The knock on essay or review collections is that they read like patchworks, not like books. That isn’t always a bad thing, though: sometimes having all the work in one place is reward enough. That’s basically the case with Tom Piazza’s Devil Sent The Rain: Music And Writing In Desperate America. Its coherency gets a boost from the author’s focus on music—jazz, blues, R&B, rock, country, and soul, with a special focus on New Orleans, Piazza’s longstanding residence—and the fact that most of it comes from the same magazine, The Oxford American, where novelist and Treme writer Piazza wrote a music column for a decade.
Devil does feel like a hodgepodge, but it still has a lot to recommend it. With two final pieces broken off as a coda, the book is divided in half: before and after Hurricane Katrina, Piazza’s obsessive subject since it happened. For good reason: Devil’s most ferocious moment comes in Piazza’s reply to a genteel letter from someone suggesting that New Orleans’ inhabitants accept their forced relocation as a hint to move away completely: “The idea of turning one of the great, thriving, complex living cultural centers of the world—with all its problems into a manicured jewel box like Savannah or Charleston … is nauseating and despicable. It doesn’t have to come from an actively evil motive.” That’s a recurring theme in the book’s back half, particularly in his essay on Flaubert: “An insistence that seven eighths of the human race is basically dispensable, and that we inhabit a doomed, shrinking island of the elite, is the quintessence of the sentimental.”
The music pieces are uneven: sometimes liner notes—here, for the CD box set Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues—are just liner notes. But “True Adventures With The King Of Bluegrass” is a stunning portrait of alcoholic bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin. Frustrated over never getting into the Grand Ole Opry, Martin goes backstage at the Opry theater and attempts to pick a drunken fight with Ricky Skaggs; it’s a model of great profile-writing. And “Sacred And Profane In Clarksdale” is a simple sit-down that Piazza’s sharp eye and ear transform into a mini-lesson in ethics. The subject helps: Reverend Willie Morganfield, the cousin of Muddy Waters, says of the difference between gospel and the blues, “Music was designed to praise God, and men have made it to praise man… You can’t be wet and dry all at the same time.”