Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 8/23/2011
How do we take stock of the resurrection of New Orleans? What does its survival reveal about our character as a nation?
A history, biography or memoir might not have provoked these questions as well as this collection of essays, Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America by Tom Piazza.
Luckily for me, Jessica Anderson of The Bluestocking Society strongly recommended this book. I felt obliged to show proper respects to this singular place and its recovery from flood and exodus by reading Devil Sent the Rain.
Piazza, an ardent advocate for New Orleans, has authored the acclaimed novel City of Refuge and the book-length essay Why New Orleans Matters. He also writes for HBO’s drama series about life in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Treme.
“I badly needed to begin thinking about something else after three years of writing about, rebuilding in and advocating for New Orleans,” Piazza acknowledges and takes a writing detour into the lives of his music and cultural heroes.
In ritual tribute of the pantheon, Piazza catalogs the folk, blues and jazz contemporaries who defined his heroes and shows the relationships that had the most profound effects on their music.
“None of the people in the book takes anyone else’s word for how reality looks,” he writes, delving into the folk music cult of Jimmie Rodgers, exploring the Library of Congress recordings of Jelly Roll Morton and analyzing documentary footage of Bob Dylan.
He conducts a one-to-one interview with Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass, on an unwieldy visit to the Grand Ole Opry and allows his subject to ramble no matter how “opinionated, cranky and overbearing.”
Piazza explains the difference between downtown Nashville, province of Hank Williams and Roy Acuff, and Music Row, home of the New Nashville and country music tourism.
He compares the blues to a “philosophy of life” and celebrates its resurgence by revivalist musicians like the White Stripes and Cassandra Wilson.
In the chapter, “Trust the Song,” Piazza insists that the musicians whose work he loves have no need “to qualify as performers.” Quoting his Iowa Writer’s Workshop mentor Saul Bellow, an artist has the right to borrow themes and elements from any tradition he or she is “strong enough to carry out.”
The most emotionally charged of his writing remains reserved for New Orleans.
Piazza writes in an exchange of letters with a relocated physician who called for the removal of the poorest from their homes:
The idea of turning one of the great, thriving, complex living cultural centers of the world—with all it problems—into a manicured jewel box… is nauseating and despicable.
In the transcript of an online chat, a detractor takes aim:
If this city is the best, I hate to think of the worst city. Mardi Gras is a pagan celebration and I think the Lord has had about enough of New Orleans.
Tom Piazza’s response:
If there is in fact a God, it is the height of hubris to think that you can fathom His reasons for doing what He does on this earth, and near-blasphemy to imagine that He is serving your own ideas of who needs correction or punishment.
Piazza knows New Orleans, the cradle of jazz, home to historic architecture and the birth place of a distinctive regional cuisine, would not be abandoned by God or be left to entropy.
Piazza draws solace from this:
If there is a single factor most responsible for the extraordinary distance New Orleans has traveled in the years since its near-death experience, it is the city’s culture.
Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America by Tom Piazza is a worthwhile read and an excellent companion to the novel City of Refuge.
Category: Nonfiction, Essays