during twenty years at the Boston Globe and was writer and researcher for the Smithsonian Institution's multimedia project River of Song, a survey of contemporary music along the Mississippi River.
His other books include Josh White: Society Blues, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, and Dylan Goes Electric!
Wald also co-authored Dave Van Ronk's posthumously published memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the main inspiration for the Coen Brothers' movie Inside
Co-author of Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson. Author of Bluff City, Beale Street Dynasty, and The Chitlin' Circuit. He lives near Charlottesville, Virginia.
American cultural historian and author who has argued passionately and persuasively for the vitality of this country's intertwined black and white musical traditions.
American folk blues guitarist and music historian, and Grammy Award winner. Among his books are Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues; and The Blues, A Very Short Introduction for Oxford University Press.