Eight decades after his death, he remains one of the most enigmatic artists in popular culture, a brooding troubadour admired by jobbing musicians and global superstars alike. Even people who don’t know his recordings have probably heard the oft-told legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil in his quest for fame. If you are looking for a symbol of the spirit of the Delta blues, then this itinerant virtuoso, a hard-drinking, womanizing loner who died in 1938 at the age of 27, fits the bill.
Or so we like to think. Yet a very different picture of him emerges in Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson, a memoir by his indomitable 94-year-old stepsister Annye Anderson. Although she was only 12 when Johnson died, the retired educator known to all and sundry as “Mrs Anderson” summons up poignant memories of the young man she so admired. In these pages he is a placid, amiable character who would happily strum popular ditties such as “Pennies from Heaven” in the family home or keep children entertained with one nursery rhyme after another.