Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson

Hachette. Jun. 2020. 224p. ISBN 9780306845260. $28. MUSIC
The legends about musician Robert Johnson (1911–38)—that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his formidable musical prowess—and his hallowed status as the greatest blues musician have eclipsed his actual life. Though Anderson, Johnson’s stepsister and one of the few still living who knew him, doesn’t fill in the lacuna surrounding Johnson’s death—the family didn’t find out that he’d died until weeks later—she does present a more detailed picture of an ambitious and meticulous artist surrounded by a tight-knit family and community. Anderson offers a heartrending account of the legal battle over the disposition of Johnson’s estate and, specifically, the considerable royalties from both his own records and recordings of his songs by other artists—all of which had a devastating personal and financial effect on the family. Structured as a series of interviews between Anderson and coauthor Lauterbach (Beale Street Dynasty), this achingly intimate book puts Anderson’s memories and feelings front and center. As for why Anderson is finally sharing her memories of Johnson: “I felt that I had to protect the real Brother Robert that I knew. He didn’t get his abilities from God or the Devil. He made himself.”
VERDICT Cutting through the mythos that has long surrounded this iconic artist, this is an intriguing addition to the history of 20th-century blues.

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