It’s a Sunday afternoon and New Orleans writer Tom Piazza has stopped at a flea market to hunt through boxes of what he calls “shellac”—78s from the late 1920s and early ’30s, the kind prized by collectors, each containing about three minutes worth of song on each side. Blues singers. Jazz bands. Old-timey string bands.
He compares their brief songs to “good fiction,” in which every detail counts. They convey “such wit, such intensity, such heartbreak, such style, such care with the expressive detail,” he notes, that “each record is like a note in a bottle. They made the records and the records landed in places no one could predict, and they added oxygen to the world.”
“Note in a Bottle” is one of the highlights of Piazza’s new book, Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, a mixed bag of music profiles, essays, letters and occasional pieces published from 1997 to the present. Linked by new introductions, they add up to a wise and much-needed redefinition of the American spirit, with an emphasis on the importance of diversity, and the enduring connections between musician and audience, writer and reader.
Piazza, originally from Long Island, moved to New Orleans in 1994. He is the author of nine books, including three guides to jazz, and writes for “Treme,” the HBO series set in New Orleans. In 1997, he became the Southern music columnist for the Oxford American; several pieces he wrote for the magazine—profiles of Jimmie Rodgers, Charley Patton, the Rev. Willie Morganfield, Jimmie Martin and Carl Perkins—make up the first section of the book, along with a penetrating look at Bob Dylan’s split from the folk music scene.
Part two combines essays about Jelly Roll Morton, Norman Mailer, and the future of the book, as well as the staunch arguments Piazza has made since 2005 in defense of rebuilding New Orleans and the return of its refugee “underclass.”
At the heart of each piece is the author’s deep regard for individuality: the dangers of commercializing it, overlooking it or—just as New Orleans risks being cleaned up into a “museum town” like Charleston or Savannah—abandoning it altogether in favor of a narrower, more easily marketable image.
As befits a fierce defender of idiosyncrasy, the musicians Piazza loves best are the redheaded stepchildren: the irascible, paranoid, brilliant Jimmy Martin, forever banging at the gates of the Grand Ole Opry, deserving but too ornery to get in; Charley Patton, with his “dark, rough, uncut sound” that has barely survived on a handful of “extremely rare and worn old shellac discs.”
And “archetypal rockabilly” Carl Perkins, who “was there in Memphis at the Creation, the Big Bang of Rock,” whose mega-hit “Blue Suede Shoes” should have guaranteed him a fame equivalent to Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis, but instead ended up “touring the middle and the bottom of his profession.”
It’s Bob Dylan’s unpopularity as he broke with the left-leaning folk movement that most appeals to Piazza; to forge an individual voice required Dylan to beat a new path through familiar territory, to “locate what was of value there and sing a new self, even a new country, out of it.”
If the portraits in the first half of the book represent the boundless potential embodied in the American dream, then the second half comes back to earth with a thud. “Hurricane Katrina,” Piazza says, “knocked over the tables, emptied the drawers and changed the locks.”
“Charlie Chan in New Orleans!” describes the escape he sought from the devastation in the movies of the implacable, coolheaded Chinese detective. While observing that each “encounter with duplicity, lies, or subterfuge makes [Chan] grow calmer and smarter,” Piazza wonders: If faced with the government officials who let Katrina happen, what would Charlie do?
“I find myself imagining him interrogating Michael Brown of FEMA or President Bush, immediately after Hurricane Katrina.” None of their excuses would faze Charlie Chan: “‘Correction,’” he would tell Bush, “’levee break foreseen and described in detail in computer exercise year before. You withdraw funds for further study. One more question—how long could honorable family of president live without nourishment in Superdome?’”
The prospect of a gentrified New Orleans is anathema to Piazza, something along the lines of how he imagined Jimmy Martin onstage at the Opry—“like uncorking corn liquor at a polite wine tasting.” The city, like Martin, has too strong a flavor. But as goes New Orleans, Piazza warns, so goes America. In every article and is a reminder that “we need to go to great lengths … to protect our cultural patrimony.”
When Piazza describes the flea market finds that stirred his collector’s soul to its core, he feels “the impulse to yell out,” like “Walter Huston in the ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ separating the gold from the bulk of the rock and clay.”
And so do we, reading this treasury. Devil Sent the Rain is the shore the reader sits on, as first one of these notes drifts up, and then another and another—witty, intense, heartbreaking, expressive messages of one man’s hope for the future.