Teenage runaway Kennedy Barnes ventures from his hometown in small-town Pennsylvania to Colorado, where he tracks down legendary blues guitarist Willie Johnson–now a motel laundry worker–who Barnes thinks should be credited for inspiring the origins of rock and roll years before Chuck Berry, after hearing a song Barnes recorded decades earlier. The music lovers then venture to the Newport Folk Festival back east while they try to land Johnson a record contract.
Set in a series of dingy bars in the 1960s, Brian Kaufman’s SINS IN BLUE offers a hypothetical and historically revisionist alternative on how blues music evolved into the iconic American art form of rock and roll. Main characters Barnes and Johnson display an Odd Couple-like chemistry and though initiated on false pretenses, their close relationship anchors the book emotionally, propelling the narrative forward with a kinship that transcends the boundaries of birth and circumstance. Blending past and present storylines seamlessly, SINS IN BLUE follows Johnson as a young musician and as an older World War II veteran working a menial job in Fort Collins. An earnest look at disillusionment, the poignant story depicts how life goes on after youthful hopes and dreams fall short and the need for accepting that people don’t always get the credit in life they deserves.
Every chapter starts with a quote, either a fictitious one from Johnson or one from a real blues musician like Muddy Waters or Big Bill Broonzy. The book shows a genuine appreciation of blues music and the enthusiasm for the subject matter is infections. Sample lyrics like “You like ribs?/ My daddy took a bat to mine” from Johnson’s “Misery Train” or “You got your hands in your pockets/ or maybe your hands all up in mine” from his “Church Up the Road” are richly evocative, helping build out the world. The novel features dialogue that smacks of worldliness, insight, and wisdom and can be vividly descriptive, as when Pittsburgh is described as “perpetually fogged with iron and coke from smelters” or when the sun’s rays shine on a pilsner glass “gold on gold” in one of the book’s many bar settings.
Brian Kaufman’s SINS IN BLUE demonstrates the power of music, friendship, and following one’s dreams whatever the odds with lively and humorous prose that animate a captivating and well-crafted story.
~Joseph S. Pete, for IndieReader