Bayou Underground: Tracing the mythical roots of American popular music
Paperback, 256 pages
ECW Press, September 1, 2010
Printed on FSC-certified paper that is 30% recycled/post-consumer waste product
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Product Description (from the publisher):
Permeating the shadows and the darkness of the bayou—a world all its own that stretches from Houston, Texas, to Mobile, Alabama—this study of marsh music leaves New Orleans to discover secret legends and vivid mythology in the surrounding wilderness. The people and the cultures that have called the bayou home—such as Bob Dylan, Jerry Reed, Nick Cave, Bo Didley, and a one-armed Cajun backwoodsman and gator hunter named Amos Moses—are unearthed not only through their own words and lives but also through a study of their music and interviews with visitors to and residents from the region. The interviews with Jerry Reed and Bo Didley, who both died in 2008, are among the last, emphasizing the book’s importance as a piece of cultural preservation. Part social history, part epic travelogue, and partly a lament for a way of life that has now all but disappeared, this is the gripping story of American music’s forgotten childhood—and the parentage it barely even knows.
Bayou Underground doesn’t come with a digital download code or CD of all the music it references – it couldn’t possibly offer ALL the tracks anyway, but from the very first page of the introduction, I was wishing that at least the tracks being used as chapter titles were available for me to listen to while I read, because while I’d heard of some of them, others were new to me. Despite this, however, Thompson’s book, which is part music history, part memoir, part Americana, had me instantly hooked.
Partly, I suppose I fell into this book after picking it from the list offered for this year’s EcoLibris Green Books Campaign because the combined forces of HBO’s two Louisiana-based series, True Blood and Treme – and especially the latter with it’s special devotion to the music of New Orleans – have had me on a personal mission to better educate my musical ear with respect to blues and jazz this year, and partly it’s because Thompson is an amazing writer, and knows how to hook an audience with a strong opening chord. In this case the first chapter, or “track one” opens with an exploration of Elvis Presley and “swamp rock,” but even though the author leads with a headliner, the book only gets better from there.
Like me, Thompson was inspired by literature. He specifically cites Anne Rice’s first vampire novel Interview with the Vampire (a favorite of mine since I read it when I was 17) and Barry Jean Ancelet’s Cajun and Creole Folktales as the two books that drove him toward a deeper exploration of the music of Louisiana – and I mean ALL the music. He dissects the differences between Cajun and Creole tunes, talks about jazz, blues, and rock, and turns this book into, not just a guided tour, but almost a seance, calling the great musicians – some famous, others less so, into the reader’s presence.
While the music history was fascinating (and sent me to iTunes and / or Napster more than once while I read this book, which I’m going to have to re-read, because I think I missed bits) it was the mythology, folklore and culture that I most appreciated. From local in-jokes about needing directions to a chapter that references Swamp Thing, alligator changelings and the Loup-Garou, not to mention those vampires (both the Rice and Charlaine Harris (Southern Vampire Mysteries) versions), this book is murky, moody, and marvelous, and if you’re anything like me you’ll find your toes a-tapping and your spine a-shivering, often at the same time.
Bayou Underground is a must-read for any serious scholar of American pop music, or American pop culture, as well as for anyone who just wants to know where Louisiana music got it’s distinctive sound.
Goes well with crawfish po’boys and cold beer, or beignets and cafe au lait…or both.