Rare Firsthand Account of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, Part of SFC Student Discussion
"Robert Johnson was an artist. He, of course, was a blues musician, but his compositions transcend the genre, transcend the time and place. They go far beyond any of those packagings that you can put on the music to try to understand it."
Writer Preston Lauterbach (award-winning author of "Bluff City," "The Chitlin Circuit" and "Beale Street Dynasty") set the stage for a far-reaching conversation with 95-year-old Annye C. Anderson, stepsister of blues pioneer Robert Johnson, with whom he co-authored the groundbreaking 2020 book "Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson."
In an April 20, 2021, online discussion with the St. Francis College popular music class taught by Brian Gregory, Ed.D., assistant professor of communication arts, Augusta Palmer, Ph.D., associate professor of communication arts, moderated a discussion with Lauterbach and Anderson in which Anderson reflected on her youth with the musician prior to his death in 1938 at the age of 27 and her lifelong connection with his musical legacy.
"We were very close together. I could go wherever he went. To Beale Street. To the place where we took photographs," said Anderson, explaining her happy relationship with the legendary bluesman -- whom she remembers as kind and talented -- as part of the same extended family in Memphis. The book features a never-before-seen photograph of Johnson on its cover, shot in a photo booth in that city. Only two other photos of Johnson have ever been published.
"I remember hearing all of his songs, all that he recorded I had heard them," Mrs. Anderson said, when asked about her memories of Johnson's music. Johnson's seminal recorded catalogue includes just 29 distinct tracks. "But I didn't know until many years later that he had recorded those songs."
"History from the 1920s and 1930s can feel very far away from us, so we were very lucky to have Mrs. Anderson with us on her 95th birthday to read from her book and answer our questions about the experiences she lived through," said Dr. Palmer, who, in addition to her responsibilities as an SFC faculty member, is a filmmaker at work on a documentary about a series of 1960s blues festivals in Memphis.
Lauterbach and Anderson fielded questions from notable blues scholars such as Elijah Wald, as well as SFC students and blues fans who were excited to catch a glimpse of the woman whose book was a major event in the blues world and to hear what she remembered about Robert Johnson learning to play guitar and the music that inspired him.
In order to become executor of Johnson's estate, Anderson not only had to legally confirm her relation to the musician but had to prove he composed the music he recorded. She became a "blues detective," according to Lauterbach, interviewing all the people he "ran with" to establish his writing credentials.
"No blues was played in my mother's house...He played spirituals, he knew every spiritual in the songbook," said Anderson about just some of Johnson's contributions to a household in which jazz and country music were ubiquitous and many members played instruments. "I would agree he's not valued as historically as he should be."
"He was not terribly famous in his lifetime," said Lauterbach, commenting on Johnson's enduring influence on generations of musicians, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. "Fame really only reached him after his death...I would compare him to Vincent van Gogh, if we're going to talk about artists that did not make it in [their] lifetimes...I think that speaks to the magnitude and power of his contributions."
Watch the full conversation on YouTube.