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On the trail of the real Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson book
(Image credit: Future / Neil Godwin)

One of the problems we encounter around Robert Johnson’s history is that so little is known about the man himself. We know he was born in 1911 and that he died at the age of 27 in 1938.

A virtuoso guitarist and singer – someone who Eric Clapton refers to as “the most important blues singer who ever lived” – he was recorded only twice: once in San Antonio in 1936 and again in Dallas a year later. Both sessions resulted in a total of 29 songs that have gone on to influence generation upon generation of blues guitarists and singers ever since.

A new book released in the summer of last year aims to shade in some of Johnson’s hitherto unknown background. Entitled Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson (Hachette Books), it was authored by Johnson’s stepsister, Annye C Anderson, and it paints an entirely different picture to that of the troubled 20-something who visited the crossroads at midnight to do a deal with the devil. 

On the contrary, it conjures up a picture of a warm-hearted, shy individual who was dedicated to his music and guitar playing – but also that the blues wasn’t his only stylistic string.

The book reveals that Johnson could turn his hand to practically any tune, from jazz and popular songs of the day to spirituals. There’s even an occasion mentioned in the book where he sits on a step and plays nursery rhymes for the local children to sing and dance to. That’s a long way from the picture we might have formed about a man who sang about a hellhound on his trail.

Gibson L-1 and L-00

(Image credit: Future / Neil Godwin)

The book’s biggest revelation is its cover image, which shows a relaxed and smiling Johnson with his guitar in hand, looking directly into the lens. Up until now, only two pictures were known to exist, but the third was revealed by stepsister Annye, it having been stored in a bank safe deposit box since the 1930s. 

Annye was born in 1926 to Johnson’s stepfather and third wife, Mollie – nobody knows who Johnson’s real father was, but his mother’s name was Julia, whom Annye refers to as ‘Mama Julia’ in the book.

Other characters who make an appearance here are stepsisters, Carrie (who bought Johnson his first guitar) and Bessie, and a stepbrother nicknamed Son who Johnson would sometimes perform with in a duo. 

When Johnson’s mother split up with her husband she couldn’t take care of her son and so Johnson went to live with his stepfather, who taught him to play the guitar. Eventually, Johnson was reunited with his mother.

Johnson was soon to spread his wings, disappearing for days on end, hitching a ride on the trains that passed through the town, a local railroad worker commenting at the time that Johnson spent more time riding the rails than he did. Johnson’s song Walking Blues details this part of his itinerant musical life.

Later in the book, Annye offers some insight into her stepbrother’s performances. Apart from playing songs for the local kids and passers by, Johnson would perform in juke joints, playing up-tempo songs for people to dance to. And, by any account, he knew a few moves himself.

Robert Johnson Book

Author Mrs Annye C Anderson outside her family home, Memphis, 2018 (Image credit: Preston Lauterbach, Courtesy of Hachette Books)

The final part of Annye’s story about her celebrated stepbrother surrounds his death. Legend has it that he was poisoned by a jealous husband in a bar somewhere, but nobody knows the facts for sure. 

The family didn’t hear about his passing until two weeks after it happened, by which time Johnson was already buried – they received a telegram bearing the news and tried to claim the body, but were too late.

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With over 30 years’ experience writing for guitar magazines, including at one time occupying the role of editor for Guitarist and Guitar Techniques, David is also the best-selling author of a number of guitar books for Sanctuary Publishing, Music Sales, Mel Bay and Hal Leonard. As a player he has performed with blues sax legend Dick Heckstall-Smith, played rock ’n’ roll in Marty Wilde’s band, duetted with Martin Taylor and taken part in charity gigs backing Gary Moore, Bernie Marsden and Robbie McIntosh, among others. An avid composer of acoustic guitar instrumentals, he has released two acclaimed albums, Nocturnal and Arboretum.