Diverse work about roots and catastrophe by the gifted essayist and novelist.
This collection of short pieces by Piazza (City of Refuge, 2008, etc.) doesn’t entirely hang together, but still mirrors the versatile author’s many great strengths. The first of the three sections contains his writing about music, much of it drawn from his tenure as Southern Music columnist for the Oxford American. It is highlighted by his unforgettable, wildly colorful profile of the idiosyncratic bluegrass musician Jimmy Martin, published in book form as True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass (1999). Piazza also provides thoughtful considerations of prewar bluesman Charley Patton (one of whose songs supplies the tome’s title), country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers and pathfinding New Orleans jazzman Jelly Roll Morton; some smart (mostly commissioned) pieces about Bob Dylan; the Grammy-winning notes for a boxed set overview of the blues; and sensitive profiles of rockabilly great Carl Perkins and gospel singer Rev. Willie Morganfield, cousin of bluesman Muddy Waters. The second section is less focused and hence less satisfying. Piazza is a longtime New Orleans resident, and several of the pieces focus on his reactions to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which he dealt with at full length in both the novel City of Refuge and the nonfiction work Why New Orleans Matters (2005). Coruscating with outrage, these entries—which include an edited online chat from the Washington Post and an exchange of private letters—read like adjuncts to those books; the best of them weighs the disaster through the unlikely prism of several old Charlie Chan films. Also included are homages to Norman Mailer, Piazza’s friend and literary model, which sit uneasily next to the other chapters. A brief third section wraps the book with a meditation on the moral core (or lack thereof) of Gustave Flaubert’s fiction and a lovely report about shopping for 78s at a New Orleans flea market after the deluge.
A grab bag, but a devil of a good one for the most part.