JOHN YDSTIE, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. Author Tom Piazza looks for the arc of American culture in the nation's music - from the blues to country, folk and rock and roll. He shares what he's discovered in a new collection of essays titled "Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America." Tom Piazza is also the author of the book "Why New Orleans Matters" and a post-Katrina novel titled "City of Refuge," and he writes for the HBO series "Treme." He joins us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Welcome to the program.
TOM PIAZZA: Hi, John.
YDSTIE: This new book is a collection of essays that you wrote generally during the past 15 years. And you say in your introduction that the pieces have been selected to form a narrative arc. You really start with a meditation on the blues. Why?
PIAZZA: Well, within that musical form, you'll find a series of strategies for dealing with, I guess you could say, hard times. And the blues mediates those kinds of hard times by a very special kind of transaction that happens, which is to say you have very often lyrics that are about the hard times, but underneath those lyrics you have a musical setting that is anything but down-hearted.
YDSTIE: The title for your book is the title of a Charlie Patton song, and you talk quite a bit about Charlie Patton in your book. Why did you choose him as someone to focus on?
PIAZZA: Charlie Patton is generally regarded as one of the real founders of what we now refer to as the Delta blues. But Charlie Patton's recordings, some people might even think of them as sounding kind of primitive with a very hard to understand diction and a repetitive musical technique. But the more you listen to Charlie Patton, what you find is this extraordinary kind of equilibrium being expressed, even as he's singing about getting arrested, losing love, getting drunk, whatever it might be.
YDSTIE: We've got a recording of Charlie Patton with a song called "When Your Way Gets Dark." Let's take a listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN YOUR WAY GETS DARK")
CHARLIE PATTON: (Singing) When your way gets dark, baby, turn your lights up high. When your way gets dark, baby, there what's the matter with him?
PIAZZA: I'll sing along. When your way gets dark, babe, turn your lights on high. And then in a slightly different voice off to the side, he goes, what's the matter with him? So, it's almost as if there are two people, you know, performing at once having a dialogue. But that kind of inner dialogue is actually an astonishingly sophisticated musical and discursive even mind at work. Actually, it's a very literary thing I would say also.
YDSTIE: Another one of the early essays in the book focuses on Jimmie Rodgers, the first big country star, who was famous for his blue yodels, including this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MULE SKINNER BLUES")
JIMMIE RODGERS: (Singing) It's raining here, storming on the deep blue sea. Oh, it's raining here, storming on the deep blue sea. Ain't no black-headed mama can make a fool out of me.
YDSTIE: Tom, tell us a little about Jimmie Rodgers, where he came from and what kind of impact he had.
PIAZZA: Well, Jimmie Rodgers was a railroad brakeman actually, and he grew up in Meridian, Mississippi. Many people refer to him as the father of country music. He certainly was enormously influential on younger performers, like Gene Autry, Hank Snow, everybody who came after him. I think what was fascinating about Jimmie Rodgers was that he crossed a lot of lines that I think at that time in our culture in the 1920s were probably generally seen as being, well, less porous than he thought they were. He took it on himself to pick freely from the traditions not just of Anglo-American balladry, railroad songs, western songs, but also from African-American blues, and he did it very convincingly.
YDSTIE: There's a really amazing couple of paragraphs in you essay about Jimmie Rodgers. Would you read that passage for us?
PIAZZA: Sure. (Reading) 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, 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, strained 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 resolute, well, you have murdered it, in fact, the more sentimental you will be about it.
YDSTIE: That's a wonderful piece of writing.
PIAZZA: Well, thank you.
YDSTIE: Another artist that you focus on a lot in your book who reinvents himself as the culture changes is Bob Dylan. You take a close look at his transformation at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where he went from acoustic to electric guitar and changed the subject of his songs too, and made a lot of people mad.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGGIE'S FARM")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) They say sing while you slave, I could get bored. I ain't gonna work on a Maggie's farm no more.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND BOOING)
PIAZZA: Dylan was always very difficult to pin down in terms of region or even ethnicity. I mean, Bob Dylan was a young Jewish man from Minnesota who came to New York City, and I don't think he had a whole lot of respect for other people's ideas of where the boundaries were supposed to come down. And that too is a very American thing. I mean, I think Dylan brings together so many strains of American expression - not just musical but literary and homiletic even. And, you know, that was always in Bob Dylan's music and his lyrics.
YDSTIE: Tom Piazza's new book is a collection of essays titled "Devil Sent the Rain." Thanks very much, Tom.
PIAZZA: Thanks, John. It was a pleasure.