Caught by the River

The Music Book Reader Bulletin

Andy Childs | 22nd August 2011

Reviewed by Andy Childs.

As far as I’m aware there hasn’t been, until now, an online site that concerns itself solely with books about music and music-related subjects. It seems to me that a lot of very good music books, deserving of wider praise and attention, are left to their own devices, floundering unappreciated in a sea of otherwise mediocre titles. Several magazines, notably The Wire and Record Collector, carry extensive book reviews but inevitably there are a fair number of tomes that slip through the net or are in need of more comprehensive coverage. I hope that The Music Book Reader will come to fulfil the role of review and resource for those interested in that area where good writing and music overlap. Every month I will be choosing a title for the main review as well as recommending and listing current and forthcoming titles. We will also be refreshing the ‘archive’ section of The Music Book Reader on a regular basis as well, adding more personal favourites from various musicians, writers and friends.

Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America
By Tom Piazza Harper Perennial 262pp pbk

For some time now it’s seemed to me, and it’s a view reinforced annually by the Da Capo Book of Best Music Writing, that most of the best long-form writing about music is published in non-music magazines. Why this should be the case is the subject of another article altogether but The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times, The Believer and any number of broadsheets all regularly carry music features that are more erudite, expansive, considered and literate than a good deal of what’s to be found in most music publications. And you can add to that list the predominantly literary-minded Oxford American magazine, published originally out of Oxford, Mississippi. Every March The Oxford American produces its annual music issue, complete with cover-mount CD, which is absolutely essential to anyone remotely interested in American music in all its variety. The music on the CDs is often a revelation and the writing is equally as enlightening and entertaining. Among that magazine’s contributors was Tom Piazza, their Southern Music columnist between 1997-2001, and some his work along with other previously published pieces in The New York Times, Bookforum and various CD and DVD liner notes can be found in this excellent anthology.

Devil Sent The Rain is essentially a selection of Piazza’s diverse and personalised musings on American music and culture written between the time he moved to New Orleans in 1994 and the present and is divided into two main parts, the first featuring articles about “musicians who interest me and whose work I love” – concise, perceptive bio-pieces on Jimmie Rodgers, Charley Patton, Carl Perkins, Gillian Welch and Jelly Roll Morton among others; and the second part an extended eulogy to the unique culture of New Orleans and an impassioned plea for a greater understanding and appreciation for what New Orleans represents, its economic and cultural importance as a U.S. city, and a fierce argument in favour of its restoration and revival in the wake of hurricane Katrina, an event which overshadows and informs most of the prose here. The fact that he is also one of the writers on the HBO TV series Treme will give you some idea of the tone of Piazza’s rhetoric. Thrown in the mix are four pieces on Bob Dylan, a curious diversion on the merits of the Charlie Chan films as escapism from the horrors wreaked by Katrina, a reverential essay about his relationship with friend and mentor Norman Mailer, and a piece about Gustave Flaubert. Nothing if not catholic in his enthusiams, Piazza’s style is nevertheless engaging and passionate enough most of the time to draw you in and have you caring about the people, music and writing that he so obviously reveres.

Whilst in no way diminishing my admiration and enjoyment of his writing, my own preference is for Piazza’s work as an observer and chronicler of musicians and their work rather than as an analyst of their music. I must admit to being slightly bemused by some of his reflections on Bob Dylan, especially the piece on his gospel material, but I suspect I’ve developed a blinkered aversion to self-conscious examinations of Dylan’s oeuvre over the years. Others will no doubt find it invaluable. What Piazza’s style may perhaps sometimes lack in humour though he more than makes up for with humanity and his essay here on the bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin is astonishingly good – a portrayal of a cantankerous, complex, venerable musician that is vivid, brutally honest, unsentimental, yet warm and poignant. It also contains a description of a backstage encounter with Ricky Scaggs that is priceless. His overview of the blues, Grammy-winning notes for the DVD box of Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues is also predictably excellent, and the gem of an end-piece entitled ‘Note In A Bottle’ about the personal politics of record collecting is as perceptive a piece about this joyful affliction as I’ve ever read.

Devil Sent the Rain is a book about the cathartic power of music and great writing, its capacity to generate and re-generate social cohesion, and the ability of great artists to make sense of the world for all of us. It’s also a re-affirmation of the pleasure that great writing about music can bring.

Also Recommended :
Mark Radcliffe – Reelin’ In The Years (Simon & Schuster, pbk, 333pp)
Radcliffe’s follow-up to the excellent Thank You For The Days. He picks a record for each year of his life to date and , drawing on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of personal anecdotes, weaves an entertaining and informative biographical narrative. His humour is perhaps an acquired taste sometimes but the wit, enthusiasm and knowledge that makes him one of our best radio DJs is here in abundance. A very enjoyable read.

Forthcoming Titles of Note :

• Best Music Writing 2011 (Da Capo, pbk) (guest edited by Alex Ross)
• Daniel Beaumont – Preachin’ The Blues : The Life & Times of Son House (OUP USA, hdbk)
• Preston Lauterbach – The Chitlin’ Circuit : And The Road to Rock’n’Roll (W.W.Norton, hdbk)
• Barry Miles – In The Seventies : Adventures in the Counter-Culture (Serpent’s Tail, hdbk)
• John Einarson – Four Strong Winds : Ian & Sylvia (McClelland & Stewart, hdbk)
• Philip.R.Ratcliffe – Mississippi John Hurt : His Life, His Times, His Blues (University of Mississippi, hdbk)
• Flying Saucers Rock’n’Roll : Conversations with Unjustly Obscure Rock’n’Roll Eccentrics (Duke University, pbk)
• Paul Brannigan – This Is A Call : The Life & Times of Dave Grohl (Harper Collins, hdbk)
• Em Marshall – Music in the Landscape : How The British Countryside Inspired Our Greatest Composers (Robert Hale Ltd, hdbk)

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