I think I have previously reported my habit of wandering the stacks in the library and randomly picking a book off the shelf to read. Often I won’t get out the door with it, and more often than not I won’t finish it or even get more than 50 pages in. I don’t finish books I don’t enjoy reading. Never did. Sometimes, I find a real gem on a subject I know nothing about.
Tom Piazza’s Devil Sent the Rain is not one of those real gems, but I did finish it. I don’t know why I grabbed it off the shelf, but it was with the books about music and when I leafed through it I saw that it had a piece on Jimmy Martin. That was enough for me to take the book. And, sure enough, by far to me the most interesting work in the book was the stuff about Martin. The main piece on Martin had a slightly pornographic quality to it, with, to be certain, nothing that would actually qualify as pornography. Piazza meets Martin, Martin drinks a lot, lives up to his reputation as “difficult,” raises hell at the Grand Ole Opry, Piazza watches, writes, makes money off it. Making money off someone else’s personal difficulty, just like the porn industry, but with clothes on.
In no way do I mean to dismiss popular music journalism, no matter how much I will get upset by it. Scholarly music writing for sure has its problems as well, though different ones. Above all, I appreciate music journalists because I like to read about music that I care about. That’s really all the justification a music journalist needs. While I love to read, though, about a musician I care for–and Jimmy Martin is for me far and away the best thing bluegrass has given us–when it gets down to it the Martin piece is really more about the personality than the music. This is interesting at some level but totally incomplete. Yes, the man was difficult, but the man was the music as well. Maybe you can do music journalism without really getting to the music itself in detail, but you can’t in my book do it well.
Piazza does, in pieces about Jimmie Rodgers, Charley Patton, and Bob Dylan, try to get to the music more particularly. Unfortunately, the conclusions he comes to aren’t particularly interesting. Rodgers is found to be a fox, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense. Patton is the deepest of real blues deeps you can get. Dylan tapped into some Great American Vagueness or Vague Americanness and expressed what was already there waiting to be said by someone who would say it. Two problems, the first the smaller. First, these are completely pedestrian opinions, right or wrong. You can’t spit 10 feet at this point without hitting that same line about Dylan. And Rodgers–the most interesting thing about his work, aside from how amazingly good it is, is how his music–I know nothing about the man, though I hope–is functionally anti-racist in a genre that often as not encourages redneckery. I love the music, but that’s how it is. Not Jimmy Rodgers’ music, though. But nothing about that.
The second, deeper problem, is that when dealing with the music, Piazza really doesn’t penetrate the sounds themselves. Penetrate, for lack of a better word. The best music criticism of which I know, like Amiri Baraka’s work or Lester Bangs‘ best stuff, gets one inside the music by providing a vocabulary with which we can experience the music more fully than we would otherwise.
I’d heard of Piazza for his timely Why New Orleans Matters. One large section of the book consists of pieces about New Orleans, post-Katrina. I agree with everything Piazza says, socio-politically, on the subject. As I said earlier, I finished this book, unlike many I randomly pick up off the shelf. Tell me something I didn’t already know? No, not really. Got a few new facts. But I am not sure that the function of journalism at this point is to tell a reader, like me, something he didn’t already know. It’s pretty clear it’s to tap into a market demographic of people who already agree with the premise.