Jason Criss Howk
25 July 2020
Reviewing Brother Robert: Growing up with Robert Johnson by Annye C. Anderson with Preston Lauterbach, 2020, hachette Books
Brother Robert: Growing up with Robert Johnson
“We weren’t blood. We were family.”
The continuing circle of musical skills and the stories of extended families coming together to face adversity provides endless material for books. Brother Robert offers readers both, in a unique voice. In the 1960s the world thought Clapton was a God and Jimmy Page was from another universe, but those two knew where their magic came from. Robert Johnson, the brother Robert in this book is a legend among guitarists, a legend that will even outlive Keith Richards, who he also inspired.
Annye details how Robert (her step brother of sorts) learned his musical skills from his father figure, her actual father. She looked up to Robert as a little girl in segregated Memphis during the depression when Robert Johnson was performing across the South and West. Her dad took in Robert, an illegitimate child or his former wife. Annye’s half-sister Carrie also raised and housed Robert during his rise to fame. Carrie was Roberts half-sister (thru their mother) and the rock of the family that included the children of four wives in their Memphis homes.
Annye reveals the facts of Johnson’s life that many previous authors could only speculate about. This book expertly smashes the myths that formed about Robert over the years. The story also details the conditions that made Johnson a soulful musician. You write what you know about –Robert knew a lot about the blues. Son of a sharecropping mother, who only found out the father that raised him (Charles Spencer) was not his dad in his late childhood. He had been widowed twice by the height of his career and fathered a few children he didn’t get to know.
Johnson was not just a blues-man to Annye and the tight family on E. Georgia Avenue. He was the son and brother who trained and loved their horse Patsy. He loved to entertain the family and friends at parties with his other mentor and half-brother “Son.” He had a huge appetite and loved the home-cooking of his various mother figures, yet stayed rail-thin. Johnson was taught music by Charles (Dodds) Spencer who had to flee Mississippi to escape a lynching; Charles loved the fiddle himself but knew guitar, piano, and organ. Robert chose to practice his skills in many quiet spots in his neighborhood, before going on stage blocks away on Beale.
Charles, Son, and Robert loved to listen to country music. They never missed a chance to hear the Grand Ole Opry, Fiddlin John Carson, Uncle Dave Mason, Ernest Tubs, and the Carter Family. Johnson identified with Jimmie Rodgers and loved to yodel. As a guitarist Johnson was ahead of his time. He could play with either hand, and even play his instrument behind his back. This book is a great reminder that the blues that created rock and roll, resulted from Beale street men, who loved country music from Nashville, putting a new twist on what they heard. It’s the story of the cycle of musical innovation from one generation and genre to the next and the universal nature of music. Annye speculates that her talented brother, who was always pushing the limits, would likely have been a rock and roll star had he lived to see that era.
Annye also describes the common incidents of segregation in the deep South. The good and the evil are both described in a relatable manner that should make this a must-read for young adults. She tells of interactions with people of opposite colors, how the white venue owners would sneak Johnson in to entertain the white audiences, and the later cheating, by white authors, of the living Johnson family out of his financial and historical legacy. If you have followed the court rulings about the Robert Johnson estate, how an unknown illegitimate child earned his song catalogue income, you will learn the other side of the story here. If you love music, need to be reminded that we have faced worse moments as a nation, or want to get hungry reading about southern cooking –this is your book.