A new photograph of Robert Johnson – only the third thought to be in existence – will grace the cover of his stepsister Annye Anderson’s forthcoming memoir, Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson. The full cover is pictured below.
The photograph – taken in a nickel portrait booth in 1930s Memphis – appears to reveal a warmer side to a legendary figure whom Eric Clapton referred to as “the most important blues musician who ever lived” and who was rumoured to have gained his supernatural musical abilities in a Faustian pact at the crossroads.
In an excerpt from her book, shared with Vanity Fair, Anderson recalled the day that she and her brother had their pictures taken – in a “make-your-own-photo place” on Beale Street.
“The photo place was right next door to Pee Wee’s, the bar where Mr Handy wrote his blues. One day when I was 10 or 11 years old, I walked there with Sister Carrie and Brother Robert. I remember him carrying his guitar and strumming as we went. You just walk in, drop a nickel in the slot, pull the curtain, and do it. There was no photographer. I had my picture made. Brother Robert got in the booth, and evidently made a couple.”
Though the photograph is now recognised as a significant artefact in the history of music, it was first and foremost a cherished personal belonging of Anderson’s, who kept it among her possessions for many decades.
“I kept Brother Robert’s photograph in my father’s trunk that sat in the hallway of the Comas house while we lived there with my mother after my father died,” she recalls. “After my mother died, we could only take so many things. I took my photographs with me, wrapped in a handkerchief. I only carried a few belongings to Ma and Pops Thompson’s house. When I moved in with my sister Charlyne, I bought some furniture. I stored the photograph, along with others, in a cedar chest I bought. I’ve always had this photograph.”
Rumours of Johnson’s aforementioned bargain with the devil and his unsavoury early demise gave rise to a shroud of mystery surrounding the influential bluesman’s life. One of two previously authenticated photographs of Johnson showed him wearing a sombre expression, as he dangled a cigarette from his lips.
But while her step-brother’s story remains a tale of intrigue, Anderson feels her photograph may shed a new light on the blues legend.
“It shows Brother Robert the way I remember him – open, kind, and generous. He doesn’t look like the man of all the legends, the man described as a drunkard and a fighter by people who didn’t really know him. This is my Brother Robert.”
Annye Anderson’s memoir, Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson, is released 9 June through Hachette. Learn more here.
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