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ESSAY: Which Would You Pick?

Pick two. Two tracks that would satisfy everything you need from Joni Mitchell or Elvis Costello or, better yet, Lady Day. Just two. You can't hedge on this. You have to narrow it down. And it's not two albums or two concerts. It's two tracks. Seven minutes of music that does it all. "Chelsea Morning" and "A Case of You." "Human Hands" and "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)." Or maybe it's "God Bless the Child" twice on a slow repeat. Then toss everything else out—everything—as if it had never existed in a kind of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind amnesia. Just two.

You can't, not because Charlie Kaufman only dreamed the dream, but because you know instinctively that singling out those two tracks would weigh them down with an almost unbearable sense of loss. You'd never be able to listen to them. Even without knowing what might have been, you'd hear the promise. You do it now with Lennon or Joplin or Nick Drake, even when there's more than enough from each of them to keep you happy. You do it with Holiday.

So imagine if you had only the two, if there really was no knowing and only that gnawing sensation of what might have been. And imagine if the voice in those tracks carried the same kind of aching loss you're feeling yourself. That would make it even more unfair. That would make it the music of Mattie Delaney.

In 1930, Delaney stepped up to a microphone and recorded two three-minute tracks. There wasn't much to the songs, a simple blues progression, a guitar. The subject matter was interesting—at least that's what the music experts will tell you—songs about real people, real events. She was topical, that was different, and she was a woman. That was different, too. The voice had the same brightness that Ella would one day smooth into honey and Holiday would grind into sand. She kept her guitar loose—strung so her fingers could dig in deep and let the pitch slide. And she gave her voice a crackle when it all became too much: "Going to pack my suitcase/Go back to Tennessee/For this Tallahatchie River/Done got the best of me."

Delaney was good, so good she was signed to a label. And then, without any explanation, she disappeared. Not into the deep haze of booze and drugs or back to the small-town squalor of Tchula. Those at least you could chart and say, "I've seen that before," and, "Oh, what a shame." Just gone. She gets a nifty little question mark next to the year of her death, not even public records to set it straight.

So all you have are the two tracks and that voice and the future beyond them and the unimaginable emptiness, which hollows you out each time you listen. I suppose it could be fun to play a game of historical what-if, find the pieces or simply invent them, but that wouldn't change a thing. You'd never find a way to make yourself feel satisfied with just the two.

And which would I pick? I suppose I'd have to go with Elvis since this is all Mississippi driven. "Almost Blue" and "Painted from Memory."

Damn. Wrong Elvis. I told you you couldn't get it right.


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