Step-sister of blues legend Robert Johnson shares history, memories during campus visit

November 7, 2023
By: Andrea Binnick

The event is one of two compelling musical talks being offered this month on campus

Mrs. Annye Anderson, step-sister of legendary musician Robert Johnson, brought history, memories, and even a favorite tune to the Blue Lounge on Monday as she read from her book about being raised in Memphis alongside the late singer, guitarist, and songwriter dubbed “King of the Delta Blues.”

“He called me Baby Sis,” Mrs. Anderson read from her book, Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson, to those gathered at the Worcester State Student Center. “We weren’t blood. We were family.”

The 97-year-old author alternated between reading excerpts from the book, adding spontaneous commentary, and answering audience questions as she sat alongside moderator Tim Eriksen, an acclaimed vocalist and guitarist known for his interpretations of old songs from New England and Southern Appalachia.

Mrs. Anderson recalled pivotal family moments including the knife fight that forced her father to flee Eudora, Miss., for Memphis, Tenn., a move during the Great Depression that would not only save his life, but ultimately connect him with Johnson’s mother Julia.

Mrs. Anderson recalled meeting “Brother Robert” for the first time when she was just three years old. “He helped us move to Memphis from the country in 1929,” she read on Monday. “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.”

In 1938, Johnson’s life ended too soon, when he was only 27 years old, an unimaginable loss for Mrs. Anderson who at the time was just 12 years old. The exact cause of the passing of the musician who would posthumously influence the likes of Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Robert Plant was initially a mystery that prompted a lot of speculation and fictitious stories. Today, Mrs. Anderson is quick to dismiss the many inaccuracies that have been written and spoken about her beloved step-brother, and she’s even quicker to share the treasured memories she has from her early years with the musician whom she watched grow from donning “patches to pinstripes” in their Memphis home.

The author shared a life-changing moment for her at the age of 10 years old, for example, when Johnson took time to help her prepare for a dancing and singing performance on “amateur night,” a popular variety show with radio broadcast from Beale Street’s prestigious Palace Theatre. In the 1930s, Mrs. Anderson recalled being allowed only in the “attic,” or upstairs level, since she is African American, as white attendees visited the first floor of the venue.

“It was Brother Robert who helped me rehearse the ‘Joe Luis Strut,’” she said with a smile.

The author also recalled hearing word in the community that her step-brother had put out a record, exciting news that prompted her to go with her sister to Woolworth’s on Main Street and discover Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues.”

She went on to share with Monday’s Worcester State guests that blues was far from the only genre enjoyed by the guitarist who also loved playing jazz and giving nursery rhymes such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Froggie Went a Courtin’” a country spin for youth in the community.

“People talk about crossover, but we’ve been crossing over,” she joked.

What were some of her most favorite times with the legendary musician?

“Taking me to the railroad,” where the young Mrs. Anderson and Johnson shared a love for trains and watching people “hoboing,” or coming and going to Memphis and beyond. The memory prompted Eriksen to play Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train,” a song that Anderson said brings her back to three or four years old with lyrics including:

“He put me off in Texas
A state I dearly love
The wide open spaces all around me
The moon and stars above
Nobody seems to want me
Or lend me a helping hand
I’m on my way from Frisco
I’m going back to Dixie Land
Though my pocket book is empty
And my heart is full of pain
I’m a thousand miles away from home
Just waiting for a train”

“He was a very sweet brother,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Whenever he pulled his jacket off the knob, I knew I could go with him.”

Monday’s event is one of two compelling talks offered this month by Worcester State’s Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) Department. VPA and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences are collaborating with Music Worcester to present “Bridges Between: Creating Music Across Cultures,” a special discussion at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 14, with world-renowned composer Reena Esmail and MacArthur Genius Award Winner and violinist Vijay Gupta. The special event will be held in Sheehan Hall’s Multipurpose Room. The Worcester State community is welcome to be part of this one-of-a-kind opportunity to learn about the music composing community’s role in making meaningful connections across cultures through the acts of “telling and listening” from two of the music industry’s visionaries.

The New Yorker has hailed Gupta, who through his music carries out his belief that the purpose of artists and citizens is to make a daily practice of the world we envision, as “one of the most radical thinkers in the unradical world of American classical music.” In addition, PBS’s Great Performances and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have profiled Esmail, an Indian American composer who brings communities together through the creation of equitable musical spaces, on “Now Hear This” and “Frame of Mind.” Esmail’s compositions have been featured on multiple Grammy-nominated albums and played by ensembles including the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Seattle Symphony, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Kronos Quartet, to name a few outstanding groups.

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