Robert Johnson, one of the most influential figures in blues and rock music, has long been depicted as a mercurial, back-country loner from the Mississippi Delta who went “down to the crossroads” to sell the devil his soul in exchange for musical prowess. To longtime Amherst resident Mrs. Annye Anderson, however, he was “Brother Robert”: a kind, thoughtful and talented older step-brother, a sharp dresser with beautiful penmanship and tremendous curiosity about the world, who doted on her at her childhood home in Memphis during the first 12 years of her life. In her 2020 debut memoir, Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson, Anderson offers a fascinating counternarrative to the legend, full of revealing stories about family; the segregated South; and the wide range of music that informed Johnson’s own, including Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, Fiddlin’ John Carson and, their favorite, Jimmy Rogers.
Mrs. Anderson’s connections to Amherst include her late husband’s work with noted Amherst College graduate Dr. Charles Drew (class of 1926), and her own work in the area as an organic farmer, educator, small business owner and, most recently, author. As Brother Robert was released at what was unfortunately the height of the pandemic lockdown, Mrs. Anderson has only recently begun to make appearances in person to talk about the book, her nearly 97 years of life, and memories of growing up with someone who would become a global musical icon but whom she knew as a beloved older brother.