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Rock Reads: Bayou Underground: Tracing the Mythical Roots of American Popular Music by Dave Thompson

Reviewed by Kevin Wierzbicki

Prolific scribe Thompson has authored more than a hundred books about music and pop culture and here he presents 18 essays not so much about music as they are about the things that informed the music. Subtitled "Tracing the Mythical Roots of American Popular Music," Bayou Underground focuses on history and lifestyle in New Orleans and adjacent areas and opines on how people, events and activities were represented (and often misrepresented) in song. Thompson, however, didn't sit in his home office and do research on the Internet. Instead he traveled to Louisiana and beyond to gather fact and folklore about obscure musicians and historical figures, voodoo queens and prostitutes, pirates and murderers; all the colorful characters, some real and some not, that populate songs like "Stagger Lee," "The House of the Rising Sun" and "Who Do You Love." In one particularly funny and telling passage that relates to Bayou Underground's investigation of "mythical roots" Thompson relates an incident that happened to Dr. John wherein he is confronted by an angry woman claiming to be Queen Julia Jackson, a character he made up for his song "I Walk on Gilded Splinters." Amos Moses, an unfortunate alligator hunter dreamed up by singer/songwriter Jerry Reed for his song of the same name is another character that Thompson finds is fictional but that stories of Amos Moses being real have spread unexplainably through the bayou like so much Spanish moss. What allows Bayou Underground to be such a fun read is the fact that Thompson is not trying to prove anything or make any point; he just takes a thought derived from a particular song and snoops around to see where that thread will take him. Thompson refers to each segment of the book as a "track" instead of a chapter and reading Bayou Underground is kind of like listening to a good album for the first time; the paths taken may surprise you but you'll be pleased with the destination, mythical or not.

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