When we listen to a favorite artist, they often seem to understand us better than we know ourselves. As we keep listening in different situations, through our changing lives, we inevitably come to feel we know them in similarly deep ways. Robert Johnson’s recordings have a particular intimacy because no other musicians are involved. We are alone with just his voice and guitar, hearing his breath between phrases, the strain in his high notes, the rattle of his slide on the frets, and the occasional murmured comments, as if he were talking directly to us.
For more than eighty years, the only way to experience Robert Johnson has been through those recordings. For millions of people all around the world, he is those recordings. We have listened to them over and over, spent hours, days, and years with them. So it is easy to feel we have spent that time with Johnson, and to forget that he only spent a few days making them and what we are hearing is barely an hour and a half of his life.
Annye Anderson really did spend days and weeks with Robert Johnson, over many years, not as a disembodied voice but as a tall, lanky, handsome, warm, and exciting older brother. She was a little girl and her memories of him are a little girl’s memories. If you ask her about his travels or romantic relationships, about juke joints and rent parties, or about the pleasures and dangers of his life on the road, she tends to say she didn’t know about that part of his life. She knew him when he was staying at her daddy’s house in Memphis, or nearby at their sister Carrie’s. For the rest, she’ll say, “I didn’t have him in my pocket.”
The first memory of Robert Johnson in this book is of a long-legged eighteen-year-old carrying a toddler up a flight of stairs. The last is of him playing at a party celebrating Joe Louis’s victory over Max Schmeling. In between are memories of him taking a little girl to the movies, caring for her father’s horse, teaching her a simple piece on the piano, and sitting outside with his guitar, singing nursery rhymes for her and her friends or playing upbeat tunes that got them dancing.
Annye Anderson’s Brother Robert was not the rambling, blues-singing loner a lot of us have imagined; he was part of a bustling, vibrant household and neighborhood. His musical skills made him distinctive, but their older brother Son was also an exceptional musician and often teamed up with him as a musical duo and for hoboing journeys. They played blues, including songs we know from the records, but also lots of other music. When you ask Mrs. Anderson about their repertoire, she says Johnson would play whatever people wanted to hear: “I remember him asking all the guests, and even the children, ‘What’s your pleasure?’” Maybe late in the evening they wanted to hear a moody blues like “Come On In My Kitchen.” Maybe they wanted Son to liven up the mood with a Fats Waller number. Maybe they wanted to hear about rambling and hoboing, and the two men would harmonize and yodel on Jimmie Rodgers’s “Waiting for a Train.” Or maybe it was Annye’s turn to show off and they’d back her on a song-and-dance routine from the new Ginger Rogers musical.
Johnson is at the center of this book, but he is surrounded by a lot of other people. One striking figure is Charles Dodds, who became Charles Spencer after a lynch mob forced him to move to Memphis. A barber, carpenter, and jack of all trades, he also seems to have been a formidable musician and mentored the young Johnson—the son of his first wife by another man, but welcomed as a son to the Memphis household—along with a changing cast of children, grandchildren, wives, ex-wives, and their various spouses and partners.
Another notable character is Sister Carrie. In the first half of the book she is the “fly” member of the family, the one with a radio and a phonograph, whose home was Johnson’s favored stopping place when he came back through Memphis in later years as a working musician. In the second half she is the one who keeps the family connected as they move north, takes care of the ones who need care—and then, when Johnson’s music is discovered by a new generation of fans around the world, becomes tangled in the increasingly complicated strands of his legacy.
Finally, there is the voice that tells the stories. I would have enjoyed this book under any circumstances but particularly appreciate it because it gave me the opportunity to meet Annye Anderson. Preston Lauterbach invited Peter Guralnick and me to spend an afternoon with them, and we planned to ask her some questions about Robert Johnson and Memphis. Before we could get to that she was discussing her plans to travel when the book comes out: first to England, then South Africa and France. The mention of France reminded her of her friend Archie Shepp, the avant-garde jazz saxophonist, and soon she was talking about Max Roach and Julius Lester, likewise friends in her current hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. Then the conversation moved to her barbecue sauce, which she has marketed to merchants around the state, and to her husband’s laboratory work and meeting Dr. Charles Drew, the African American surgeon who pioneered modern blood banks. Listening to her plans, enthusiasm, and range of interests at age ninety-three, I can only imagine how vibrant and fascinating she must have been as a young woman. And I cannot help thinking about all the stories we will never know—in particular all the African American stories—because they never happened to intersect with a blues legend.
Robert Johnson’s music is timeless and speaks to us today in ways nobody could have imagined in the 1930s. But it was also the music of a particular time and place, and to some extent of a particular family. He spent time in the Mississippi Delta and further south in Hazlehurst, traveled west to Texas, north to Chicago, and east to New York. His musical influences included Son House and Willie Brown at back-country picnics; Leroy Carr, Kokomo Arnold, and Lonnie Johnson on wind-up Victrolas; Jimmie Rodgers on the radio; Gene Autry in the movies; and whatever was hitting on jukeboxes wherever he traveled.
Memphis was one of many places Johnson stayed and played—but it was a special place for him. His mother, Julia, first left him with Charles Spencer when he was seven years old, and that remained the closest thing he had to a permanent home. He joined his mother for a few years in the rural Delta, briefly married and tried to settle on a farm, and stayed with lots of other people in other places. But he never set down roots anywhere else, and till the end of his life he kept coming back to Memphis and the Spencers.
I first read this manuscript hoping to learn more about Robert Johnson, and it was interesting to read Mrs. Anderson’s recollections of the people who raised and nurtured him: Charles Spencer, the closest he ever knew to a father; Son, his half-brother and musical partner; and his half-sister Carrie, who seems to have been something like a second mother to him. As I kept reading, I began to picture Johnson in a new way, as part of that big, complicated, talented household. I see the house, with the barber chair in the front room. I imagine him coming through the door and little Annye jumping up and down with excitement, Sister Carrie telling her to calm down and run an errand while she runs him a bath. I see him in a Stetson hat standing by the piano, strumming along as Brother Son sings the latest Louis Armstrong hit, or relaxing next to the radio with his stepfather, enjoying the Grand Ole Opry.
Obviously that picture is a mix of Mrs. Anderson’s memories and my imagination, but it makes me hear Johnson’s records in a different way. I had always pictured him in the Delta or on the road. I could hear the modern touches in his music, his debt to urban blues stars like Carr and Peetie Wheatstraw and the brilliant way he blended their contemporary sound with the rough power and rhythmic sophistication of the older Delta players—but I imagined him in rural Mississippi, impressing the other young players around Clarksdale with what he’d picked up from records and the road. That is the picture we get from people like his sometime partners Johnny Shines and Robert Lockwood Jr., and admiring contemporaries like McKinley Morganfield, a Delta field hand who would soon move up to Chicago and become famous as Muddy Waters.
Johnson certainly spent time around the Delta in his later years, so that picture isn’t wrong. But his records sound different when I imagine him standing by the piano in Carrie’s house playing the Scrapper Blackwell guitar licks as Son matches Carr’s mellow tenor and understated piano on “Blues Before Sunrise.” Or the two of them walking to Beale Street and busking in Handy Park, playing whatever suited the urban passersby, and maybe getting invited up to a room in the Peabody to play a mix of pop hits and down-home field music for some rich white folks. Thinking of Johnson as a hip, urban musician spicing his music with Delta touches rather than a Delta musician picking up on the latest urban sounds doesn’t make his records sound better or worse—but it adds another layer and changes the way I hear his musical choices.
I am also reminded of all the music we can never hear. I want to know how Son sounded when he did his Louis Armstrong imitations, and how Johnson played on those numbers: did he strum swing chords, like he does in his intro to “They’re Red Hot,” or pick an intricate solo in the style of Lonnie Johnson—or did he play something of his own that I can’t imagine? Was he always the center of attention, or did he sometimes sit back with the rest of the family and enjoy the show? I want to know more about Son, and about Charles Dodds Spencer, who knew his way around a half-dozen instruments but had quit playing by the time Mrs. Anderson was born. And I wish I could see Mrs. Anderson herself at age twelve, trucking across the stage of the Palace Theater, and hear the orchestra playing their Memphis variant of the latest Count Basie hits.
The great pleasure of this book is the way it expands that world, adding small touches that bring it to life. The older generation included Mrs. Anderson’s mother, Mollie Spencer, who had come up from Mississippi and “used to eat her greens and her hot water cornbread with her hands, like the Africans,” and Johnson’s mother, Julia, who insisted on doing her washing outside on a “rub board” rather than using sister Carrie’s washing machine. The younger generation included Mrs. Anderson’s husband, who played with Jimmie Lunceford, then worked as a chemist in Washington and Boston; and her sister Charlyne, who was “always a bookworm, reading, reading, reading,” studied Latin, and became their high school valedictorian.
Less pleasurable are the stories of what happened after Johnson’s records were reissued and he became the most famous name in early blues. Reading Mrs. Anderson’s version I’m struck by how very few of these stories have been told by African Americans who were directly involved. Virtually the entire history of the “blues revival” has been written by white fans and even the most sympathetic are writing from outside that culture, while many have been involved in the sorts of theft and appropriation that Mrs. Anderson details with eloquent anger.
There is much more to be said about all of that, but it’s time for me to get out of the way. I came to this project hoping to learn more about Robert Johnson and ended up learning about a lot of other people, including an extraordinary nonagenarian who has been quiet long enough. I am forever grateful that before moving on she decided to have her say.
In April of 2018, I heard from my agent that a relative of Robert Johnson wanted me to write her book—Annye C. Anderson. Her name rang a distant bell. Still, folks had wanted me to write their life stories before, and I hadn’t done one of those yet.
I called her up. Her voice almost instantly assured me that this book needed to happen. She sounds unmistakably, beautifully Southern. Clear, though. She told me she’d soon turn ninety-two. The voice sounded vital. I never doubted that she is who she claims to be, “Baby Sis” to Robert Johnson. The voice settled that. After all, they learned to speak from some of the same people.
She told me that she’s not a first-name person. I would refer to her as Mrs. Anderson, and she to me as Mr. Lauterbach. I offered to go and meet her.
Mrs. Anderson did not invite me inside of her home on that first visit. I picked her up outside of her place. She wore a turban, as she often does. I folded up her walker and stuck it in the trunk of my car. We headed into town. She gets out just about every day, and is known on the streets. She told me she disguises herself as a bag lady so that nobody will knock her over the head. With her bag-lady disguise and insistence on using titles, Mrs. Anderson is both familiar and formal.
She’d found us a place to sit and talk, at a workspace in a former bank. The guy who ran it gave her the space for free, so he stuck us in what must have been a phone booth near around the time Mrs. Anderson was born. As we discussed how to collaborate on her book, Mrs. Anderson made it clear that she wouldn’t be doing any typing. I’d interview her, transcribe her words to the page, put the story in proper order, and give it to her to fix the way she liked. We figured we’d start right away.
Mrs. Anderson made the point, early and often, that family has been marginalized in Robert Johnson’s story. I believe that, and I think the fact that Mrs. Anderson has come forward at this late date seems all the more surprising and exciting because of that discrepancy. I don’t think that many Robert Johnson fans are aware that a person this close to the mythical man still lives among us.
I’ve been around historical figures who’ve exaggerated their roles or expertise, but I never felt skeptical towards her. I wish I had a nickel for every time I asked Mrs. Anderson what I thought would be the crucial Robert Johnson question only to hear, “Honey, I didn’t have him in my pocket.” Mrs. Anderson was twelve when Robert Johnson died, and even though she has a strong memory, she says that she and Robert lived different lives. As much as her memories tell us about Robert Johnson, more so, they illustrate what he saw, whom he spoke with, and what was discussed—precious gritty little details of life.
One aspect of Robert Johnson’s way of thinking that stood out to me, listening to her, is how he compartmentalized. He kept his road life quiet around his family, and he kept his family life quiet on the road. He came from a complicated background, like history torn from the pages of William Faulkner, an innocent child born of violence and adultery. His secretiveness about his different lives reminds me of how children of divorced parents learn to avoid talking about mom’s family in front of dad and vice versa. Until now, fans have mostly had the recollections of Robert Johnson’s traveling buddies, and so, only that side of him. Mrs. Anderson knew Johnson as few people ever did, and certainly as no one else living does. She brings us that other side.
On the second day of our collaboration, we met at the workspace, but this time got sent to “the vault,” a large conference room. I set out my tape recorder, notepad, and computer on a rectangular table. Mrs. Anderson tottered in wearing the bag-lady disguise. A number of plastic drugstore sacks hung from the handles of her walker.
I had my recorder rolling for our interview, and on the playback, can hear my voice tighten as I react to seeing what she carried in those plastic bags. First, she handed me a sheaf of family death certificates and marriage licenses, which I looked through and made notes from. Next came a pile of photographs, showing her father, Robert’s mother. Finally, she removed a little box that had once carried a bottle of sewing machine oil back in the 1930s, the kind Mrs. Anderson had picked up on errands for her sister, a seamstress. “This is the highlight,” she said. “This photo has never been out.”
I remember the air thinning and my heart beating rubbery. But there’s something soothing about Mrs. Anderson’s dignity, and I sound composed as I look into the little blue box, saying, “If you put this on the cover of your book, it’ll help sales tremendously.”
She picked more items out of the shopping bags and placed them in front of me. On the recording, you can practically hear the lump fill my throat and the tears brim in my eyes, as I say, “that’s worth a million dollars.”
After that day at the office, I went back to my properly shabby motel room, and, sipping on a cold beer, noticed the date, May 8—Robert Johnson’s birthday.
Mrs. Anderson sent me home with a jar of her homemade barbecue sauce. “It’s high end,” she said. “All organic.” For a label, she’d stuck a nametag to the jar that read HELLO MY NAME IS: Mizz Annye.
Our next meeting took place in Memphis on the eightieth anniversary of Robert Johnson’s death, August 16, 2018. We stood and talked in the overgrown yard of the abandoned house where they used to live. We looked around at the spots where he used to sit and pick his guitar. The mosquitoes got fierce and we fled for the air-conditioned car to continue her reminiscence.
We were sitting in the car on her old street when a couple of guys walked up to her window. They asked in a not unfriendly way who we were and what we were up to. Mrs. Anderson gave them a fake name. When they wandered off, she told me one of her pet phrases. “If everything somebody says to me ends in a question mark, they can forget it.” I told her that put me in a strange position, and she replied with another one of her favorites. “No honey, I’m on your time.”
We drove down a main avenue of South Memphis and saw a massive mural of Robert Johnson painted on the side of a brick building in a vacant parking lot. We stopped to look, and asked a guy to take our picture in front of the mural. He said he knew who the man with the guitar was, he had just watched O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Mrs. Anderson hasn’t reached the age of ninety-three by worrying about what she eats. In Memphis, we went out for fried catfish, fried green tomatoes, and fried chicken, sometimes at the same meal. For something un-fried, we had pork barbecue. At the Blue and White Diner in Tunica, Mississippi, the bill came to $32.20. I flashed the receipt to Mrs. Anderson and she laughed.
She remembers a time in Memphis when only African Americans cooked barbecue, and the craze hadn’t yet swept the city. Three barbecue kings in particular stood out—Johnny Rivers, Johnny Mills, and Mr. Culpepper. I took Mrs. Anderson to my favorite spot, a world-renowned hole-in-the-wall that I thought harkened back to the three barbecue kings of the ’30s. We dug into shoulder sandwiches. I held my breath and waited for her review. After an extended period of chewing, she matter-of-factly remarked, “They have a low overhead.”
I finally built up the courage to ask about her first name. That label on her barbecue sauce and her formality about proper titles had made me wonder. She told me she changed the spelling from Annie to Annye as a teenager, and she now prefers the African pronunciation, On-yay. That was that. I still can’t say it, and when I call her on the phone, I always identify myself as Mr. Lauterbach. I don’t mind it. I find that I’m pretty susceptible to old-fashioned ways. I’d wear a wide-brimmed hat everywhere, no problem. She got into my head to the extent that I called other people Mr. or Mrs., but found it doesn’t sit right with anyone else.
After meeting in Memphis, we got together every few months to work on the book, once for an interview Mrs. Anderson gave to two of Robert Johnson’s distinguished biographers, Elijah Wald and Peter Guralnick. Their Q&A is included in this book, and as you’ll see, humorous anecdotes and a musical breakthrough ensued.
I have to mention the person who helped bring me to this project—Mrs. Anderson’s eldest daughter, Hughia. Mrs. Anderson wanted to hire a writer who knows 1930s Memphis, where she grew up with Robert Johnson. Hughia found out about my books and helped to connect me with her mother. I never had the chance to meet Hughia, though, as she passed away in February 2019. Hughia had said that Mrs. Anderson is every bit as important as Robert Johnson. I agree. Much more than her treasure or her association with Robert Johnson, I cherish Mrs. Anderson’s voice. It’s been my top priority to share her lovely figures of speech, witty turns of phrase, and warm, charming diction, along with biting commentary on race in America. Though I omitted her frequent use of the word “honey” as punctuation, I think the sweetness remains. It’s not every day that you have the pleasure of listening to a person who’s spent nearly a century keenly observing this world, a person whose father was born the year after slavery ended, and can tell us how far we haven’t come.
And, her Robert Johnson stories aren’t too shabby either. This book contains revelations surprising and delightful, insights about this legendary figure and his music that I don’t think we fans expected to ever receive. Mrs. Anderson also tells the heartbreaking tale of how her family has been deprived of the rights to his music, even while white people who never knew him made money off of Robert Johnson. For Mrs. Anderson to share her story with us is a gift that I hope we deserve. With this act of courage and generosity, Mrs. Anderson restored my faith in the vitality of history. Almost every day, that faith is shaken when I read about first-evers or last-livings who have gone on. But just as soon as you think that the beautiful past really is dead, someone gently taps you on the forearm and says, “Honey, I’m on your time.”
Icalled him Brother Robert. He called me Baby Sis or Little Girl.
We weren’t blood. We were family.
First time I remember Brother Robert, he helped us move to Memphis from the country in 1929. My little legs couldn’t make it up the big staircase leading to our new house. I felt someone scoop me up and carry me. On his long, lanky legs, he took those steps two at a time. From then on, he was around sometimes for the rest of his life.
Those were the years Brother Robert was into his music. He used to sit out on those tall steps and pick his guitar, way up in the air. I saw him go from wearing patches to pinstripes, clodhoppers to Florsheims. I knew him when he supposedly agreed to his deal with the devil, while he made his records, right up to when the telegram came to our sister’s house with the news that he had died.
I don’t recognize the person in the stories other people tell. I can’t say all he did or didn’t do, I didn’t have him in my pocket. But nobody else living today grew up with him as I did. I want people to know what the real Robert Johnson was like, how I remember him from my childhood. Some say he was a vagabond. They make it seem like he was alone in the world. He did hobo, but he was not without a loving family.
People don’t understand that my family lost Brother Robert twice. Once when he was killed down in Mississippi. And again when money grabbers spread all these myths—stole our photographs and our memories and made money off of them. But our family survived many attacks over the years, and we’ve always been strong.
One attack on my family was the reason both me and Brother Robert came to be. Because really, neither one of us ever should have been born. It all began with a knife fight in Mississippi. This happened in 1906.
My father was one of the men in that fight. Charlie Dodds was his name. He became known as Charlie Spencer after what happened in Hazlehurst. He was born in 1866, the year after slavery ended.
My father always worked for himself. He ran a barbershop, did carpentry, construction, and built and upholstered furniture. He also cut and delivered firewood. I knew from an early age that my father’s name was Dodds, not Spencer, and I knew why it was changed. My father was very open. I heard it from his mouth.
He took some wood to a woman’s house. This white guy Marchetti accosted my father and wanted to know what he was doing there. Well, this woman was a mulatto. My father said, “I’m talking to my own.”
Marchetti had to know this woman wasn’t white. In a town like that, everybody knows who’s who. Marchetti may have been sweet on her. But my father was just delivering firewood. On that same evening, Marchetti came to my father’s barbershop, accosted him, and cut him with a long blade knife on the left side of his jaw. Being a barber, my father carried a razor on his left side, and cut Marchetti back. You know my father wasn’t getting away with that, although Marchetti was in the wrong.
My father knew the white man would be coming to do him further harm. He hurried home. He prepared a place to hide. He cut a tunnel into the thicket of a blackberry patch behind the house. If you could see those brambles, you’d know nobody could get in there. He crawled through those briars. My father said he could feel the ground shake with all the horses coming.
Sister Carrie, his youngest daughter, was three. She remembered the men in the posse asking, “Where’s your father, little girl?” Well, she wouldn’t know that at such a young age.
They would have lynched him. They didn’t know he was right under their nose.
My father was married to Robert’s mother at the time. I call her Mama Julia. I got to know her real well. She and my father married in February 1889.
I am told that right after the men left, Mama Julia prepared food and took it out to him. She knew that the next day would not be a good day.
The men continually stopped by the house looking for my father over the next several days. After almost two weeks, they gave up. Mama Julia was able to make contact with neighbors to help get my father out of Hazlehurst.
An escape route had to be planned and my father had to be camouflaged for his getaway. They had the idea to dress my father as a woman and sneak him on board a train. Mama Julia was very short, about 4′10‴—her clothes couldn’t conceal my father. A friend who was taller provided a dress, cloak, suitcase, and makeup suitable for a woman my father’s size, about 5′5‴. He wore a size 10 shoe, so it took some time to find a woman’s shoe to fit him.
Finally, with the help of loyal friends, my father purchased a train ticket. A family friend worked as a Pullman porter, and I wonder if he helped. My father went to the Hazlehurst station in disguise. He passed right by his would-be captors and entered the area of the train provided for Negroes. He’d brought his lunch, since the trains had no dining for black passengers. Not many Negroes rode at the time my father did, so he easily avoided having too many conversations. He made it safely to Memphis.
They had run him off his land. He had eight acres. I know that was disturbing. He left Mama Julia behind. He lost his home, lost his family, and I know that stayed with him, it was an aching thing. But he fought back. To this day, I’m glad my father stood up. My father was a man. He healed very well. There were no keloids, but you could tell there was a cut.
A few years after the fight, Robert was born in the house my father built. By then my father had been gone.
He’d settled in Memphis, where he married his second wife, Willie, and had two children by her, James and Theodore Spencer. Willie died. I was told that Theodore, at age fifteen, had been beaten to death by a Memphis patrolman for allegedly stealing a bicycle. My brother James lived with my father until he was grown. I grew up with James around, until he left for Peoria, Illinois, and we never saw him again, but had contact for a while through the mail.
My father’s third wife was my mother, Mollie Winston. They had two children together, my sister Charlyne, on December 27, 1923, and me, on April 20, 1926. My sister was named for my father. My mother named me after the nurse who cared for her at my birth.
Neither me nor Brother Robert would’ve come into this world without that knife fight at Hazlehurst. My father would have stayed with Mama Julia. He would never have met my mother, and Mama Julia never would have taken up with Robert’s father. One documentary about Brother Robert states that my father abandoned Mama Julia. That wasn’t the case. He had to run for his life.
We’d moved to Eudora, Mississippi, when I was a year old. My parents decided that they would sharecrop to support the family. My father had gotten up in age and found it difficult to earn money the way he once had. After a few years, my father had another altercation, this time with the landowner.
They had the boll weevil and the crops failed. The owner blamed my dad. He told my father, “If you weren’t an old man, I’d kick you in your ass.” Now, as a child, just over three years old at the time, this has to come from the memory of my parents talking, so a lot of my stories are handed down.
My father was a mild-mannered man, but he didn’t take a lot of stuff. My father knew that his best bet was to move off of the property. And every sharecropper, if you read history, they had to move at night. Just leave. Mama Julia and Sister Carrie have had to do the same.
The landowner expected this. They’d come up front, look and see if you’d moved anything out. The furniture never moved up front, he always saw the same thing. There were certain furnishings moved to the back and taken out. Sister Carrie, she still lived in Memphis, and she made arrangements to move us. She had a friend named Charlie Gatewood, I’ll never forget him. He had a truck. It took us several moves to get out, because the landlord always came by, checking and looking. Last thing before we left were the two mules my brother Son slapped and sent on back up the hill to the owner’s home.
Son joked about this episode many times in later years. The mules were named Jake and Bell. We had our own cow, named Minnie, that we left behind with a black family named the Richmonds, who lived down the hill.
Brother Robert was there through it all. When he was young, Mama Julia would patch his overalls with anything she had. It’d be floral, striped, or whatever, may have been a piece of wool. She’d say, “It makes cleanness come.” That’s how he looked when I first remember seeing him.
He came from Sister Bessie’s house in Robinsonville. Sister Bessie was the oldest living daughter of my father and Mama Julia. Brother Robert had to handle Patsy, our horse. Full-blooded Arabian. In those days the minister had what you call a saddle horse. Sister Bessie’s husband, Brother Granville, was that kind of minister. He wore his black suit and derby hat and rode Patsy from house to house. He owned that horse, but got so he couldn’t take care of it and he gave Patsy to my father. That horse knew Brother Robert very well, because he had been taking care of her at Sister Bessie’s. Brother Robert came along to mind Patsy. Brother Robert stayed with that horse in Memphis until we arrived from Eudora.
This house we moved to in Memphis had four garages in the back. My father came up and prepared the second garage from the end for Patsy. My father carved a square out so Patsy could hang her head out the window. Brother Robert came up to take care of the horse, feed the horse.
We moved to 291 E. Georgia Avenue, a two-story yellow house. That’s where Brother Robert carried me up the steps the first time. It was Sister Carrie’s house. It was, to me, a very big house. Sister Carrie’s son Lewis was there, and we played hide-and-seek. Sister Carrie had a little poodle that I was scared to death of, named Snowball.
Georgia Avenue from Hernando Street. Taken in 1940, this shows the neighborhood as Robert Johnson saw it. Second from right is the “big yellow house” where Johnson carried his “Baby Sis” up the stairs. At right is the field where ministers sermonized about the crossroads. Photo courtesy of the Memphis Room, Memphis Public Library
I hope people can get to know the loved ones who were around Brother Robert in Memphis. That begins with Sister Carrie. A very sweet sister, she always helped the family out.
Sister Carrie was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1903. Daddy and Mama Julia originally named her Caroline, but she didn’t like the name and changed it to Carrie. She came to Memphis to live with our father a few years after the knife fight. Sister Carrie was the backbone of the family. Everybody went to her. She wasn’t educated, but she was savvy about worldly things. She had to come out of school early, and she married at sixteen. She always wanted to finish school, but never had the chance.
Sister Carrie worked for herself as a seamstress and spent most of her life sewing. She’s the best seamstress I’ve ever seen. She tailored. She made slipcovers. Sister Carrie could’ve been a top designer with opportunity. When my sister picked up a hem in a silk dress, you could hardly see it from the other side. In the Great Depression, people were not always buying a new suit, though. Sister Carrie would let their hems out, or redo them, turn the cuffs and collars where things got torn, she did a lot of that. Sister Carrie sewed for a Greek man we called Mr. Pete. He was part owner of the One Minute Café on Beale Street. He sold hotdogs. Sometimes I could get a free one. Brother Robert and Brother Son knew Mr. Pete very well. He’d bring us olives and olive oil.
Sister Carrie was fly—smart dresser, pretty woman. She was a chain smoker until the end, Camels and Chesterfields. Sometimes Bull Durham roll ’ems when she couldn’t afford the higher brands. She helped to rear Brother Robert, and she bought him his first guitar. Sister Carrie and my mother got along quite well, otherwise we wouldn’t have been living together.
My mother, Mollie Spencer, was a hardworking woman, a Christian woman. She was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1898.
What you call snapping your fingers, my mother called finger poppin’. My mother didn’t have any blues and finger poppin’ in her house. I laugh today when I think of what my mother said about finger poppin’ and dancing—“Heathens!”
She sang sweet songs like “This Little Light of Mine,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “I Wonder if the Lighthouse Will Shine on Me,” and she would always talk about what a little birdie told her. I think Brother Robert got that idea of having a bird to whistle and a bird to sing in “Stones in My Passway” from my mother.
I’ve never known her to go to church. She said, “I don’t have the clothes, and people will look down on you if you’re not in the right hat.” I’ve only seen my mother dress when I got in trouble at school. She had to come talk to the teacher. She’d won eighteen dollars at policy, that’s what we called the numbers game. A black man would come through collecting bets. Sinners and saints played policy. In the Great Depression, we all had to make that money. We saw the same man every day, a tall dark-skinned black man. Evidently, the policy collectors had their routes. My mother played the same number. She only won once, and bought a nice black coat. I gave the coat to a close neighbor after my mother died.
My mother didn’t like blues at all, she thought it low class. All around her, we liked the blues. She told us, “No gamblin’ and no midnight ramblin’.”
She brought us up right. We used to think she was the meanest woman in the world. Sister Carrie said, “One day you’ll appreciate this.” We’d complain to Sis Carrie because she was fly and younger. If my mother got too hard on us, my father said, “That’ll do, Mollie.” He did not whip us and did not believe in whipping children.
She did have a sense of humor. My mother said when the gypsies come by to tell our fortune, never let them in. She said to tell them that if she didn’t work for what she got, she already knew her fortune—that she wouldn’t have shit. My mother allowed us to say that to the gypsies. They never came back.
My mother was very kind. We fed the hobos, even if all we had was an old cold biscuit. We’ve had black folks to drop in on the house and say, “I’m hungry.” We set them at the table and fed them. Whether they were telling the truth or not, they were fed anyway. I remember at one time, my mother fed a family of four. And with a gilded heart, she sent them home with a basket of food.
Brother Robert loved my mother’s food, her barbecue sauce, her chowchow and vegetables. My mother was uneducated but she knew about pH. She made some chowchow, it was smackin’ good. Little Richard didn’t coin the phrase “Good Golly Miss Mollie,” because that’s what Brother Robert would say when he ate my mother’s chowchow. When Brother Robert came around, he didn’t starve, and he loved to eat and could really put it away. He called my mother “Miss Mollie,” even when he didn’t say “Good golly.”
My mother’s sister, Aunt Mary, lived around us in Memphis, too. Aunt Mary did her thing. She and Sister Carrie went out to the juke joints. They were running buddies. But I can remember Aunt Mary loving her spirituals. She sang, “Soon, so soon, I’m going to see the King, Lord I wouldn’t mind dying if dying was all.” She died young in surgery at John Gaston Hospital in Memphis. She gave me lots of hugs and kisses. She was a Bingham, married to my uncle Albert. She did domestic work and lived in an apartment in our neighborhood.
A lot of people don’t know, but Brother Robert learned to play guitar at the knee of my father. Seven years old, when he came to my father.
My father played many instruments: guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin. He wasn’t against finger-poppin’ at all, ’cause he did it himself, played the devil’s music. He had earned his living, partially, playing music at frolics in Mississippi during his younger years. On Fridays and Saturdays that’s what he did: “I Was Seeing Nellie Home,” “Turkey in the Straw.” Nobody knows that my father was a musician. He loved so-called worldly music. His main instrument was the fiddle. He loved to listen to Fiddlin’ John Carson and Uncle Dave Macon on the radio.
When he was teaching Brother Robert, I hadn’t been born. I got that from Sister Carrie. Evidently my father quit music when he married my mother ’cause she wasn’t having that barrelhouse stuff in her house. But after my father parted from Mama Julia and before he married my mother, he kept Brother Robert. I believe that I have heard Brother Robert call my father “Papa.”
One day in 1918, Sister Carrie went to Front Street in Memphis. She happened to see Mama Julia and said, “That looks like my mother.” Brother Robert was with Mama Julia. I know Mama Julia must have been looking for my father. That’s when times were hard. I imagine Sister Carrie was happy to see her mother, happy to meet Brother Robert. And that’s how Brother Robert got to my father’s house. Mama Julia left him there. My father and Mama Julia’s oldest living daughters, Hattie and Lula, had come to Memphis, and they were around Brother Robert, too. Mama Julia couldn’t feed herself and take care of her child. He needed overseeing and she couldn’t do it. She went from plantation to plantation making her living cropping and picking cotton.
My father taught Robert Johnson the rudiments of music. My father reared Brother Robert while living on Court Avenue at Dunlap Street in Memphis. My mother was a laundress working in that area when she met my father. He made very good money at that time as a self-employed carpenter, builder, and roofer.
After a while, Sister Carrie was the only one taking care of Brother Robert. My father and Mama Julia’s daughters Sister Hattie and Sister Lula had died. Sister Carrie had her son Lewis the same year Sister Hattie died, in 1920. Brother Robert was becoming—you may have heard the term—mannish. He may have become hard to handle, or wanted to start doing things Sister Carrie couldn’t oversee. In his teens, Brother Robert learned that my father wasn’t his real father. This is how I interpret them sending him back to his mother. My father sent him there. He was never without his mother, even when he lived with my father, and Mama Julia came and lived with Sister Carrie for a time.
People said, “Your father’s old,” but honey, he was a father. He was a smart man and my mother always said he didn’t have a lazy bone in his body. There’s nothing he couldn’t do. We never suffered. We never had a food shortage. We fed the neighbors, even though they stole from his garden.
My father worked right on up until two weeks before he died. I wish he and my mother could have lived to see what I’ve become and what I could’ve done for them. That’s the only thing that I wish. I still have my father’s hammer with his initials carved on it, C.D.
My father and Mama Julia’s oldest boy, Charles Leroy Spencer, was born in Hazlehurst in 1895. Everybody called him “Son.” In the house in Hazlehurst, my father had an organ and a piano. He taught Son guitar. Son was a pianist, too. Son played well—jazz, country, and blues. He loved his country music. I come from a black family that loved country music.
Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Jimmie Lunceford, and Duke Ellington were household words. That’s my brother Son’s thing. Son mimicked Louis Armstrong with that growling voice and clowned like Fats Waller. Son would tell me my feets too big, that’s what Fats Waller used to sing. He played “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Darktown Strutters Ball,” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”
Brother Son was very close to Brother Robert, so Brother Robert got some of his nicks and picks from Son, because my father wasn’t as current as Son became. Son sang “Poor Boy a Long Way from Home,” “Highway 61,” as some of his favorites, and “44 Blues.” Son played “The Dirty Dozens” and “When the Evening Sun Go Down,” and “Blues Before Sunrise.” Being older, Son liked ragtime, and knew how to play “Maple Leaf Rag,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Son lived off and on with Sister Carrie. Son was very talented and smart, he just didn’t do anything with himself. He worked for Kraft in Memphis during the Great Depression. Whatever Kraft sold, mayonnaise and relish, we got it, because he could bring some of the products home. Brother Robert called him “Son” and also called him by his middle name, “Leroy.” Son liked dark-skinned women, he used that saying “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”
Aunt Ida was my father’s baby sister. She was married to Rev. William Cross, a minister. At least he thought he was a minister. He didn’t have his own church. Back then we called them jacklegs. Sister Carrie and Mr. Cross had a business together, and he stole her blind, the old skunk. Aunt Ida and Rev. Cross lived in the neighborhood. They visited us often, and dined with us during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
My older sister Charlyne, my only full sibling, and my father’s son Brother James, by his second marriage, were around, too. My Brother James was a junkman, that’s how he made his living. Patsy became a workhorse during the Great Depression after we moved up from Eudora—James used Patsy to drive his wagon. Brother Robert was close to Brother James. They used to ride to Beale Street with Patsy pulling the wagon, hats turned backwards, which was the style among young black men at that time.
Sister Carrie’s son Lewis, born in 1920, also became very close to Brother Robert. Lewis is gone, but his son is still alive. He might be the last definite blood relative of Robert Johnson that the family has known. Robert’s mother would have been great-grandmother to Lewis’s boy. Lewis’s first son died shortly after birth. We called him “Butternut” because he was plump.
Lewis did not finish high school. He lied about his age to join the navy. But he attended the same schools I attended, Kortrecht Grammar and Booker T. Washington High. Lewis always made good grades. I still have some of his report cards. He could read music, and I used to have his sheet music that he wrote.
So it comes back to me. I am not a first-name person. I grew up in a time when white people were always addressed as “Mister,” “Missus,” or “Mizz,” and blacks were called boy, girl, uncle, auntie, or worse. People, even black people, don’t always know why I refer to “Sister” Carrie and “Brother” Robert—they were much older than me. To me, a first name is awfully fresh. Being on a first-name basis is designed to avoid giving black people the respect they’re due. Using a first name is a privilege and not a right. But back then everyone called me “Annie Clara.”
When I was nine years old, my mother had to live on a place and chop and pick cotton to make ends meet, and I stayed with a schoolteacher named Miss Blanche Billings in Hollywood, North Memphis. My mother picked cotton, and if she didn’t pick three hundred pounds, it wasn’t a good day. Miss Billings taught me my first table manners. She would set a formal table and teach me how to hold a fork and how to set the table. She taught me how to address a person, “Yes, Miss Billings.” None of that sassy “yes,” or “yes ma’am.” Most people don’t get it. I later had difficulty with my husband’s parents, because they kept our children and taught them to say “yes’m” and “no’m” but I wouldn’t have it—you address the person by name.
My memories get stronger around the time my family left the big yellow house and moved to the backhouse next door, 285, rear, E. Georgia Avenue. I grew up in that house. We stayed there from 1932, for the rest of Brother Robert’s life, until my father died in 1940. The house still stands today, vacant and dilapidated. It ought to be a historical site. I stood in the doorway, and, though it looked broken inside, I could still see where my mother canned her beans, where my father smoked his pipe, and I gazed at the steps where Brother Robert used to play next door where Sister Carrie once lived.
The whole neighborhood that I recall being so lively is like the house, broken up and only alive in memory.
Sister Carrie was the backbone of the family. She reared Brother Robert and fought for many years for the control of his estate. Author’s collection
This is Brother Son with his wife, Sadie. Brother Robert and Brother Son hoboed together and performed music together. Author’s collection
My father’s baby sister Ida loved for Brother Robert to sing “Sweet Home Chicago,” and she’d dance on her tippy toes. Author’s collection
Brother Granville, my sister Bessie’s husband, used to argue with other ministers about the crossroads. Brother Robert lived with them in his late teens. Author’s collection
Some say Brother Robert was illiterate, but you can see he had beautiful handwriting. He sent this to Sister Carrie when he was recording in Dallas. Author’s collection
Sister Carrie’s restaurant in Bunker Hill, South Memphis, where Brother Robert probably performed. Author’s collection
Sister Carrie had this taken on Beale Street in Memphis. She was a pretty woman and a fly dresser. Author’s collection
Sister Bessie kept Brother Robert at her home in Mississippi. My mother always said Bessie was the prettiest of Mama Julia’s daughters. Author’s collection
These are two of my father’s siblings, Uncle Will and Aunt Ida. Author’sCollection
Not long after Brother Robert died, Sister Carrie moved to Annapolis, Maryland, and married an oysterman named Sanky Thompson. Author’s collection
In the middle is Brother Sanky, and second from the left is Sister Carrie, outside their home in Churchton, Maryland. Author’s collection
That’s me and Sister Carrie at her house. I stayed with Sister Carrie after I left Memphis in 1947. Author’s collection
Here I am visiting down in Mississippi in my younger days. Author’s collection
This is the little old lady Steve LaVere took to the cleaners, and my Sister Carrie on the right. Author’s collection
You can see the beautiful personality of my daughter Hughia. I dedicate this book to her and to Sister Carrie. Author’scollection
Peter Guralnick (PG), Elijah Wald (EW), and Preston Lauterbach (PL) Interview Mrs. Annye C. Anderson (AA)
Elijah Wald, Mrs. Annye C. Anderson, and Peter Guralnick, May 2, 2019, Massachusetts. Photo by Preston Lauterbach
May 2, 2019, Amherst, Massachusetts
PG: I love how you talk about Robert Johnson entertaining the kids.
AA: He loved children, and he’d sit in the window picking his guitar, and we’d come up. The grown folks were doing the cakewalk, and we did the snakehip. Those old dances, we weren’t into that.
PG: What was the Joe Louis dance?
AA: Joe Louis was trucking. That’s what I did when I slipped off to the Amateur Night at the Palace. I remember the “One O’Clock Jump” was the music that you came on with. I went out and I got a couple of boos, but mostly I didn’t.
PL: Who would boo you?
AA: My neighbor, Jimmy Crawford, he was a young boy who lived in our neighborhood, on Short Hernando.
Sister Carrie had made me a three-tiered dress, with white cap sleeves. And I had learned to iron, I had ironed that dress. Somebody had given me some patent leather slippers and I had those little socks on that the Chinese made—you don’t see those now, but they had beautiful stuff from China.
Back then, children either wanted to be a movie star or they wanted to sing. But as you grow up, you find there are other areas: I wanted to be a nurse at one time, a doctor at one time, and then a teacher.
EW: Did you know [Robert’s stepfather] Mr. Willis?
AA: We all did. We were family, and knew him well. We’d visit them. They always came to our house. Mister Willis, I know he was a workaholic, he loved working. In the fields, because that’s all he knew. He had an impediment of speech. Growing up, we called it tied-tongue. If he wanted to say the word “girl” it came out “dirl.”
There was no animosity between Mama Julia, Mister Willis, and my mother and father. I read in a book about Mister Willis and Brother Robert not getting along. Because I was young, I never saw it. My father is depicted as an unkind man, but my father was very laid back. He never punished us, he didn’t believe in whipping children. Sister Carrie said he never touched her. Sister Carrie was a very good child, according to Mama Julia. I can’t say that for me. I got some spankings from my mother, but my father didn’t believe in that.
Mama Julia was smart—busy, busy, busy—and a little woman. When I was seven years old, I could look across her head. We used to save newspaper and send it down to Mama Julia and Sister Bessie, down in Mississippi. Their walls were all covered with newspaper.
EW: To keep the wind from coming in?
AA: That, and also to keep the raw wood from showing. They used it as if it were paint.
EW: Did they use pages with pictures, so it would look nice?
AA: No. It was just the Press-Scimitar and the Commercial Appeal, that’s what we took.
PG: How about the Memphis World?
AA: We took that—all of those black papers, like Chicago Defender.
PG: Was everybody a reader?
AA: My father read every day, and he only had a seventh grade education—but he took the paper. My mother only had a fifth grade education, but she read what she could. My father had a very legible hand. I had letters from Mama Julia, my sister Bessie. I still have writings from my Sister Carrie, she was the better educated one of all.
EW: Robert could read and write?
AA: Could read and write. He read the paper, because if you look at Ethiopia—that’s when Haile Selassie was all popular, all blacks wanted to know about him—and he uses the term Ethiopia [in “Dust My Broom”], there’s a connection with that.
EW: But the songs, did he ever write them down?
AA: People talk about him carrying a little book, but I can’t imagine him carrying, it was enough for him to carry the pickers that he had. I’ve never seen and Sister Carrie said she’s never seen a book, and he lived with her off and on. At 728 Hernando, they only had three rooms, the bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen. All the rooms were good-sized but not overly big. He always slept in the bedroom.
EW: When you talk about his picks… did he make those himself or were they store-bought?
AA: I guess some of them were store-bought. I have known him to use a thimble. I have known him to use a beef bone.
EW: What would he use thimbles for?
AA: Slides. If he couldn’t find the real one. As a makeshift.
EW: It would be very fine, on one string, but he did that kind of playing, it makes sense.
PG: Did Robert go to school in Memphis?
AA: I don’t know which school. I know he went to at least the eighth grade, by his age when he left my father. He was a teenager when he left my father.
PG: Some say he went to school in Commerce [Mississippi] after that.
AA: He did, briefly, but he was a big boy by then. And I’m pretty sure he wasn’t there long. He was fourteen when he left my father. Then he went to his mother’s house. At seventeen he married, and went to my Brother Granville and Sister Bessie’s. By the way, he was around two ministers. So the devil and hellfire and crossroads, I’m pretty sure arose from their sermons. He was flanked by two ministers and a very religious mother. Mama Julia was very religious.
PG: You never knew him to go to church though?
AA: No, Mama Julia and Sister Bessie were the churchgoers.
EW: Did Brother Robert make up songs all the time?
AA: I never saw him make up any song, I never saw him write a song, I don’t think any of us saw him write anything, and I’ve never seen a notebook. What I have seen is all his paraphernalia that he laid out on the table. I know his repertoire pretty well. He was blues, he was folk, he was country. Jimmie Rodgers was his favorite, and he became my favorite. Brother Robert could yodel just like he did. We did “Waiting for a Train,” together.
EW: You talk about the different kinds of places where he played, did he play the same repertoire every place?
AA: He and Son played together a lot, that’s his brother [Charles Leroy].
People liked “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Kind Hearted Woman,” and, of course, “Terraplane.” “Take a Little Walk with Me” would be the break-up time. You know… that’s it. You’re gonna break up. That’s the end of the entertainment. The children liked the ones you could up tempo, like “Last Fair Deal.” He could do that for us, and we could do all the twisting we wanted to do. Nursery rhymes, when we were little, “Jack and Jill,” “Little Sally Walker,” “We Go Lokey, Lokey, Lokey,” have you heard that one?
AA: [singing] We go lokey, lokey, lokey on this bright and summer day; you put your right foot in, you take your right foot out; you take your something and you shake your body around…
And you name it. All the Irish songs he did, because in the South they used to sing lots of those songs: “Annie Laurie,” “My Bonnie,” and “Auld Lang Syne.”
Jimmie Rodgers was going to come up in all his entertainment, because I could sing that along with him.
PG: Could you yodel?
AA: No, I couldn’t yodel, but I know how it goes, and when he comes in, I know “All around the water tank, waiting for a train…” Brother Robert would do a double-take on “get off, get off, you railroad bum.”
EW: You mention Brother Robert showing you something on piano at one time.
AA: No, playing with Son.
EW: So Robert didn’t play piano?
AA: Yes, he did. I don’t know how much he knew, but the boogie-woogie, he and Son used to play together. Brother Robert hit the heavy notes, the black notes, and my brother Son, he hit the ivory keys. He was a pianist.
EW: So the two of them played on one piano?
AA: On one piano. That was at the Comases on Short Hernando. They had a long hallway, and that piano belonged to Miss Willie. They had the player piano, with the rolls on it, and that’s where they entertained.
PL: Do you remember any songs they played on the piano?
AA: As a child, I liked the boogie-woogie, but they played Leroy Carr. That was Son. He played all of the Leroy Carr songs, “When the Sun Goes Down,” “How Long How Long Blues,” I remember that one. And there’s another one, another pianist, Fats Waller—we all loved Fats Waller. Son would do Fats Waller, he would clown.
And Louis Armstrong was a household word. Brother Son would play the piano, and Brother Robert would just pick up anything and get the tune on it.
PG: When Brother Robert sang his own songs, did he introduce them, say “Here’s a new song,” how would you know, did he differentiate between his songs?
AA: He didn’t, and I had no idea, it would never occur to me whether he created them or not. I just knew “Kind Hearted Woman” and “Terraplane” was his, he let us know about the record. We got it at Woolworth’s down on Main Street. My sister Charlyne used to decorate the window there. How I knew he recorded all those songs, was when I came to Amherst, I met a young man named Ed Cohen. He worked for WMUA, a radio station at the University of Massachusetts. He told me, “I’m going to play all twenty-nine.” I stayed up late that night and listened to every one. I was completely shocked.
EW: When you heard those recordings, were some of them new or were you familiar with all of them?
AA: I had heard all of them.
PG: Even something like “Hellhound on My Trail”?
AA: Oh yeah, well there’s a history on that hellhound. You’ll find many black people who talk about the hellhound. The connection is the white overseer. I’ve heard my sister Bessie say she went in the field and saw a hound. The hound is always white. He’s heard it and put that in his music.
PG: So, hellhound could refer to the bible, but it could also go back to slavery times.
AA: Right, I know when people talk about the hellhound, they see it in the field.
He might not have gone past the eighth grade, but he was very intelligent. He did read the paper, he did know some history. He and Son used to joke about, in slavery, you didn’t cook in the big house, you cooked in an out building and brought the food in. They sent a dog along with the slave to make sure they don’t eat any of it. A lot of tales I’ve heard them talk about.
PG: Would everyone be aware of Marcus Garvey? Joe Louis was a race hero…
AA: Well, honey… Two things he was into, and that was the baseball, the Negro League, and Joe Louis. Everybody was into Joe Louis.
PG: Was he a fan of the Memphis Red Sox, Negro League team?
AA: I don’t know whether he was into that or not, I know he went to see the live ones play in Arkansas.
EW: You talk about Robert enjoying Western movies, did you listen on the radio to stuff like that?
AA: Oh yeah, Bulldog Drummond, the Lone Ranger—I don’t know if the Lone Ranger was on when he was living, I don’t think so. The ball games, Brother Robert, Ma, and Sister Carrie, they listen to all of it. I don’t know whether he listened to soaps, but I know the women did, cause that meant I could leave and go anywhere, and come back just in time.
PG: Gene Autry?
AA: That was a household word. Son did “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine”—sometimes they played it together.
EW: Did Robert have favorite movie actors?
AA: Yeah, Buck Jones. He was a tough guy. He became my favorite. Gene Autry could sing, so we all loved him.
EW: Were there other kinds of movies he liked?
AA: At that time most of what you saw were Westerns, but he went to see Mae West, Errol Flynn.
PG: Did you see people like Mantan Moreland?
AA: Oh, yes, I’m familiar with Mantan Moreland, with the Bronze Buckaroo. We loved Mantan Moreland.
PG: Paul Robeson is somebody that Robert would have been aware of?
AA: Yes, Paul Robeson was a household word. He was very aware of what was going on around him—the wars, the news, Ethiopia, Haile Selassie… Brother Robert was into his blackness. He knew he was black. When he tells you he doesn’t want sundown to catch him here, he knew exactly what had gone on.
PL: When you talk about Irish music being popular in Memphis, does that come out of what you were taught in school?
AA: Yeah, that’s what I learned. [Robert] would play with me if I sang “Auld Lang Syne.” We always sung the Negro National Anthem, we were allowed to do that.
EW: You mentioned Big Walter Horton, did he play with Robert?
AA: Yes he did, they played “Little Boy Blue,” “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” I sat with his sister Katie in school.
EW: Did Robert ever play with horn players?
AA: I don’t remember him hooking up with a horn. The only group I saw him with was at the Comases, with Memphis Minnie, and there were some other people, but I don’t remember any horns. But those were adult entertainers, we were on the porch, eating watermelon.
A man would come through selling watermelons, you can get a huge watermelon for a dime. And I don’t want to forget that red hot—Brother Robert’s talking about the hot tamale man, the Mexicans used to come through and sing and have those, and they were the best-tasting hot tamales. And the watermelon man would come around late at night. “I got one for nickel, two for a dime, would give you more but they ain’t none of mine.” You know, he may have picked up [on] some of that, but certainly the hot tamales and they are red hot.
EW: Speaking about food, how about the song he did, “Malted Milk”?
AA: That malted milk was in the house. Now, whether liquor was in it… See, I was young, and back then two things didn’t happen: you didn’t drink around your parents, and you respected your mother.
PG: Your father’s friends from Hazlehurst, the Comases, who were your neighbors in Memphis, would have parties…
AA: In the hallway, it was a huge hallway that ran the length of the house, I think they refer to that as a shotgun house.
PG: People would know there was a party at the Comases…
AA: Everybody could come. The lady across the street would come, because there would be noise. “If it gets too noisy, come on over.”
PG: It wasn’t a rent party…
AA: Oh they had rent parties, funerals, and Brother Robert played at some fish fries and barbecues. My uncle Cross could fry chicken and fish, buffalo fish that come out of the Mississippi River, huge fish. We used to get carp, perch, trout, eel. Yeah, used to fish in the Mississippi River, that’s one of the sports I love.
EW: Did Robert go fishing?
AA: He went one time, with Mr. Martzie. We had to walk down, over the bluff and to the Mississippi River. Brother Robert thought he would fish, he tied the line around his toe. We did a throw line, we made ours out of bamboo. Sister Bessie taught me how to make a “throw line.” She taught me how to bait and how to fish, and when I visited her, that’s where we went. We fished in the bar pit—that’s where the water’s made to come in between the levee, when the Mississippi overflows, and in between you call that a bar pit. That was in Robinsonville, Mississippi. But this was in Memphis: Brother Robert tied the line on, and an eel got on it, and that’s a fighting fish, honey. That eel got on and almost broke that toe off. That was very funny to us. He went hopping across the Harahan Bridge into Arkansas.
EW: When Robert came back from his travels, would he ever tell you stories about where he had been?
AA: I don’t know whether he told any of us where he’d been, but I know he and Son hoboed together. I’ve seen them catch the train, at the switch, when the train slows down. Son came back when they went to Mexico with a few Mexican words. Only one I picked up was señorita. Son used to talk about the pretty girls there. Son traveled by train by himself, too. They didn’t always go together, but they did go everywhere. My mother had a first cousin in California, Alonzo. I never knew his full name. I told that to Johnny Shines, and the next thing I knew, he’d given my words to a writer who published the exact ones in his book! People pick up anything and to be honest, they’ll tell white folks anything for a dime.
PL: Did you grow up thinking Robert was your full-blood brother?
AA: Yes. We were family, and everything was fine until he recorded and people begin to get jealous. When he recorded, you had people saying, “That’s not your brother.” Every time I said, “Brother Robert,” somebody said, “That’s not your brother.” Well I was taught to call him and that’s all I’ve ever called him, so it comes naturally.
PL: He did have a different last name, were you always aware of that?
AA: No, no. I knew him as a brother, and he was always a brother. I was Baby Sis or Little Sis. Have you seen my poem I’ve written? When I was a little girl, small enough to set upon his knee. He used to play his many many tunes, just for me. Nobody believed that Brother Robert had any kin people, they felt that he was a vagabond.
EW: Did any of the women in the family play music?
AA: There’s some kind of music line that runs through the family. Sister Bessie played organ and piano. In the house my father built in Hazlehurst, they had two parlors, and there was an organ there. My father talked to me about that house. The pump was in the kitchen—that was really something back then.
EW: Did Robert play any other instruments?
AA: He was playing harmonica when he came and got us from Eudora, Mississippi, when I was three years old. He was living with Sister Bessie. We had to move at night. Most blacks did, Mama Julia has had to move at night. Yeah, hellhound on her trail.
EW: When Robert played harmonica, did he play things like “Fox Chase”?
AA: You know what, I had to connect it [later], because I didn’t know anything about the “Fox Chase” but I knew he played the harmonica, because he’d give the harmonica to Lewis, and from Lewis, we’d get it. It came from Brother Robert, to Lewis, to us. Lewis never learned to blow it, and we never learned to blow it, but Brother Robert could blow it. But we did not call it harmonica, that was not in our vocabulary. We called it “juice harp”—and not Jew’s—we called it juice because when you blew, you get the juice in it.
PG: You talked at one point about how Robert wanted to be a modern blues man, he didn’t want to be old-fashioned.
AA: Well, that’s what I wanted to portray. He was contemporary at that time. A lot of people didn’t like him. My neighbor liked Sonny Boy and Broonzy, before Brother Robert. Because he was different. He was definitely different.
EW: What was different about him?
AA: There was no slide going the way he played the slide. And I’ve heard them all.
PG: If Robert had lived, where do you think he would have gone with his music? Jazz for instance?
AA: He played jazz with Son. I hate to say rock ’n’ roll, but… people move on from classical blues music, Brother Robert would have moved on. He may have been playing something completely different. He was versatile, he played jazz, along with his brother.
He and Son went everywhere. That’s why I say I didn’t have him in my pocket. I can’t relate to him getting drunk and cursing God. I’ve never seen him take a drink, but I can’t say he did not drink, cause the liquor was there. Old Grand-Dad, that’s what my father drank. When we had house parties, there would be a coal box filled with ice and beer. Beer was served. But I’ve never seen him drunk or drink alcohol. And I can’t say that he didn’t, but I can’t imagine him picking a fight. I remember him as asking all the guests, and even the children, “What’s your pleasure?” That is him saying, “What do you want to hear?”
PL: Did you ever know Brother Robert to play with white musicians?
AA: No, I never knew, but I know he hung around rodeos. He loved Texas. He and Jimmie Rodgers had a lot in common, Texas, TB, trains. I know he went to Mexico, California, he went everywhere out west.
PL: In your youth, when you listened to country music, did you feel like there was common ground with blues music?
AA: What I get most out of country music, I know it comes out of Irish music, and I can hear it. I know that country music is a combination of Irish music and blues. History tells me that country music came out of blues.
PG: What about Robert playing that boogie-woogie figure on guitar?
AA: You talking about the walking bass?
PG: Yeah, walking bass, did he always do that?
AA: Yeah, that’s his. I never heard any other musician play that until after Robert Johnson had done it. I feel that he invented it.
PG: That would be one way he was modern.
AA: I call it contemporary.
EW: As far as anybody knows, that was original to Robert Johnson.
PG: But you said Robert would play the bass end of the piano with Son.
AA: He played the heavy bass, of course, honey, we loved that. The piano was out of tune, but they’d make it work.
EW: Do you think Robert Johnson started playing it that way on guitar, because he was copying what he could do on piano?
During Brother Robert’s time, people called Beale “the Main Street of Black America.” Much more than a hangout for blues musicians, Beale had a storied history, a cast of colorful current characters, and a list of lively venues, from low-down dives to first-class theaters infusing the atmosphere around Johnson.
In February of 1937, Dan Burley of the Chicago Defender visited Beale and reported, “The street has everything dumped into it: proud insurance companies, stinky hotdog joints, swank hotels, and myriad poolrooms, push carts, peanut vendors, drugstores, shoeshine parlors, and automobiles.” Still, the street had more spirit than space. This activity filled all of five or six blocks from the Mississippi River to the eastern residential end of Beale.
The street had gained its fame due to two individuals, Robert Church and W. C. Handy, known, respectively, as the South’s first black millionaire and the father of the blues. The world that Robert Church made, that had inspired W. C. Handy, still existed in Brother Robert’s time, though Church had died in 1912 and Handy had left Beale Street for Broadway in 1918.
Church, born into slavery in 1839, made his fortune owning saloons, gambling halls, brothels, and residential real estate. He nurtured talented African Americans like journalist Ida B. Wells, and Handy, the composer who wrote songs based on the sounds he heard in Beale saloons, and helped start the blues craze.
Beale Street historian George W. Lee said, of the heyday, “Nightly Beale Street was crowded. People would move down the street like molasses poured out of a jar and nightly you could hardly worm your way through Beale Street, packed and jammed and jangling and colorful and roaring and glamorous.”
Beale Street’s beginnings as a black music hub probably date to the antebellum days, when urban slaves on shopping errands heard fiddler Wesley Duke (known also as West Dukes) at the Beale Street market house.
Robert Johnson’s top Beale Street venue seems to have been the open air Handy Park, a grassy square with benches and a few trees where the market house once stood. Visiting the park in 1937, Defender correspondent Burley heard a “group of farm boys with banjos and spoons beatin’ out melody that’d make Duke Ellington forget his ‘When a Black Man’s Blue.’”
Memphis blues recording artists like Bukka White played Handy Park, along with guitarists Jack Kelly and Frank Stokes, banjo player Gus Cannon, and ukulele player Little Laura Dukes. Sleepy John Estes, a blues artist from Brownsville, Tennessee, got to Beale Street in about 1928, and met musicians Jim Jackson, Buddy Doyle, Will Batts, and several other jug band performers.
Hammie Nixon, a jug blower from Brownsville who recorded in the 1920s and played Handy Park said, “Beale Street was full of conning… I knew a girl there who would just put her hand around your neck and say ‘Hey baby,’ and she had you and every dime you had.”
Robert Johnson’s friend Walter Horton, another regular at Handy Park, grew up on Third Street near Beale. Walter sold ice on the Beale Street fish dock on the Mississippi River for his first job, and he shined shoes beside Solvent Savings Bank, founded by Robert Church as the city’s first African American financial institution. Walter’s mother worked for the Barrasso family—owners of the Palace and Daisy theaters. Walter helped build the New Daisy, and he ushered and played Amateur Night at the Palace. He grew up attending First Baptist Church, Beale Avenue, one of the few historic buildings still fully intact, where he learned to play gospel music.
Mrs. Anderson remembers jug bands parading through her neighborhood en route to Beale. The March 19, 1938 Chicago Defender reported that the South Memphis Jug Band was headquartered on Cambridge Street, about a mile and a half from the Spencer home. The South Memphis Jug Band lineup, led by a hoodoo doctor named D. M. Higgins, included Will Batts and Jack Kelly. Batts had made records under his name and with the jug band in 1933. In 1937, Batts lived less than a mile from 285 E. Georgia Avenue.
These Beale Street musicians who were overlooked in the ’30s made a far greater impact on history than the popular local musicians of the same period. Memphis musicians named in the Defender during summer 1938 are now virtual unknowns, including Andrew Chapman, a local drummer who’d caught the eye of Duke Ellington, saxophonist Hank O’Day, and Dub Jenkins, leader of a popular local big band out of the Orange Mound neighborhood. The Brown Skin Models entertained at the Palace and an all-girl jazz big band known as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were hired to play the Cottonmakers Jubilee, an annual Beale Street festival.
Big-time acts like Fats Waller—“Son” Spencer’s favorite—and Jimmie Lunceford did sold-out shows on Beale Street in 1938. One radio program reliably broadcast black music in Memphis during summer 1938, the fifteen-minute “Rhythm Club” weekday afternoons at two on WHBQ. The show typically featured recordings of a name bandleader like Lunceford or Chick Webb.
Mrs. Anderson recalls how Robert and his brother “Son” enjoyed listening to Clyde McCoy, a white trumpeter and bandleader who’d had a hit with “Sugar Blues.” McCoy played trumpet with a mute, blotting and roughing-up his notes, a sound that helped inspire development of the Vox Clyde McCoy wah-wah pedal for electric guitar, introduced in 1967. Credit for popularizing the wah-wah trumpet style probably belongs to Johnny Dunn, a Beale Street musician who left town with W. C. Handy’s band and became a leading recording artist of the early 1920s. Dunn’s instrumental “Four O’Clock Blues” inspired Robert Johnson’s “Four Until Late,” the only Johnson lyric that mentions Memphis.
During spring and early summer 1938, the Clyde McCoy “Sugar Blues” Orchestra held a residency at Hotel Claridge, one of the spots Robert reportedly back-doored into to entertain white patrons. McCoy’s Claridge gig ended the same night of Robert’s final Memphis performance, June 22, 1938.
Mrs. Anderson fondly remembers how much she and her family enjoyed the Palace Theater, one of the vibrant centers of activity on Beale, with its movies, top-flight big-band shows, risqué Midnight Rambles, and the all-important Amateur Night, where many of the city’s legendary artists got started.
Anselmo Barrasso owned and operated the Palace. Patrons remember Barrasso’s generosity, handing out free hotdogs and admissions to kids during the Depression, so it’s easy to imagine Barrasso allowing Johnson to snooze in the theater until the next house party on Short Hernando Street, as Mrs. Anderson recalled.
“It was a beautiful theater, all velvet drapes and gold wallpaper,” said Barrasso’s wife. “The [chorus line] girls were just gorgeous. They looked just like creamy milk chocolate, they were beautiful girls.”
A former news reporter turned history teacher named Nat D. Williams started one of Beale’s grand traditions, Amateur Night at the Palace Theater, in which Mrs. Anderson once participated. In February 1937, Dan Burley reported that Amateur Night had run on 102 consecutive Tuesdays, with radio station WNBR broadcasting.
Nat D. also hosted Midnight Rambles, not the sort of entertainment that welcomed children. “The Rambles was really a honky tonk show,” said Nat D. “They’d have whiskey, bootleg whiskey. And anything went… people would sing vulgar songs, or vulgar dancing. Sometimes women would get out there and almost undress. We’d go over there and drag ’em off.”
Across the street from the Palace stood a venerable venue, Pee Wee’s Saloon, founded by a man of slight stature but formidable might. The original Pee Wee, Vigelio Maffei, opened the establishment in the 1870s. By 1885, Pee Wee’s had become the hangout for local musicians, namely Jim Turner, bandleader and fiddler extraordinaire. Turner taught W. C. Handy “Joe Turner Blues”—a song about Tennessee penal officer Joe Turney—which became the framework of Handy’s breakthrough composition, “Memphis Blues.” Handy legendarily wrote the song on Pee Wee’s cigar counter.
By the time Brother Robert hit Beale Street, Pee Wee had since returned home to Italy, passing the saloon on to a cousin, Lorenzo Pacini. Pee Wee’s still welcomed bluesmen, and, after midnight, the pool tables became craps tables.
Directly next door to Pee Wee’s stood the photography business of John Henry Evans, a white Pennsylvanian who died in Memphis in 1957, probably unaware of the contribution to history that his coin-operated photo booths had made.
Though Beale served many purposes as an African American community, the street derived its mythical power from intertwined prostitution, gambling, bootlegging, and politics. Mrs. Anderson relates how even her hardworking, God-fearing family were drawn into the local vice world, playing the street lottery known as policy, and patronizing local bootleggers Red Lawrence and Jim Mulcahy.
Robert R. Church, known as the South’s first black millionaire, had built his fortune, largely, with brothels. The son of a steamboat captain and an enslaved concubine, Church developed the Memphis red-light district along Gayoso Avenue—one block north of Beale.
In summer 1938, the district ran wide open. An investigator for the American Social Hygiene Association surveyed the scene and left a fascinating record of legalized prostitution, noting, “The traveling man looks upon Memphis as ‘a free and easy going city’ where persons interested in prostitution may find it without difficulty.”
Bellboys and cabbies referred guests to houses and provided johns with an envelope including the resort’s name and address, and a code number for the bellboy who made commissions on these referrals.
As the investigator explained, “Each resort has the house number painted in red on the transom over the entrance. At night all shades are drawn, but the interior lights seep out into the pitch-black streets. The music from the automatic phonograph may also be heard along the street…”
The red-light district ran so openly due to the green light from local officials. A woman working in one of the houses in 1938 said, “The law is mighty fine in this town. They never bother us at all. They come in, sit around, drink, dance, and even get laid…”
Another woman explained the thorough regulation of her trade: “A man don’t run no chances when he lays a girl in a house. You see, the law makes us all get examined. No landlady will let a girl hustle until she’s been to the doctor. We go twice a month for a smear and once a month for a blood test. If the doctor finds us OK, he sends a report to the city doctor and we can work.”
Women posted their health cards in their rooms for customers to inspect. “Believe me, the law comes around, looks at the certificates, and sees that they are right up to date.”
Sporting women actively participated in the democratic process. They paid the poll tax—two dollars, same price as a date—and, as one woman explained, “We voted right. The madam told us what to do… Hell, I’m from Springfield, Missouri. I don’t know one candidate from the other here.”
Memphis lingo referred to a woman in the business as a quiff or a chippie, not the doney Robert Johnson sang about in “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” though Herbert Asbury found that term for prostitute in use in Chicago.
The hygiene society investigator concluded, “For a city of its size Memphis has an unusually large amount of highly commercialized prostitution which constitutes a menace to public health and is provocative to juvenile delinquency.”
When the red-light district closed completely in 1940, an expelled prostitute remarked, “It’s been going on since the time of Adam and Eve. Well, this is no Garden of Eden. But at that, I’ll be lonesome for my room here.”
Although the houses of prostitution were tightly regulated in terms of the health and political participation of residents, the places nonetheless served illegal liquor. Tennessee, like other Southern states, kept Prohibition in effect even after the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the national law against alcohol. Bootleggers who made their fortune selling illegal booze were too politically influential to upset.
President’s Island, just off the coast of Memphis in the Mississippi River, was where the bootlegging occurred. “They used river water,” one distributor recalled. Bluesman Furry Lewis hauled liquor in the 1920s for famous saloonkeeper Jim Kinnane, whose name is mentioned in recordings by Robert Tim Wilkins and Louise Johnson. Lewis met deliveries from President’s Island and brought the liquor to Beale Street. He said, “Boats were running then and Jim sometimes have 50 cases of whiskey where we used to go down to the boat and get it off and bring it up. About five-six of us go there and get it.”
The most feared denizen of the Memphis underworld, Red Lawrence, who ran a joint on the street where Robert Johnson stayed with his family, took over the bootlegging racket on Beale in the 1930s.
Musician Alex Sims said, “[Red] had a terrible reputation. He had a place down on Georgia Street.”
Violin player Thomas Pinkston, veteran of the Palace Theater orchestra and W. C. Handy’s band, recalled, “[Red] only killed about 12 to my knowing. He didn’t bother decent people, it was the tramps who didn’t have respect for themselves and anyone else and they fool around and get in Red’s way, Red would just shoot ’em. That was all and I confidently think he was right for doing it. Now he was nice as he could be, other than don’t fool with him or get out of line around him cause he would sure kill you.”
At half past two in the morning of February 9, 1937, Red Lawrence shot and killed a man named Eddie Walker who was gambling at his Georgia Avenue establishment. Walker’s last words, reportedly, consisted of, “I don’t care if you are Red Lawrence.”
Walker’s death certificate attributes his end to “pistol shot wounds of the head, neck, chest, upper abdomen, and hand.”
The homicide occurred two blocks from the Spencer home. Though indicted for murder in the first degree, Red Lawrence walked free just two weeks later when the county grand jury issued a “not true bill” concluding the case.
In addition to Red Lawrence, Mrs. Anderson also remembers bootlegger and political operative Jim Mulcahy. The two men worked together for many years. Mulcahy in particular had a long history with the local civic dictatorship, run by “Boss” E. H. Crump. When Crump had first won election as Memphis mayor in 1909, Mulcahy assisted the campaign.
As dive keeper of the Blue Heaven, Mulcahy needed political protection to operate his bootlegging and gambling joint. He gathered votes for Crump, and volunteered the help of a bandleader who hung around his place, W. C. Handy. The budding composer came up with a campaign tune—“Mr. Crump”—that he later published as “Memphis Blues.”
Crump ran the city almost uninterrupted until his death in 1954, and looked out for his supporters—Handy got a park named for him, Mulcahy bootlegged without interference in South Memphis, and Red Lawrence got away with murder.
Mrs. Anderson recalls her brother “Son” hanging around at Red Lawrence’s place on Georgia, while Mulcahy still ran a dance hall at the old Blue Heaven site during Robert Johnson’s days, less than a mile due east of the Spencer home.
The tall, well-dressed black man who Mrs. Anderson remembers collecting bets for the street lottery known as policy or the numbers worked for a wide-ranging operation under the control of Nello Grandi. Every section of Memphis and every class and race of people played policy compulsively during the 1930s. A convention of gambling syndicates had divided the city into sections, with Grandi controlling the south side, including Beale Street and residential South Memphis, where the Spencers lived.
Grandi had immigrated to the city from Italy, along with a brother, Olento, when neither spoke a word of English. The pair tended bar at Pee Wee’s, and witnessed the flourishing gambling business firsthand.
Nello Grandi franchised policy, running the game through hundreds of seemingly innocent neighborhood groceries and cafes that collected bets and held drawings of the winning numbers every day—exactly like the now-legal state lotteries—and extracting a portion of the proceeds.
In 1935, writer Owen White estimated that 500 policy solicitors worked in this city of 200,000 residents.
As a former operator explained, referring to the figure Mrs. Anderson saw around her neighborhood, “The policy writers, when you got a ticket, they’d tell you where the drawing was going to be and what time at what house.”
Operators rigged the drawings to limit their losses, but trickle out just enough money to keep players hooked. “Well they would take these balls out was made of ivory and they’d put them in a freezer. They had to have the drawing in front of the people [who played]. And when this guy would stick his hand in the sack to pull a ball out, don’t pull one out that was cold, drop it, pull one out that was hot. That’s how they used to do that. There was a lot of funny things that happened in them days.”
According to Lillie Mae Glover, a Beale Street singer known as Memphis Ma Rainey, legal vice benefitted good behavior. “Let these people gamble,” she said. “They could take fifteen, twenty cents and make them some money! Wouldn’t have to run around holding up people, understand?”
Pee Wee’s always hosted one of the more popular policy games on Beale.
The thrill of old Beale Street died down not long after Robert Johnson’s murder in Mississippi in August of 1938. In 1940, at the same time that the red-light district closed, city officials ended quasi-legal gambling. Historian George W. Lee explained, “Gambling places were the nostrils from which Beale Street breathed. And when… the lid was tightened down on the gambling places, the color and romance and interest in Beale Street faded. You had two or three nightclubs on Beale Street that kept up some of the interest. You had picture shows and colorful cafes. The hog nose restaurants and chitterling cafes with their pungent odor of barbecue pig and fried fish, remained on Beale Street, and represented some of the color that once was.”
The Palace, Pee Wee’s, and Gayoso Avenue are long gone, as are Robert Johnson’s Beale Street hangouts that Mrs. Anderson recalls, Church’s Park and the One Minute Café. Only Handy Park remains. Thanks to Mrs. Anderson’s memories, we know of one more ghost on the Main Street of Black America, and a few of his old haunts.
AA: This book is dedicated to the memory of my daughter Hughia, who believed that my story is just as important as Robert Johnson’s. Also to Sister Carrie, who suffered greatly and never got her reward.
I don’t know what I would have done without my daughter Sheila, a writer, who helped me edit the manuscript, had our family photograph collection scanned for the book, and who handled communications with Mr. Lauterbach and other people involved with the project. I relied on Sheila throughout the writing of this book and she was always there for me. To note, after doing her homework, she hired Shaun Keough, a young and meticulous Intellectual Property Lawyer with Parker Keough LLP in Newton, Massachusetts. A very special thanks to Mr. Keough.
Special thanks go to my loving family who’ve helped and supported me all these years, especially my grandsons Eric Anderson and Barry Boyd, and great-grandsons Quintin and Kordell Boyd, who all have strengthened me.
I also want to thank my grandnephew Robert Harris, who is known to the family as the only direct lineage to Brother Robert.
My good friends Jean Jones, Beatrice Todd, Juanita and Leroy Garnett, and Ellen Miller Mack were there for me throughout the years of researching Robert Johnson and attempting to open his estate. Betty Corrigan and Michael Alves were my best blues friends in Boston during the years of my investigative research.
The following institutions at the University of Massachusetts were crucial to my investigative research into opening the Robert Johnson estate: New Africa House, W. E. B. Du Bois Library, and the Blue Wall. I thank their staffs.
Professor Harp and Ed Cohen educated me on the recording of Brother Robert’s music. These are very good friends who I’ll never forget. Likewise, Dr. Fred Tillis, Archie Shepp, Gilbert McCauley, Emery Smith, Walter Horton, Ed Vaders, Art Steel, Jason Valcourt, Gina Coleman, Ray Copeland, Billy Taylor, Maida Ives, and Avery Sharpe have all lifted my spirit with their music and knowledge. Very special thanks to Matthew Berube, head of information services at Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts, and to Jordan Hall, formerly of Amherst Works.
I thank my agent, Paul Bresnick, and editor, Ben Schafer.
PL: This book would not have been possible without John Riley and Maryellen Riley, in memory of George Riley.
It was a pleasure to work with Elijah Wald and Peter Guralnick.
Paul Cartwright shared his research files on a variety of legal and historical aspects of Mrs. Anderson’s family history, and I’m grateful to him.
Doug Halijan lent his expertise on an endlessly mysterious issue.
Cheers to Robert Gordon for his kindness, intelligence, creativity, and availability.
Stephanie C. Cosby shared crucial wisdom about the Spencer home site.
Thanks to our many supporters, whose generosity brought Mrs. Anderson and me together to work on this book in Massachusetts and Memphis: Matt Marelius, Robert and Dorothy Pugh, Donna Wooten, Bob Reisman, John Doyle, Chris Carter, Christina McGee, Greil Marcus, Joseph Aaron York, Ted Ownby, Tom Mayer, Scott Barretta, Bill Chapman, Susan May, Lise Yasui, Kevin Cubbins, Eddie Hankins, Brendan Wolfe, Joe Bonomo, Suzanne Henley, Bill Steber, Richard Averitt, Dick Averitt, Adriane Williams, Harvey Bojarsky, Arlo Leach, Christopher Klug, Blake Viar, Steve Tracy, Mark Silliman, Peter Riley, Geffery Stewart, Kristian Odebjer, Steven Davidson, Ann Mintz, Fernando Ortiz de Urbina, Karen Combs, Dan Tappan, Karl Reinsch, Tyler Melton, Deborah Clark, Mike Stillman, Luke Sinden, Tom Ostoyich, Steve Kiviat, Patrik Holmsten, Michael Brosnan, Jan Kotschack, David Suisman, Eli Yamin, Steve Rose, Donal Harris, Nikoo Paydar, Claes Heijbel, and Jean-Michel Dupont.
Thanks finally to editor Ben Schafer, who guided this project, and agent Paul Bresnick, who brought the pieces together.