Read Devil Sent the Rain Online

Authors: Tom Piazza

Devil Sent the Rain

BOOK: Devil Sent the Rain
3.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Devil Sent the Rain

Music and Writing in Desperate America

Tom Piazza


To Mary, of course


Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these?

—William Shakespeare, King Lear

Lord sent the sunshine,

Devil, he sent the rain.

—Charley Patton




evil Sent the Rain
contains articles and essays I wrote in the years between when I moved to New Orleans, in 1994, and the present. The first section, about musicians who interest me and whose work I love, is made up of articles (with one exception) written and published before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005. Part Two contains pieces written after that disaster; they are concerned mainly with New Orleans and its fate, although the last few shift the focus to literary matters. Part Three is a coda, consisting of an essay about fiction writing—a kind of post-post-Katrina stocktaking—and a very short column, written before the storm, about things that endure.

The pieces have been selected to form a narrative arc, or perhaps a fever chart, of the past fifteen years. Concerns and themes that percolate under the surface of the music writings in Part One were brought to a boil during the George W. Bush presidency and then were forced out into the open, and into the national consciousness, by Hurricane Katrina. The sense of vitality and pluralism embodied in the work of Jimmie Rodgers, Charley Patton, Bob Dylan, Carl Perkins, Gillian Welch, and the others represented here point toward a set of possibilities for both personal and societal transformation and growth that came under direct threat during the Bush years.

The destruction that followed Katrina tore roofs and walls off houses and scattered people's most personal belongings, usually broken and waterlogged, randomly into public view. It sent American citizens from their ruined homes in New Orleans to strange places, and brought people from very different backgrounds into close contact in ways they had perhaps never anticipated. It exposed a degree of governmental ineptitude that was shocking and frightening to most who paid attention. A landscape of poverty and pain was lit up for all to see, and with it, most surprisingly to some, an extraordinary spirit, a will not just to exist but to return, with all that implies.

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. Not only the city's music, dance, funeral traditions, cuisine, and architecture—its look and its smell and its feel and its sense of humor—but the interaction among all those factors, their coordination, is what makes the city live, what makes it
, in its unique way. The elements that give American music its vitality—the sense of disparate cultures brought together and finding a way to dance, to make something that did not exist before—is also the animating spark of the spiritual exaltation at the heart of New Orleans culture. French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, German, Irish, and Italian traditions all cook together here in endless permutations, and it provides a sense of joy and possibility, along with obvious challenges. That had always been the promise of American culture at large.

The nation got a new new deal in the fall of 2008 with the election of its first African-American president. And in 2010 New Orleans chose a new mayor, one who inspired hope and confidence, just a day before the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. People were also ready to swear that they had seen pigs fly. It was an exhilarating time, especially if you didn't look too closely at the fine print.

The pieces on music in Part One express, for the most part, a kind of optimism about the basic template of American possibility, for the reasons suggested above. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, and the Bush administration's hideous series of blunders that followed, culminating in the Iraq War, that very sense of possibility itself, and the implicit entitlement that always seemed to be lingering nearby, began to feel questionable in a new and more painful way. The divisions that were being wedged more and more deeply into the national dialogue were psychological, even mythological. What were once differences of policy and even philosophy had become coated with magic and superstition, manipulations cunningly crafted to bypass the reasoning faculty and go right to the heart of the fear and uncertainty that were there under the crust, like rich oil reserves that could be tapped to fuel a brutal expansion.

The question became whether there was an opposing magic to counteract the enormous undertow of all that imagery, all that appeal to easy, comforting answers. The pieces in Part Two and Part Three are, in their oblique ways, a series of raids on this question. Some concern themselves directly with issues around the rebuilding of New Orleans. The two pieces on music—one about Jelly Roll Morton and one about jump blues maestro Joe Liggins—are really pieces about New Orleans and its peculiar spiritual qualities, as well. Two essays look at the work and persona of Norman Mailer, a writer who always faced into the relations between the inner life of the individual and the fate of the society at large, and who was also a friend of mine.

Hurricane Katrina forced itself into the foreground of my consciousness and life and stayed there for five long years. During that time I wrote about the disaster in two books—the nonfiction
Why New Orleans Matters
and the novel
City of Refuge
—as well as in two seasons (so far) of the HBO dramatic series
. After the publication of
City of Refuge
, in 2008, I began work on a new novel, not about New Orleans, but set partly in New York City and partly in the American Midwest, just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. I badly needed to begin thinking about something else after three years of writing about, rebuilding in, and advocating for New Orleans. And yet I found that I had changed as a fiction writer as a result of what I saw and experienced during and after Katrina. The essay “The Devil and Gustave Flaubert,” in Part Three, addresses this; it is a kind of ground-clearing operation, perhaps.

As of this writing, the notion that the written word is doomed, or doomed to irrelevance at least, because of the power and immediacy and omnipresence of electronic media, is so widespread that it has become almost axiomatic. But it is not true, unless you measure relevance strictly in terms of quantity and size, as opposed to sharpness and penetration. The written word is not simply a less efficient delivery system for information or opinion. In the private space shared by the writer and the reader, one individual soul encounters another and a spell is cast, created by both of them. That set of conditions cannot be approached or even approximated by any other medium. Even when the marching band declaring an end to all private vision comes triumphantly through town, those words, direct from one mind to another mind, will be there to stretch the strings taut between the private consciousness and the public drama and play a tune, or a symphony.

—Tom Piazza, New Orleans, March 2011

From 1997 until 2001, I was the Southern Music columnist for the
Oxford American
, which meant that in each issue I had absolute freedom to write about whatever I wanted. I also wrote a longer piece for each of the magazine's annual music issues, where the following two pieces appeared.

The two subjects—Jimmie Rodgers, often referred to as the “Father of Country Music,” and Charley Patton, sometimes called the “King of the Delta Blues”—began their recording careers at a time (the second half of the 1920s) when the indigenous music of various parts of the American South was first becoming easily available to the rest of the country via recordings. It was also a time when the popular music of the rest of the country was making its way, via recordings and radio, into the farthest reaches of rural America. Rodgers and Patton, both of whom were born in the final decade of the nineteenth century and died in the deepest trough of the Great Depression (Rodgers in 1933 and Patton a year later), are emblematic figures of that cultural moment, for reasons that I hope the articles make clear.

Jimmie Rodgers Died for Your Sins

e was not the boy next door. Or maybe he was. There is that high school graduation picture of him—the jacket, the bow tie, hair neatly combed, head slightly tilted, the eyes looking directly into the camera, a hint of baby fat still clinging to the cheeks. Hard to locate, in those eyes, the legendary railroad brakeman dying by degrees of tuberculosis, making his last recordings over a long five days in New York City, far from his family and friends, resting desperately on a cot between takes, dying of a massive hemorrhage two days after recording his last song in May 1933. Or maybe it was right there in those eyes all along, the mixture of curiosity and trust, shyness and self-assertion, an enigma to match the surge of adolescent self-confidence and insecurity that was America's in the wake of World War One. We were a world power. But who were we?

In photos from the 1920s you get a sense of him casting repeatedly into the river of possibility for an identity. Even before he was famous, and he became famous on a scale unprecedented—unimagined, really—for a man with a guitar, he looks different in almost every picture. Here he wears round, Harold Lloyd horn-rim glasses, slicked-back hair, and a suit—an insurance man or a Wall Street broker, smiling and playing a Hawaiian guitar. Here he wears a grease monkey's jumpsuit at a service station, surrounded by his buddies, just a good old boy. Here he's squinting meanly and challengingly into the camera, his eyes insufficiently shaded by a straw boater, hands in pockets, a small-town slicker, on the make, thinking about Bigger Things.

Once he became famous, the chameleon-like quality only became more expertly managed; the photos were taken by professionals, the smile was more practiced, more genial. He looks like a man who has stepped out his front door into a spring morning of possibility. Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, dressed in full railroad brakeman's outfit, giving the double thumbs-up. Jimmie Rodgers, America's Blue Yodeler, in a nice striped suit, playing his guitar thoughtfully, the country gentleman. Jimmie Rodgers, the . . . well, we'll figure it out later; first take the shots . . . dressed in full cowboy garb, complete with leather chaps and spurs, smiling and smoking a cigarette. . .

Ordinarily one would say
Skip it; pay attention to the music
. But the music seems to be a reflection of these shifts. Rodgers was both a one-man summation of the nineteenth century and an avatar of the Media Age, pointing, like all truly epochal figures, both backward and forward. He sang of rural nostalgia, cabins in the pines, Mother and Daddy waiting at home (or no longer waiting at home), freight trains, mean brakemen, rough barrooms, policemen, jail cells, long nights away from home, springtime again and work in the fields, courtship . . .

He assembled, in a sense, a personification of the growing nation itself, and he involved the individual listener in that drama of growing up: the tension between the lust for change and travel, adventure, mobility for its own sake, violence even, and at the same time a profound and occasionally corrosive sense of nostalgia for The Way Things Were Back Home—either back in the cabin, or Down South below the Mason-Dixon Line—somewhere back, back, before it all got industrialized and built up, before the innocence was lost. The endless American dynamic: Strain at the leash, transform yourself into something unrecognizable, burn off the old, claim every possibility for yourself—contain, as Whitman suggested, multitudes—then memorialize the past that you have killed to pay for all that possibility. The more resolutely you have murdered it, in fact, the more sentimental you will be about it.

Rodgers was born in 1897 in a railroad town, Meridian, Mississippi, to a railroad-man father. When he was barely in his teens he ran away a couple of times with traveling shows, before starting to work on the railroads in earnest at the age of fourteen. At some point in there he contracted the tuberculosis that would kill him. The 1920s were for him a mix of railroad work and various lunges at a show business career. He had a wife and child to support. In 1927 he left Meridian for Asheville, North Carolina, where he started hooking up with several groups of musicians, trying on different kinds of musical situations for size, everything from Tin Pan Alley to what was already being called “hillbilly” music.

Then the important thing happened: Ralph Peer came to Bristol, a town on the Virginia-Tennessee border. Peer, a key figure in the recording industry of the 1920s, arrived in the summer of 1927 and advertised open auditions in the hopes of finding rural performers worth recording for the Victor label. (The two-disc set
The Bristol Sessions
, put out by the Country Music Foundation, documents the extraordinary recordings made that summer.)

Along with dozens of others—old-time fiddlers, family musical groups (including the Carter Family, who made their first recordings that summer), blind singers, religious singers—Rodgers smelled something cooking and made the trek to Bristol. He went with a group of musicians, but before they got to the auditions they parted ways in a quarrel over billing. The band recorded separately, under the name the Tenneva Ramblers, and Rodgers cut two sides accompanied only by his own guitar. These two recordings sold well enough for him to be asked to follow up. The second pairing contained his first “Blue Yodel,” sometimes known as “T for Texas.” A loosely strung collection of outlaw lyrics sung in a jaunty, sly manner, interspersed with what was to become his trademark yodel, it made Rodgers a star.

Rodgers was really the first white performer to sing the blues convincingly on recordings; he got the essence of it. Blues is, among other things, an antidote to sentimentality, and in singing them Rodgers didn't exaggerate or caricature or force anything. He found a part of himself there, obviously, and the exhilaration in his “Blue Yodels,” as well as things like “No Hard Times” and “The Brakeman's Blues,” is unmistakable. Although Rodgers preceded them into the recording studio, a number of white performers (among them Darby and Tarlton, the Allen Brothers, Dick Justice, and Gene Autry) did sing the blues very well around the same time. Even Jimmie Davis, years before he wrote “You Are My Sunshine”—and decades before he became the gentleman segregationist governor of Louisiana—made a specialty of singing some very authentic-sounding blues. If you want a good demonstration of what the same material sounds like in the hands of a talented singer without the gift for blues, get Lefty Frizzell's tribute album,
Songs of Jimmie Rodgers
. Frizzell was, of course, one of the very greatest country singers, but he wouldn't have known the blues if it hit him over the head with a plate. Merle Haggard, on the other hand, knew exactly what to do with this kind of material, and his Rodgers tribute album,
Same Train, A Different Time
, is one of the best things he has ever recorded.

The flip side of Rodgers's way with the blues is his body of recordings in which Mother and home, dear old Daddy, and the little cabin, are all extolled with a dewy-eyed sentimentality that has remained part of country music:

There's a little red house on top of a hill

Not very far from an old syrup mill . . .

(“Down the Old Road to Home”)

On sides like these, Rodgers was nothing if not a one-man syrup mill. Still, there's no overwrought, throbbing, grabbing of the listener's heart strings; Rodgers could deliver such lines and then turn around and shout, “Hey, sweet Mama!” the way he does in, say, “Jimmie's Texas Blues.”

In any case, Rodgers didn't represent the expression of a unique personality so much as he did the fluidity of identity. He didn't have a single easily defined image that took its place in a larger drama, the way Gene Autry did, or Johnny Cash, or Waylon Jennings, or Bob Wills. He was not a fixed personality who used the guitar and the songs as a vehicle. Rather than just being a man with a guitar, Rodgers became Man With A Guitar, an archetype. Singers of the most diametrically opposite types have always found plenty to work with in his songs. On the disc
The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute
, put together by Bob Dylan, singers as different as Willie Nelson, Van Morrison, Aaron Neville, Iris Dement, Dwight Yoakam, and Dylan himself perform songs either written by or associated with Rodgers, and the results are startlingly fresh and individualistic.

I doubt whether any other popular performer of his time recorded in as many widely spread-out places. Rodgers made records not just in Bristol, but in Dallas, Atlanta, New York City, New Orleans, Louisville, San Antonio, Los Angeles, and Camden, New Jersey. He recorded by himself, but he also recorded with country fiddlers, with slick studio jazz bands, with Hawaiian guitarists, pianists, banjo players, jug bands, and blues guitarists. Few white musicians in the jazz genre, where racial integration was not uncommon—let alone musicians who performed anything resembling “country” music—recorded as often with black musicians in the 1920s as Rodgers. Not least among these recording companions was Louis Armstrong, the closest thing Rodgers had to an opposite number in the jazz field (they teamed up for Rodgers's “Blue Yodel #9” in Los Angeles in 1930). But he also recorded with the excellent guitarist Clifford Gibson and with the Louisville Jug Band. In 1929 he even made what might be considered the first music video, entitled
The Singing Brakeman
, in which he sat in his brakeman's outfit on a stage set and sang three songs to two women, accompanied only by his own guitar.

Unlike just about every other major rural performer, though, black or white, Rodgers recorded almost no sacred material. To be precise, he recorded exactly one track: a duet with Sara Carter on “The Wonderful City.” That is one song out of the 150 or so tracks included on the six-CD Bear Family box
Jimmie Rodgers: The Singing Brakeman
, which contains everything he did. Even blues musicians renowned for the most salacious kinds of material, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, and Blind Boy Fuller, recorded gospel numbers here and there, although they customarily used pseudonyms to do so. Rare indeed were the white performers who ignored sacred material.

In some way Jimmie Rodgers seemed to represent a kind of mystery cult of his own. In his persona, as in his music, he united disparate elements in one being. People have the kind of reverence and affection for him that the devout reserve for saints. Bob Dylan, who has a way with an image, says that Rodgers's sound was like the smell of flowers. His voice, Dylan added (in the notes for the Rodgers tribute disc), “gives hope to the vanquished and humility to the mighty.” Even though we're a thousand miles away from home, waiting for a train, that train will come, don't you see, and we'll be forgiven our rough and rowdy ways and shake hands with Mother and Father again.

Yet Rodgers delivered not just an echo of the redemption of the New Testament but the earthiness of primitive religion and fertility rites. According to blues authority Paul Oliver, as quoted in both major biographies of Rodgers, a tribe in East Africa called the Kipsigi, who were introduced to gramophone recordings sometime during the 1950s, developed an entire cult around the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers, whom they transformed into a deity they called Chemirocha. To them he seemed to be “a formidable player on their local
lyre, and Kipsigi girls have come to believe that Jimmie Rodgers is a kind of centaur, half man, half antelope.”

And, of course, there was always a strong element of the sacrificial in Rodgers's life. His time was not long, as he sang in one song, and he knew it. His entire six years of recording was carried out under what was at the time the almost certain death sentence of tuberculosis, which of course eats away at the very bellows that push the songs out—the seat of the spirit, the lungs. Repeatedly ordered by doctors to stay in bed, he never did. In the last three weeks of his life, he traveled by train, in the company of a private nurse, from San Antonio to Galveston, and then by boat to New York City for an epic series of recording sessions, so that his wife and daughter would have a backlog of material to help out financially after he was gone. He stayed at the Hotel Taft, and he took the time to look at a few songs by a couple of young songwriters, whom he received while in bed, propped up on pillows.

At the Victor recording studio on East Twenty-fourth Street, a cot was set up where Rodgers could lie down and regain his strength between takes. The first day, May 17, 1933, he recorded four tracks, an amazing effort under the circumstances; they included “I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now,” a composition by one of the young songwriters who visited him at his hotel. The next day he recorded three tracks, including the beautiful “Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes,” and a track released as “Jimmie Rodgers' Last Blue Yodel,” sometimes known as “The Women Make a Fool out of Me.” Rodgers skipped a day and went back in on May 20, but he was able to record only two songs before quitting.

He rested for three days. On May 24 the Victor people had set up a session with two other guitarists, and Rodgers, hanging on by a thread, recorded three songs with them. Then, solo, he recorded his last song, “Fifteen Years Ago Today,” sometimes issued as “Years Ago.”

The next day his nurse took him for a tour of Coney Island. He suffered a terrible attack of coughing and spasms and had to be brought back to the hotel, and in the deep morning hours of May 26 he died. Listening to the last recordings, if you know the story, is almost unbearably poignant. If you don't know the story, they are merely great records. You would never guess the circumstances.

After Rodgers died, a number of the best known country singers, including Gene Autry, Bradley Kincaid, W. Lee O'Daniel, and Ernest Tubb, recorded tribute songs. Most, if not all, of them are assembled on Bear Family's disc
Memories of Jimmie Rodgers
. Decades later, the list of major country performers who either recorded Rodgers's songs or did whole albums in tribute is not just long but nearly endless.

BOOK: Devil Sent the Rain
3.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Jump Cut by Ted Staunton
Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage
Turtleface and Beyond by Arthur Bradford
Our First Love by Anthony Lamarr
Animal's People by Indra Sinha
Faithful in Pleasure by Lacey Thorn
Into the Firestorm by Deborah Hopkinson
The Dead Men Stood Together by Chris Priestley