1-3) Oh Susanna, "Sleepy Little Sailor" (Catamount), "Johnstown" (Stella/Square Dog, www.squaredog.com, 1999) and "Oh Susanna" (Stella, 1997)
Oh Susanna is singer, guitarist and songwriter Suzie Ungerleider of Toronto. There's the echo of the North Carolina mountains in her voice, but on "Sleepy Little Sailor," the first record she hasn't put out herself, you can also hear Sarah McLachlan. You can also hear someone with nothing to prove: No one else would have the nerve to take up Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember" and then sing from inside the song as Redding did not; Ungerleider puts you on the street as she sees her lover with someone else, letting you feel his tongue in her mouth. And you can hear Tanita Tikaram's unexplainable "Twist in My Sobriety," from 12 years back, as Ungerleider moves into "All That Remains" and "Forever at Your Feet," as elegant musically as they are unstable as stories -- What happened? they leave you asking. Is he, is she, already dead?
For all that, nothing on "Sleepy Little Sailor" or the EP "Oh Susanna" comes within miles of "The Bridge," from "Johnstown." Very little released in the past three years by anyone comes close to it. This is the sort of song the tradition of the Appalachian murder ballad should have written by itself: a ballad that tries to be about suicide and ends up being about murder anyway, "Barbara Allen" without love, with a graphic bluntness that's absolutely modern and a dream logic that's absolutely Brontëan. Perhaps the tradition did write it; maybe Ungerleider can so lose herself in other singers, other songs, that she has no need to sing as if she has written the songs she did in fact write. Piano, violin, guitar and especially the quiet shifts of a Hammond organ enclose the story Ungerleider is telling, finishing it, leaving it as frightening as it is gorgeous. I played the song all day, over and over, trying to make it turn out differently.
4/5) Robert Night Hawk et al., "And This Is Maxwell Street" (Rooster), and Levon Helm and the Barn Burners at Biscuits & Blues (San Francisco, Feb. 6)
"Maxwell Street" is a triple CD -- two discs of "dime in a cigar box" performances recorded in 1964 at Chicago's open-air market by Mike Shea for his film "And This Is Free," one disc of guitarist Mike Bloomfield interviewing guitarist Robert Night Hawk -- and some of the most incendiary blues jams ever caught on tape. There is Big John Wrencher, leading Night Hawk and guitarist Little Arthur through "Lucille," the heat from his harmonica wilting every weed in earshot; there's Night Hawk himself, a dull singer, lifting whoever's gathered around off their feet with "Peter Gunn Jam," "Take It Easy, Baby" and "Back Off Jam," hitting notes the citizens don't suspect are there. But there is also an archaic, less obviously crowd-pleasing music, as if sneaking out of Chicago shacks like repressed memories: Arvella Gray's long "John Henry," merely a snippet of a song he could sing for hours; the James Brewer Gospel Group's "When the Saints Go Marching In," lifted up as if the hoary chestnut has been forgotten for 100 years and the sheet music has just been discovered under floorboards; and Fannie Brewer's "I Shall Overcome," the source of the civil rights anthem, here as real as a single body. "I'll see his face, today," Brewer promises the congregation she's made of the people gathered on the street to listen. "I do believe, I'll see his face someday." As music it's a smaller promise than the one she makes to herself as she ends her song: "I'll be alright, I'll be alright/I'll be alright someday."
The Barn Burners could be one of the white blues bands that were forming across town as Shea ran his tapes -- the material is not very different. It might be the same stuff Levon Helm of the Band was playing with his teenage Jungle Bush Beaters in Marvel, Ark., in 1958. More than 40 years later, Helm, his voice burned to a rasp by radiation treatments for throat cancer, sounds 100 years old but looks like Porter Wagoner; sitting behind his drums, he is the center of gravity in this six-piece combo, just as saxophonist Bobby Keys of Lubbock, Texas, said to have played with Buddy Holly, best known for his solo on the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar," is its face of nothing-to-prove. The two of them about 60, everyone else, including singer Amy Helm, about 30 -- it felt right. Every note was in place, but too often every note stayed in place. The musicians were drawing a blues picture; they weren't quite in it.
Frontman Chris O'Leary carries the group: With a huge shout to open "Hey Porter," a force-of-nature harmonica sound on "Wang Dang Doodle," his blocklike smiling face and linebacker's body, he generates what authority the group has, but they need more. Like O'Leary at his best, they have to trust the music to generate their authority. They are steps away.
6) 43rd Annual Grammy Awards (CBS, Feb. 21)
During the Barcelona Olympics, when synchronized swimming first became an official event, a sportswriter caught what was wrong: astonishing, he said, and "faintly repugnant." That was Destiny's Child, maybe because they might as well have been wearing swimsuits, because they move so well and because they seem so corporate. As the night went on, the parade of dyed blond hair, plastic surgery, bare midriffs and flattened stomachs that do not occur in nature turned sickening. No, neither Ricky Martin nor Britney Spears, who don't look even slightly human, took the stage, but they weren't needed. Disassociation ruled. Listening to best new Artist Shelby Lynne's album, the coldy formal re-creation of '60s soul music "I Am Shelby Lynne," you might have responded, "No, you're not -- from the evidence of this record, nobody is Shelby Lynne"; here, either duetting with Sheryl Crow or accepting her award, her attitude of bemused disdain didn't really square with the big "Please Buy My Breasts" sign she wore on her chest. Highlights: Discover Card's fabulous Danger Kitty commercial, a Los Angeles '80s hair band "Behind the Music" segment in under a minute, with nothing left out; the Jesus and Mary Chain smeared into the background of a Chevy commercial; the McDonald's commercial with Kobe Bryant and the "We Love to See You Smile" tag line, more money for Randy Newman, a regular on the Oscars, excluded from the Grammys; Macy Gray performing her overaired "I Try," sounding like an actual person in a sea of purple wigs, ending her spot sitting in a chair; Eminem's shockingly hard, heaving "Stan," which reached new territory as he took the voice of the crazed fan on a suicide run with his pregnant girlfriend screaming from the trunk of his car, the stakes raised high above any played for on record. It was shattering, and likely the strongest performance the show ever let itself in for.
7) James F. Smith, "Rebels on Rugged Road to Peace" (Los Angeles Times, carried in the San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 25)
On the beginning of the 2,000-mile Zapatista caravan from Chiapas to Mexico City to seek constitutional amendments expanding the rights of indigenous Mexicans: "Last night, surprised tourists mingled with hundreds of Zapatista supporters in front of San Cristobal's cathedral, waiting for the rebels. Roaming vendors sold small dolls of the Zapatistas, even T-shirts with a photo of [Subcommander] Marcos on the front and the words 'Zapatour 2001' on the back. 'This could be a Rolling Stones tour,' said Jack Jones, a 58-year-old visitor from Austin, Texas, who bought two of the shirts. "Somebody needs to support these people. What a great story for the 21st century.'"
8) Michael Janofsky, "For Ex-Student Protestor, a Pardon Without the Spotlight" (New York Times, Feb. 24)
Disgraceful as the pardons of Marc Rich, Pincus Green and the Hasidic swindlers may be, that the story has been trumpeted in mainstream media with far greater force than and sustained many times over that of the Supreme Court's nullification of the presidential election is an infinitely greater disgrace. Conspicuous by its absence, the purloined election is like the purloined letter: The fact and means of its erasure must be hidden in plain sight. Janofsky's piece on Bill Clinton's pardon of Howard Mechanic is a signal example of how it's done -- how one story is used to hide the other.
In 1970 Mechanic was given a five-year federal sentence for throwing a cherry bomb during an antiwar demonstration at Washington University in St. Louis -- an act he did not commit. He fled. After 28 years of hiding in plain sight in Phoenix as one Gary Robert Tredway, Mechanic was exposed and sent to prison. To little notice, as Clinton left office he granted Mechanic a pardon; nearly a month later, it becomes a story. "A path to freedom on the backs of ordinary citizens," announces the teaser box in the piece, the line matched in the second paragraph: "Mr. Mechanic walked a path to freedom on the backs of ordinary citizens, thousands of them." To "walk on the backs" of others is to exploit, traduce or oppress them -- who, one might wonder, are these thousands of ordinary Americans exploited, traduced or oppressed by Howard Mechanic? G.I.s in Vietnam in 1970, placed in even greater jeopardy by protesters undermining America's will to fight? Not exactly, as it turns out, seven paragraphs later: "Old friends in St. Louis and new ones in Arizona ... created a Web site to collect petition signatures -- nearly 3,000 at last count, said Bruce M. Rogers, a college classmate of Mr. Mechanic's -- and to urge supporters to contact elected officials." One would think such a fact would call for a characterization along the lines of "a path to freedom with the helping hands of ordinary citizens, thousands of them" -- but that would be to assume that the Times' treatment of the Mechanic story was about something other than keeping a very different story alive, until, presumably, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton take the place of Marc Rich, or Howard Mechanic, as fugitives from justice.
9/10) John Fahey, 1939-2001 (Feb. 22), and Jon Langford at Johnny Foley's (San Francisco, Feb. 22)
An acerbic man who suffered no fools, the experimental guitarist was his own equal as a writer. "It's great," he said of J.P. Nestor's 1927 recording of "Train on the Island." "But what is it?" Recalling Hank Williams' last concert in 1953 -- or, rather, making it up -- he caught what should have happened in "How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life," a book of fabulist autobiographical pieces he published last year: "First thing Williams did was curse and swear at us. 'Why dontcha all go home?' he yelled into the mike. 'I hate every damned one of ya.'" In Fahey's story it was just a setup for capturing a song: "At some point in the show he sang 'Alone and Forsaken' and while he did that many of us almost died of grief and fright."
Fahey calls it "the greatest song of despair ever written" and quotes the first line: "We met in the springtime." He makes you pause. "By the fifth word," he says, "you know it's all over."
It was by chance that Jon Langford of the Mekons, accompanied on Hawaiian guitar by Jon Rauhouse, closed a vibrant solo show with a harsh, syncopated version of "Alone and Forsaken." (The posthumously released 1949 original can be found on the recent Williams album "Alone With His Guitar," with cover art by Langford). Langford hadn't read Fahey's book; that song, that night, was chance. Sometimes the right time creates the right place.