Lil’ Choo-Choo Johnson, Bluesman,

Lil’ Choo-Choo Johnson, Bluesman,
Historical Fiction by Bryan Krull

By Karen Nugent
April 2010

Fiction is an unusual genre for blues, and perhaps one that should be more available now that most of the forefathers are dead and the next generation—along with most of the fans—is aging. Bryan Krull’s novel gives a basic, if somewhat clichéd, version of a typical Delta bluesman’s leaving Mississippi for musical acclaim in the north (i.e. Chicago). Along the way, Earl “Choo-Choo” Johnson, a fictional character that is sort of a combination of Robert Johnson and others (although the real Johnson is in the book and not as good of a guitarist as Choo-Choo!) meets all the key bluesmen. In fact, he goes all the way to induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland with the Rolling Stones.

The 230-page paperback, published by Indianapolis-based Dog Ear Publishing, starts out with the young Earl at his rural Mississippi home learning guitar from an alcoholic uncle. His fierce, church-going mother takes a dim view of this, but Earl manages to sneak off into the fields to practice. A guitar prodigy, Earl leaves home at the age of 10 with his uncle (who has to beat it after an unfortunate mishap with another man’s wife) and takes along his downtrodden father’s old guitar with him. Soon after, the uncle gets sick and dies. Then, an elder bluesman (Big Choo-Choo, from whom Earl gets his nickname) takes Earl under his wing, but he is soon killed. (Lynched? That’s the implication and part of the mystery.) Shortly after, it’s Son House himself to the rescue, who shows Lil’ Choo-Choo the ropes as they travel through Memphis, Chicago, and beyond.

As the journey unfolds, we get a good taste of sharecropper shacks on Dockery’s plantation, booze-soaked juke joints in Depression-era Mississippi, and the swinging clubs of post-war Memphis and Chicago. Interest is held when Choo-Choo grows up, marries, has children, becomes famous, grows old, and then returns home to a happy ending, although the family shack is long gone. The author is a history teacher, and the best feature of his book is its historical accuracy. The reader’s interest is held by the descriptive images and dialog of real blues folks. The reader gets an accurate account of all the greats, including Charley Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, the Chess Brothers and more. The story follows the heyday of Delta blues, the birth of rock and roll, the British invasion, and the blues revival of the 1960s.

<- back to Features