'Brother Robert' Tells True Story Of Childhood With Blues Legend Robert Johnson Annye Anderson, the stepsister of Robert Johnson, whose life became a founding myth of American music, has written a memoir about the real life behind the legend.
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'Brother Robert' Reveals True Story Of Growing Up With Blues Legend Robert Johnson

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'Brother Robert' Reveals True Story Of Growing Up With Blues Legend Robert Johnson

'Brother Robert' Reveals True Story Of Growing Up With Blues Legend Robert Johnson

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Blues legend Robert Johnson has been mythologized as a backwoods loner, his talent the result of selling his soul to the devil. Well, wrong and wrong again, according to Johnson's younger stepsister. She lives in Amherst, Mass. And now, she has a book about growing up with her brother, Robert. Here's reporter Ben James.

BEN JAMES, BYLINE: One thing you need to know about Annye Anderson is unless you're older than she is - and fat chance of that, she's 94 - you'd better call her Mrs. Anderson.

ANNYE ANDERSON: People say, don't you have a first name? I say, yes, I do. And they wait for it. But I tell them, Mrs. Anderson will do just fine.

JAMES: Amherst, Mass., is a long way from the Memphis of Mrs. Anderson's childhood, where she grew up in an extended family of siblings, half-siblings and a guitar-playing older stepbrother named Robert Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PHONOGRAPH BLUES")

ROBERT JOHNSON: (Singing) Beatrice, I love my phonograph, but you have broke my windin' chain...

ANDERSON: Brother Robert and I used to do the buck dance because, you know, he could move, you know? People don't know he didn't just sit and play like they showed him with that caricature.

JAMES: Mrs. Anderson - back then, she was Annie Spencer - was only 12 when Johnson died in 1938. His 29 recorded songs were quickly forgotten.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IN VAIN")

JOHNSON: (Singing) Well, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell when all your love's in vain. All your love's in vain.

JAMES: She became a short order cook, a secretary at the Pentagon, a teacher and school administrator. It was during the 1960s civil rights movement that she began to hear something familiar on the radio.

ANDERSON: During the movement, people were playing his music everywhere and his riffs everywhere. Sound familiar, but we didn't know they were copying from - we didn't know about Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin and Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IN VAIN")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Yeah, and it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell, all your love's in vain.

JAMES: Music and culture critic, Greil Marcus, has been a fan of Robert Johnson's for decades. And now, he's a fan of Mrs. Anderson's, praising her new book and Johnson's artistry in the New York Review Of Books.

GREIL MARCUS: There is something in Robert Johnson's music that goes beyond, that goes above, that is harder, that is deeper, that burrows beneath in ways that other music doesn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TERRAPLANE BLUES")

JOHNSON: (Singing) I'm cryin', please, please don't do me wrong. Who been drivin' my Terraplane now for you since I been gone?

JAMES: Mrs. Anderson's book, published in June, is "Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson." He called me Baby Sis, she writes. We weren't blood, we were family. Anderson takes us from her family's roots in Hazlehurst, Miss., to her first memory of Johnson in Memphis...

ANDERSON: I remember him sweeping me up and taking me up the steps like lightning.

JAMES: ...To the decades after her brother's mysterious death, when a mostly white audience invented the story of Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, a myth that was more racist caricature than anything having to do with his actual life.

ANDERSON: I'm not saying he was an angel, and I'm not saying what he didn't do and did do because I didn't have him in my pocket. 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.

JAMES: Anderson co-wrote "Brother Robert" with historian Preston Lauterbach. The intro is by Elijah Wald, who says Anderson's book offers a necessary corrective to the image of Johnson as a backwoods loner playing a primal and haunted music.

ELIJAH WALD: 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 city.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY'RE RED HOT")

JOHNSON: (Singing) Hot tamales, and they're red hot. Yes, she got 'em for sale. She got two for a nickel, got four for a dime. Would sell you more, but they ain't none of mine. Hot tamales, and they're red hot. Yes, she got 'em for sale...

MARCUS: He was somebody who was seeing the latest movies and learning the latest hits and could coach a little girl on how to do a Ginger Rogers tune.

ANDERSON: You had Bing Crosby. You had Louis Armstrong.

JAMES: They listen to The Vagabonds, Gene Autry...

ANDERSON: I can hear Clyde McCoy now.

JAMES: ...Count Basie, Fiddlin' John Carson.

ANDERSON: Brother Robert's the one that got me into country music. Jimmie Rodgers was his favorite. I will never forget "Waiting For A Train" and doing it with Brother Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITING FOR A TRAIN")

JIMMIE RODGERS: (Singing) Get off, get off you railroad bum. He slammed the boxcar door. (Yodeling)

ANDERSON: I tried to yodel. But Brother Robert could yodel. He could mimic anything.

JAMES: There's a moment in Anderson's book toward the end of Johnson's life, when the young Annie Spencer walks her brother to a spot on Highway 61 so he can hitch a ride across the Mississippi.

ANDERSON: He would say, well, little girl, this is far as you could go. Because I wasn't supposed to go but so far.

JAMES: He smelled of cigarettes, Anderson writes, and Dixie Peach pomade.

ANDERSON: He'd give me a hug - bye Little Sis - and tell me to go straight home.

JAMES: Many of Robert Johnson's fans would likely sell their own souls to be able to follow him down that highway to his next house party and to hear his version of "Waiting For A Train." Instead, they've got his 29 recorded songs. And now, they have Mrs. Anderson's book.

For NPR News, I'm Ben James in Amherst, Mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET HOME CHICAGO")

JOHNSON: (Singing) Oh, baby, don't you want to go? Oh, baby, don't you want to go?

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