The Year Before the Flood
By Ned Sublette
Lawrence Hill Books
Ned Sublette Book Signings
5:30 p.m. Wed., Sept. 23
Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania St., 895-2266; www.gardendistrictbookshop.com
6:30 p.m. Thu., Sept. 24
Mother-in-Law Lounge, 1500 N. Claiborne Ave., 947-1078
5:30 p.m. Fri., Sept. 25
Community Book Center, 2523 Bayou Road, 948-7323
6 p.m. Sat., Sept. 26
Beth's Books, 2700 Chartres St., 947-4477
Like many early Louisiana settlers, Ned Sublette arrived in New Orleans via Cuba. The musician and writer published his first book about Cuba and then became a yearlong New Orleanian while researching his second book, The World That Made New Orleans, about the city's lesser known ties to Cuba and the Caribbean. And that stint occurred at a juncture that dictated his latest book: The Year Before the Flood.
"I was conscious when I first got to New Orleans that I was living in history," he says from his home in Manhattan. "I was watching it in a diaristic sort of way — saving articles, keeping a log of emails."
From August 2004 to May 2005, Sublette lived in the Irish Channel while on a Rockefeller Fellowship at Tulane, where he was researching the city's Spanish colonial period. But he also became interested in the history of segregation in Louisiana. Sublette grew up in Nachitoches and some of his observations about New Orleans struck a chord.
The Year Before the Flood is part history, part autobiography and an entertaining account of the city's music. He relates the early history of rock and roll, which he argues was born in New Orleans, citing Fats Domino's first single, "The Fat Man," and the work of drummer Earl Palmer as crucial components.
Sublette's love and fascination with New Orleans' music dominates the book. Besides reports from clubs, second-line parades and citing of lyrics, there are endless amusing details like the DJ who is responsible for the call letters of WWOZ, Fats Domino's love of cooking and the early studio habits of Lil Wayne. (He always arrived early to Hot Boys recording sessions, wrote lyrics in a notebook while he waited for others, and thus often had the most time on the mic.)
The book also is full of outrage and dismay. A return visit to the city the week prior to Hurricane Katrina is preoccupied with murders in the news. He questions the legacy of social and racial injustice, and wonders — sometimes based more on outcomes than causes — whether the Federal response to the flood was merely incompetent or designed incompetence, leaving the city's black Democratic voting block scattered and school unions crushed.
As the title states, the book is about the life of the city before Katrina, although he touches on the storm and its immediate aftermath. But he writes with the attachment of a New Orleanian, and he seems to know what it takes to capture the spirit and culture of the place.
"One of the things I realized while house hunting was if you knew what all the names of streets meant, you knew the history of the city," he says. "The World That Made New Orleans is about the space of the city. But New Orleans is about the rhythm of its calendar. You can't parachute in for three weeks and get a sense of how the city works. There's an intense rhythm of holidays, festivals, second lines, Saints days. The passage of time gives New Orleans its distinct rhythm."