"I still think of how it felt to hug him," Annye Anderson says of her stepbrother. "Walking with him to Third Street, Highway 61, where he'd hitch a ride across the Harahan Bridge, going over the Mississippi River. ... He put his skinny arms around me. His clothes felt starched and pressed. His face felt smooth. He smelled like cigarettes and Dixie Peach."
It could well have been yesterday, just another family farewell in Memphis. But hitching a ride on Highway 61 takes on a new meaning when you know she's speaking of blues legend Robert Johnson.
Johnson's story has been so shrouded in myth that most only imagine him hopping freights or wandering the Mississippi backroads at midnight. Some even imagine Satan waiting at the crossroads, selling guitar lessons for the price of a soul. That's why Anderson's new book, Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson (Hachette Books), is so significant. While Johnson's fans are legion, few of us imagine him living in Memphis with a loving, supportive family for much of his life, or that he was such a fanboy himself — of Gene Autry.
Now, the myth of Johnson's life melts away like a mirage, as we learn the pithy details of life on Georgia Avenue, in the bustling home overseen by Johnson's stepfather, Charles Dodds Spencer, and his third wife, Mollie. From the time he was seven, Johnson lived with Spencer in Memphis. Though he was 18 when the Georgia Avenue home was acquired, and he was already prone to the peripatetic life of a musician, he continued to gravitate to his stepfather's home, or the homes of other family members in the neighborhood. The young Annye saw a lot of him.
We see this milieu through the eyes of a child, starting with the lanky Brother Robert carrying stepsister Annye, or Baby Sis, up the stairs into their new home. "We weren't blood," Anderson notes. "We were family."
And her extended family, living in Mississippi or in a few square miles of Memphis, may be the true subject of this book. It's a tribute to the tightly knit bonds of kinship and resourcefulness that the African-American community relied on to thrive, and there are so many interwoven threads of family at play that the book provides a quick guide to their various connections. Charles Dodds, who added the name Spencer when escaping a near-lynching in Mississippi, is always at the center, having reinvented himself in the Bluff City, raising crops on vacant lots and caring for all manner of family and friends.
Through it all wanders Robert Johnson, the affable young man to whom Sister Carrie happened to give a guitar. He holds it in the book's newly revealed photograph, and Anderson shares many vivid memories of Johnson playing it for the rest of his short life, from practicing on the porch to holding court at house parties, dancing while he played.
Indeed, such was young Annye's last memory of Brother Robert, as the family gathered at Sister Carrie's to hear Joe Louis fight Max Schmeling on the radio. "You should have seen him in his white sharkskin suit, Panama hat, and patent leather shoes," Anderson recalls of that Memphis night in 1938, and you can almost smell the barbecue. A short while later, a telegram informed them Johnson had been killed.
If it all reads as if Anderson is sitting next to you, telling her stories, that's because she is. In 2018, her 92nd year, having made an educational career for herself in Boston, she felt it was time to correct the myths. Well aware of Johnson's musical legacy, and how others had either robbed her family of royalties or rendered them invisible through all the myth-making, she reached out to author Preston Lauterbach, known for his vivid histories of Beale Street, whose interview transcriptions beautifully capture her wit and eye for detail. An interview between Anderson, Lauterbach, and authors Elijah Wald and Peter Guralnick sheds further light on the story.
The result is a breathtaking look into the provenance of one of the 20th century's great musical minds, the social warp and woof of Black Memphis in the 1920s and '30s, and, in spite of racial violence that continues to this day, the persistence of family and the power of music.