Oh Susanna’s 2001 Sleepy Little Sailor gets a deluxe re-issue with four acoustic re-visits and one newly covered tune.
But first, for the initiate, Oh Susanna is the nom de plume for Canadian folk singer Suzie Ungerleider. Good choice! Now, I’ve nothing against ungainly names (check my own by line), but I much prefer to buy an album by John Martyn than Iain (David) McGeachy! But thankfully, because the truth sometimes is much better than fiction, fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot was, is, and will always be just that – Gordon Meredith Lightfoot, or just Gordy to his childhood friends. And, for the record, I have no idea who the heck Edmund Fitzgerald was, much less if it was the guy’s real name. [The Edmund Fitzgerald was a Great Lakes freighter that sank on Lake Superior in 1975. But I reckon you did know that, Bill. – Ed]
But to the original album: True confession time, I own two versions of the original album (on the Stella and Catamount labels), so I am a fan. That said, Sleepy Little Sailor is a brilliant well-rounded folk record. Susanna’s rich vocals have been compared to Dolly Parton, Niko Case, and Patty Griffin. Sure. Sure. Sure. But I will add to all compliments and just say her voice is somewhere between Kacy Chambers and Stevie Nicks (with different magic!) on a broad palette of Americana folk sound colours.
The title tune, ‘Sleepy Little Sailor’, plays vocal poker with full house hand. The very acoustic song conjures the magic of Kate Bush, circa Lionheart. This music is personal, and the melody is a sweet pulse rate for any listener’s heartbeat. And (just an idea) this is a very different vibe from the more sepia country blues rock of her pretty great Johnston album.
There are more singer-songwriter songs. ‘River Blue’ is even better, with a big melodic chorus, electric guitar, percussion, and Susanna’s dramatic voice. The lyrics probe sibling psychology with words that try “to remind me how things used to be/when we were just two happy little kids”. The big chorus is a deep biopsy into the heart of trust betrayed that must “face the secret you were forced to keep”. Oddly, the ambiguity of the lyric (which includes abuse) only amplifies the tragedy. In total contrast, ‘Kings Road’ (not listed in the song titles on the 2001 Catamount release!) is upbeat, and to quote (the great) Robert Palmer, “simply irresistible”, while the lyric talks of “hopin’ and praying/for the rest of my days’. The song even references one Johnny Rotten (he, of course, of Sex Pistols and PIL fame!) It’s a great big softball toss of a tune. Then, the acoustic guitar plucked ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ is a quiet and quite desperate introspection on lost love. Once again, the beauty of the tune belies its sad confession.
But then the album deepens its grooves and touches gritty art. ‘All That Remains’ cuts into the blood of seldom written history. Sorry about all the quotes, but Oh Susanna sings the profounds words from a slave’s point of view that “Now the limbs of a tree/beckon to me” and “Now you can’t be no saint/no sinner, no lamb/when the devil himself/says you ain’t worth a damn”. And, “fight for what’s right/is all that remains”. Our Suzie Ungerleider can write a tough tune.
Billie Holiday’s “strange fruit” still hangs in history.
And (ouch!) there’s more darkness: ‘Beauty Boy’ gets psychological again, with a spooky piano framed vocal that tears the bandage off a relationship that is consumed in the destructive fires of selfishness, and a declaration that “you will never own me”. And then, ouch (again!) as ‘Sacrifice’ dips into dark honesty that, sometimes, like a passionate mirror, only reflects the truth that “you won’t sacrifice for me”. The tough (and eerie) tune bleeds with haunted abandoned love. The planet Venus is always radiant, yet it spins forever in such a distant orbit. The song clutches at that sad distance. Then ‘Forever At Your Feet’ slows time with more quiet piano and violin, and it conjures an intensely medieval devotion to love.
A curio: Blue Rodeo alert – ever-faithful Bazil Donovan co-writes the music to this song and plays bass throughout the album.
Now, in contrast, two songs pulse with country soul that recalls the tough tinted sound of her Johnstown album. The Otis Redding cover of ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’ flips Susanna’s vocals into full Nashville mode, which bleeds a raw and full frontal emotion. And ‘Ted’s So Wasted’ gets a steel guitared and Nashville twanged sweet honky-tonked treatment. Both songs are a bit out of place, yet thankfully, provide a nice change in the weather.
And then, there’s the “big huge” wallop of ‘Ride On’. It’s a ten-minute (glorious) plus emotive eerie (sort of) ballad that throws bits of a smokey imagery that suggests (like a conversation from one ghost to another) tragedy that walks in shackled and bluesy beauty. It’s a (somewhat) surreal concoction of Faulkner-like symbolic psychological imagery. There is “a hospital of slot machines” and “ten thousand shooting stars shining down on you”. This is slow motion pathos, that despite the streamed conscience and enigmatic lyric, still manages to sing, in the very end, “ride on”. In a way, the song has the same tangential strange everything is symbolic or metaphoric “shoot the moon” vibe as Neil Young’s weird ‘Last Train To Tulsa’ (without, thankfully, any palm trees getting hurt!) from his first album or Phil Ochs’ Tape From California’s ‘When In Rome’. These are words in motion that continue to spin (and “ride on“) long after the final grooves have circled into silence.
Of course, there’s bonus re-issue stuff that is really cool. Five songs, ‘Sleepy Little Sailor’, ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Beauty Boy’, ‘Kings Road’, (plus Hank Williams’ ‘You Win Again’) have been recorded in their acoustic purity, which only accentuates the melodies. And, (just so you know) in conjunction with this re-issue, those first four songs have been released as singles, each with a really clever “hand-drawn behind the scenes video”, (on you tube!) which adds insight into its meaning.
All that said, the songs on Sleepy Little Sailor are glances into the night sky, a sky filled with immense darkness and small bits of starry light, bits that fuse together into stories and songs. Perhaps, as my friend, Kilda Defnut often says, “One day, hydrogen somehow became helium; Henry Ford invented the Model T; and then we all pretty much became addicted to cable news. And the rest is history”. Our Suzi (Oh Susanna) Ungerleider does something like that (minus the TV stuff): She sings deep star hydrogen words that float like helium, yet still drive the dirt and sometimes dark roads on any human highway. And, indeed, if the truth be told, “the rest” really “is history”.
Artist’s website: https://www.ohsusanna.com/
Back to 2001. ‘Kings Road’ – live on TV: