Discovering the Blues with Sonny Terry

sonnyterry3

Art by Wade Dillon

I used to haunt a little record store across from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Back in the day, I’d sift through stacks of vinyl, looking for something good. One afternoon, I found a four-song EP by bluesman Sonny Terry. My first thought was that I’d found a collector’s item, and might turn the record for a profit. That impression was reinforced when another shopper spotted the EP in my hand, and asked if he could please have it!

I didn’t know what was coming. Back in my basement apartment, I put the disc on my turntable. The first song was Women’s Blues (Corinna). I heard a lyric line that, on the face of it, might seem nonsensical. That isn’t how I took it. The words and the soulful vocal, backed by some killer harmonica licks, simply blew me away:

I ain’t got no sweet potato/frost done killed the vine/Blues ain’t nothing/but a little Corinna on my mind.

Who can tell what will resonate in advance? Those lines started a lifelong love affair with the blues.

Sonny Terry was born Saunders Teddell (or Terrell) in Greensboro, Georgia (1911). Injuries suffered as a teen took his sight, so he learned music to be able to make a living. In the 1930s, he established a partnership of sorts with a guitarist named Blind Boy Fuller. When Fuller died, Terry linked up with Brownie McGhee. Over the next two decades, the pair made a name for themselves among both blues and folk artists.

Terry’s harmonica style featured a lot of whooping between notes, a trick best featured on the video that follows. (Lost John was another of the four songs on my little EP.) The breath control Terry demonstrates is mind-boggling.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that after listening to Sonny Terry, I spent a while trying to learn blues harp. Like my subsequent guitar adventures, I learned just how little talent I had for music.

But as with my love for baseball, my obsession with the blues led to a novel.

Sins in Blue (Black Rose Writing) tells the story of a Depression-era blues guitarist hoping to be “rediscovered” in the 1960s. The novel released today, and is available on Amazon.

Given that my novels tend to come out of personal fixation, I think Sins in Blue can trace its lineage straight back to a four-song EP hidden in the bargain bin of a long-ago record store. For that, and for the music, I’ll be forever grateful to Mr. Terry and his blues harp.

Note: This is one of a series of articles about that great American art form, the Blues. The illustrations were done by Wade Dillon, a professional illustrator who lives in Texas. You can find Wade at https://www.wadedillonart.com/.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Available for Pre-Order

Cover ImageDread Tribunal of Last Resort (Five Star/Cengage) is now available for pre-order at both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Decker Brown is a proud young Virginian, educated in Boston, with plans to manufacture illuminations (fireworks) and raise a family. He loves Paula Crane, the daughter of the flour mill owner. When the country is divided by Civil War, their loyalty to each other is put to the ultimate test. Decker believes in the Republic’s promise of liberty, while Paula can’t fathom taking up arms against her friends and neighbors. Decker struggles to protect his dreams from a catastrophic war that will cost more than half a million lives. What happens when the runaway train of history shatters every hope for the future? Even as postwar Richmond rebuilds, Decker Brown faces his most important challenge…building a new life from the rubble of war.

“Brian Kaufman’s Dread Tribunal of Last Resort is historical fiction like none other… I have nothing but love for this book.” (Four stars out of four) ~Online Book Club

Dread Tribunal of Last Resort is an extremely well-written and well-researched page turner…Kaufman brings in the unexpected perspectives of the slaves, the women, and those other conflicted individuals caught in the middle…”~Peter Bridgford, author of Where Eagles Dare Not Perch

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Available for Pre-order

Front CoverSins in Blue is available for pre-order at Amazon.com.

A young man on a mission. An aging musician with a dream. Society perched over a racial divide.

It’s the 1960s, and nothing reflects the cultural revolution more than music. When Kennedy Barnes, a runaway teen, stumbles upon a rock and roll song recorded by a blues musician in the 1930s, he heads west in search of the man behind the music.

Willie Johnson, ex-bluesman, is a motel laundry worker with a bad hip and a dark past. When Kennedy arrives with the promise of riches, Willie wonders if he’s finally getting his shot at the big time. But is fame worth the cost of dredging up past sorrows?

Sins in Blue is a novel about lost dreams, crippling grief, and the healing power of an unlikely friendship.

“Like that song, the story will play in your head unbidden. This story – it rocks!” ~Miriam Molina, Online BookClub

Sins in Blue is a poignant, gripping tale of shattered hopes and dreams and the ultimate acceptance that life goes on.” ~Pat Stoltey, author of Wishing Caswell Dead

“Kaufman’s prose is textured and full of personality.” ~Kirkus Reviews

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Coming in 2020

1aaFor those of you who follow my writing, 2020 will be an interesting year. Two new books are coming from two different publishing houses.

First up is Sins in Blue (May 2020, Black Rose Writing). Young Kennedy Barnes pins his hope for fame on Willie Johnson, a bluesman who may (or may not) have invented rock and roll. The story unfolds in two timelines—The Great Depression and Fort Collins in 1969.

“Like that song, the story will play in your head unbidden. This story – it rocks!” ~Online BookClub

Sins in Blue is a poignant, gripping tale of shattered hopes and dreams and the ultimate acceptance that life goes on.”

~Pat Stoltey, author of Wishing Caswell Dead

Next up is Dread Tribunal of Last Resort (July 2020, Cengage/Five Star Publishing). Decker Brown is a proud young Virginian, educated in Boston, with plans to manufacture illuminations—fireworks—and raise a family. He loves Paula Crane, the daughter of the flour mill owner. When the country is divided by Civil War, their loyalty to each other is put to the ultimate test. Decker believes in the Republic’s promise of liberty, while Paula can’t fathom taking up arms against her friends and neighbors.

Decker struggles to protect his dreams from a catastrophic war that will cost more than half a million lives. What happens when the runaway train of history shatters every hope for the future? Even as post-war Richmond rebuilds, Decker Brown faces his most important challenge—building a new life from the rubble of war.

“Brian Kaufman’s Dread Tribunal of Last Resort is historical fiction like none other… I have nothing but love for this book.”

~Online Book Club

Dread Tribunal of Last Resort is an extremely well-written and well-researched page turner…Kaufman brings in the unexpected perspectives of the slaves, the women, and those other conflicted individuals caught in the middle…

~Peter Bridgford, author of Where Eagles Dare Not Perch

It’s going to be a very good year!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Coming This Spring: Sins in Blue

Front CoverI’m pleased to preview the cover for Sins in Blue, a historical novel about a Depression-era blues guitarist. The book will be available in both hardback and softback editions from Black Rose Writing.

Here’s some back cover text to give you an idea of what’s in store for readers:

A young man on a mission. An aging musician with a dream. Society perched over a racial divide.

It’s the 1960s, and nothing reflects the cultural revolution more than music. When Kennedy Barnes, a runaway teen, stumbles upon a rock and roll song recorded by a blues musician in the 1930s, he heads west in search of the man 

Willie Johnson, ex-bluesman, is a motel laundry worker with a bad hip and a dark past. When Kennedy arrives with the promise of riches, Willie wonders if he’s finally getting his shot at the big time. But is fame worth the cost of dredging up past sorrows?

Sins in Blue is a novel about lost dreams, crippling grief, and the healing power of an unlikely friendship.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Parents, the Enablers

61KPPB-34FL.jpgTracing the roots of my love affair with books, I come back to my mother and father. Let me tell you about some of their tricks.

Those of you with children have surely had this shopping experience: “Mom, will you buy this for me?” It almost doesn’t matter what “this” is. Kids don’t want to go home empty-handed. My clever mom always said yes. But she said yes to books.

I recall going to a drug store late at night. I was probably eight or nine. Back then, drugstores had a toy aisle. I’m sure I found something I wanted. Instead, I walked out with a book on rockets. Years later, I still remember the book, because the excellent illustrations, and because it introduced me to physics—my first attempt (mostly without success) at working my way through concepts like trajectory and escape velocity.

Books for Christmas? Yes. Birthdays, too.

Both Mom and Dad read to us. A long car trip meant a new book. The one that really struck home was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Again, I was fairly young—no more than nine. I was fascinated by this animal story with a moral.

The scene that hit me was when noble Boxer tried to break his way out of the horse van as the pigs shipped him off to the glue factory. Even now, when I hear the word “betrayal,” I think of poor Boxer.

I don’t know if Dad “abridged” the story as he read. Probably not, knowing him. I recall a mention of the Russian Revolution, but only in passing. When I was in junior high, I read the book myself and realized that Orwell was talking about totalitarianism, not barnyards. In high school, I read the book again and understood the allegorical elements. Snowball was Trotsky? Napoleon was Stalin? My mind boggled.

Finally, there were the trips to the library every Monday night with my father. I checked out seven books a week—one for each day. No subject was off-limit. When I was twelve, I started reading psychology texts. Who knows why? I went from subject to subject, like surfing the net. When we finished mining the home town library, we started making the long trip to the Cleveland Public Library—a dark, sprawling nightmare of a building that steered me from science fiction to horror (for which I am grateful).

Dad worked sixty-hour weeks, and time was dear. But so, apparently, were us kids.

Both Mom and Dad are gone now, but my love of books will continue. I used some of the same tricks with my own kids. Even now, everyone gets a book for Christmas…just me, passing on the addiction.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Binging as a Child

1bbaTracing the gateway drugs to my reading addiction, I give a nod to classic series chapter books written for young readers. I’m going to mention three series that I devoured. Two of them were mysteries (it’s a wonder I didn’t end up writing cozies). The third was a sports series.

The Hardy Boys Mysteries were created by Edward Stratemeyer in 1926. The book that captured me was the first in the series (The Tower Treasure). The fact that the climax occurred in a railroad yard (another obsession of mine) didn’t hurt. The series is interesting because the books, originally written by ghostwriters, were rewritten (dumbed down) for the modern reader in the late fifties in order to compete with television. The language was simplified and some of the richer descriptions were truncated or cut. I believe I read the edited versions.

The Happy Hollisters was a series about a family of amateur sleuths. The series was 1bbaawritten by Andrew Svenson under the pen name Jerry West. I think I was eight or nine when I started reading the books, and the ten-year-old girl in the story, Pamela, was my first literary crush. I often wondered if there was a real girl behind the fiction, and in researching this blog, I discovered that Pamela was based on Svenson’s daughter Laura.

Bronc Burnett stories involved a New Mexico teen with a rocket arm, pitching for his high school team. The team enters a tourney sponsored by the American Legion. Each book covered a different level of the tourney, culminating in a national championship. Subsequent books covered exhibition series against the Mexican champions, Canadian champions…

1bbEach story had a moral—my introduction to a story’s theme. Twenty-eight tales were authored by Wilfred McCormick. I generally stuck to the baseball stories, though the football stories were good, too.

I don’t suppose these stories would matter to the modern reader. I grew up in a gee-whiz world, where families that solved crimes together stayed together, and the guy that won the game in the ninth inning was the one with moral courage. No matter. I cherish the books, and a representative of each series sits on my keeper shelf in a place of honor.

What books captured you when you were young?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Classics Illustrated

WellsAlbert Kanter was a traveling salesman, born in Russia, who emigrated to the United States in 1904. A lover of books, he had an interesting idea. He would abridge classic literature and print it in comic book form. His goal was to introduce great literature to young audiences. Classics Illustrated (originally called Classic Comics) was a huge success and a launching pad for artists like Jack Kirby.

The first story Kanter adapted was Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Each issue contained some biographical material on the author, educational extras, and a coming attractions tease. Kanter quickly added the works of Kipling, Melville, and Walter Scott.

Back issues became valuable collector’s items. Reprint requests—unheard of in the comic book industry—eventually led to back-cover catalog-style order forms.

I used the order form on the back of one comic to buy a fat packet of my favorite titles when I was young. Classics Illustrated was my introduction to Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others. If the comic caught my attention, I asked for the source material. That’s how I began wading through classic novels at the age of eight.

Over a period of twenty years, the company sold more than 200 million comics. Shortly after Kanter sold his interest, changing economics and distribution problems led to the company’s demise. After the company suspended publication, various companies have reissued versions of the comics. (Most recently, Trajectory Inc. released digital versions.)

I’ve been thinking of the “gateway drugs” that led to my reading addiction. Golden Books and Classics Illustrated, along with parents who read to me daily, did the job. I will be forever grateful.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

More Dry Ink

1aaaI’m pleased to announce that my novel, Sins in Blue, will be published next year by Black Rose Writing. The novel concerns a Depression-era bluesman and his friendship with a would-be teenage music manager in the late 60s. A little bit of mystery, a little bit of sorrow, and a lot of nostalgia.

One fun aspect of the book (for me) involved the song lyrics. I’ve been writing blues songs for a few years, and some of them figure in the novel. I think they hold up pretty well.

The book ends with a recounting of a B.B. King performance in Fort Collins, Colorado. I was there for the show back in 1969. The Great One opened for the Rolling Stones, who played some fine blues that night as well.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Little Golden Books

1One of my earliest memories involved taking the obligatory afternoon nap. I never went voluntarily, but then, three-year-olds have to do what they’re told. Mom always sweetened the deal a little by putting me to bed with a handful of books.

We weren’t rich, but nearly everyone could afford Little Golden Books—introduced in 1942 at just .25 cents a book. Created by people like Margaret W. Brown (author of Goodnight Moon) and Richard Scarry, the books soon went worldwide (except the Soviet Union, where they were considered “too capitalistic”).

I had favorites. Scuffy the Tugboat (written by Gertrude Crampton and illustrated by Tibor Gergely) traced a toy tugboat’s escape downriver to the sea. As the journey becomes perilous, Scuffy longs to return to the man with the polka dot tie and his little boy. Things get frightening before the happy ending.

The Little Red Caboose (written by Marion Potter and illustrated, again, by Tibor Gergely) chronicles the heroic efforts of a caboose who saves a train from sliding back down a steep mountain grade.

I mention the art, because that’s what stuck with me. At three, I couldn’t read. But having been read to repeatedly (and remembering the plots), I retold the stories to the pictures

1

Tibor Gergely

instead of napping. And those pictures!

Tibor Gergely was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1900. He immigrated to the United States in 1939 and became a self-taught artist. In addition to the titles I’ve mentioned, he illustrated Tootle, the third-best-selling children’s book of all time. He died in 1978.

As an adult, I find naps to be a rare luxury. As for Little Golden Books, I have five in my “keepers” bookcase, including Scuffy and The Little Red Caboose. These gems belong side-by-side with the most influential books of my life. And that influence still operates. After writing a recent poem, I realized that the imagined pastoral was very much like a panel from Scuffy. Dark poem, dark panel. Bless those books.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment