A new photograph of Robert Johnson will grace the cover of a new memoir written by the blues legend’s stepsister, as first reported by Vanity Fair. Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson, is an inside look at Johnson’s early years which includes new details about his family, music, influences, tragic death, and musical afterlife. The book, published by Hachette Books, is on sale June 9.
Vanity Fair’s excerpt from the book, as told by Annye Anderson to Preston Lauterbach, quotes Anderson’s recollections of where the photograph has been all these years. “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. 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.”
“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.”
It’s been alleged that the photograph, though never published, was seen by a handful of people over the years, including blues great Muddy Waters.
Anderson also reveals details of the specific location where the photo was taken.
“There was a make-your-own-photo place on Beale Street, near Hernando Street. I’ve since learned that a man named John Henry Evans owned it. 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.”
The new photograph shows Johnson smiling for the camera, wearing the same outfit as seen in one of the existing photos. In both photos from the make-your-own-photo place, he is playing the guitar and his hand forms the same general chord shape. The guitar appears to be the same 14-fret guitar. A capo is placed on the second fret in the previously seen photo, while the new photo is a close-up view of Johnson with the full guitar neck out of range. You can read an overview of the different guitars Johnson used in our Legendary Guitars feature here.
Hachette’s promotional page for the book promises inside details of Johnson growing up: “Anderson also outlines the contours of Johnson’s working life in Memphis, never-before-disclosed details about his romantic history, and all of his favorite things, from foods and entertainers to brands of tobacco and pomade.”
There aren’t many photographs of blues legend Robert Johnson in existence. In fact, only two have been verified. In the mid-2000s, Zeke Schein, a blues fan and guitar expert who worked at Matt Umanov Guitars in New York City stumbled on a possible third, unseen photograph of two men, purported to Johnson posing alongside fellow bluesman Johnny Shines. This hotly debated photo and backstory was the subject of our cover story in 2015, which you can read here.