Alumnus Bryan Krull’s historical fiction novel follows the life of an imaginary blues musician throughout the 20th century.
Bryan Krull is not a musician. A University of Wisconsin graduate and recent publisher of the historical fiction 1920′s delta blues novel “Lil’ Choo-Choo Johnson Bluesman,” Krull literally cannot carry a tune. “People ask me all the time if I play in a band or if I’m a skilled guitarist because I wrote a novel about blues musicians,” Krull saidl. “I can’t. I think it’s because I was assigned the clarinet in middle school.”
Lil Choo-Choo Johnson – the eponymous character of Krull’s novel – is, in contrast, a guitar prodigy. In the novel, his fictional journey from a vagrant to a blues legend is interwoven with pivotal moments in the development of blues history. Lil Choo-Choo’s journey parallels the fluctuations of blues music through the 20th century – he passes through everything from the popular era of delta blues to the British Invasion of the 1960s. Characters like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters appear, rendered with a level of realism and historical accuracy that display an incredible depth of sincerity.
“I first grew up listening to rock,” says Krull. “I sort of discovered blues through that – I realized how many of the rock bands I liked were influenced by the blues and went back, discovering all these roots. One of the things I want to show in the book is that music has always borrowed from its past. I think it’s easy for people to criticize rock for being an impure version of the blues, but even back then blues musicians were emulating all sorts of influences, playing whatever was popular at the time.”
The novel presents both an entertaining personal narrative as well as a compelling exploration of musical history. In fact, the story’s detail is so rich that most people are initially unsure of whether Lil’ Choo-Choo is a real character or not.
“When I set out to write this novel, I really wanted to combine my love of history with my love of music,” says Krull. “I think writing it through the lens of a fictional character gave me some leeway with the historical aspect. I wanted to encompass everything and really bring the era to life.”
A testament to the book’s keen eye for the more fascinating aspects of blues culture is its broad appeal. Krull shows that the development of blues music isn’t just a narrow genre piece but a microcosm of what draws us to music in the first place. The story brings to life the mythology surrounding musicians and the art that they create.
“One of the true stories in the book is about the blues legend Robert Johnson,” says Krull. “There’s a scene in the book where he returns to his childhood home after years of separation. He tries to give some money to his mother but she throws it back at him, accusing him of accepting the devil’s money. Robert Johnson had become so good at the guitar that his peers attributed it to him making a [deal] with Satan.”
For Krull, though, the book extends beyond its musical influences. In the novel, Lil Choo-Choo’s struggle is not limited to that of achieving renown and wealth as a musician. Once his dreams appear to come to fruition, he struggles with familial problems as well as the civil rights issues surrounding his time. His fight is not just one of external factors – it’s the pressure of his conscience as he grapples with the permanence of his decisions. It’s the precariousness of his future as he travels the thin line between confidence in his virtuosity and the instability of his surroundings.
‘I think in many ways I wanted Lil Choo-Choo’s story to be relatable,” says Krull. “He’s sort of going through life with an outsider status – he’s trying to do what’s right without even realizing what that might be. I think that is something that’s indicative of everyone’s struggles.”
Krull plans to draw from his experiences in Madison, including working at the Memorial Union, to lay the foundation for his next book: A novel about a student on the cusp of graduation, unsure of what the future has in store for him. But for now, Krull is focused on the task of marketing his self-published book.
“At first, I thought only people with blues backgrounds would have any interest in the book,” says Krull. “But after doing some book readings I’ve found that it’s been surprisingly popular among a diverse array of groups. I think the stories of that era still have a lot of relevance that people find interesting.”
When asked if, among the blitz of new projects and book readings, he might engage in a throwback and promote the book with a showcase of his roots in clarinet playing, Krull gave an assured answer:
“No. I actually want people to buy my book.”
More information about “Lil’ Choo-Choo Johnson Bluesman” as well as Bryan Krull can be found at http://www.bryankrull.com/