A while back I was trying to write something about Karen Dalton, when it occurred to me that there are so many different stories out there, and stories that contradict those stories, the best approach might be to just use the words of people who knew her, sourced from as many places as I could find them — album liner notes, interviews, articles, scans of decades-old typewritten press releases and clippings, and the like. The idea was to try and arrange and edit everything so it reads in a linear way, with the least amount of exposition between quotes possible, in an effort to finally arrive at something close to the full story, if that’s even possible.
This is my attempt at doing that. My own additions and interjections are in italics.
Karen was born in 1937.
Karen grew up in Oklahoma. Her grandmother was a fiddle-playing, gospel-shouting baptist, and Karen grew up with musical family get-togethers. The fiddle was her first instrument, and her first guitar was a plywood Gene Autry model from the Sears Catalogue.
They say [she was] half-Cherokee, which is what she would always say, but it isn’t quite the truth. She did have some Cherokee blood in her — but according to her daughter, not enough to qualify for benefits.
ABRALYN BAIRD (KAREN’S DAUGHTER):
Her dad was a respected welder. Her mother was a nurse. Not terribly “Grapes of Wrath”.
1969 CAPITOL RECORD PRESS RELEASE:
Karen grew up in Oklahoma, left home to sing in Kansas City and San Francisco, and became the fourth member of a singing-songwriting pack whose other members were [Tim] Hardin, [Fred] Neil, and Dino Valenti. Individually and collectively, they peddled their wares to an uninterested music industry during the legendary pre-60s folk era, and starved with fellow musicians Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, John Sebastian, and others.
She was a tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky and sultry. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and she played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it. I sang with her a couple times.
It’s amazing how many musicians would go out of their way to play with her back then. She played with all the best people. All those people loved her and loved playing with her, but it wasn’t the kind of stuff the record labels were looking for.
1969 CAPITOL RECORDS PRESS RELEASE:
The way Karen tells it, she played every coffee house in the village and when she first met Dylan, he was only 17 and couldn’t play in some of the clubs she worked without lying about his age. Karen even formed a group called The Trio which featured Hardin on guitar but [the band] broke up when Karen married bassist Richard Tucker, the third member of the trio.
If you saw her on a stage in a small club and heard her voice, it was just awesome. My favourite was when she did blues, really slow. The slowest blues I ever heard in my life.
Karen had already been twice married and twice a mother by the time she was seventeen.
My mom was kinda headstrong. She wanted to get on with stuff. In most states then you could get permission to marry before you were sixteen; it wasn’t a total scandal or anything.
Karen was the first person I knew who was raising a child on the scene, the set, or whatever it was called at the time. Two years before Abby was born, she had a son named Lee, but Lee was raised by her mother Evelin. Abby had a reputation for being a very cool little girl.
It’s true that she did lose custody of Lee sometime before Abby was born, back in Oklahoma. I don’t know why exactly. That was before I knew her. But she had lost custody of him, and her mother raised him. She said she always sang [“Red Are the Flowers”] when she started thinking of her son. When he got old enough to be on his own, he and Karen got together, and they were living together most of the time after that, actually. I don’t know how much of that time Abby might have spent with them.
Karen lost custody of abby when she divorced her second husband, a literature professor. She reconciled with him, and then left him again — this time with Abby in tow.
Yeah, she took off with me. But remember, she was a nineteen-year-old girl. They had the same temperament, my mom and dad. They were very forthright. Quick to anger. Very stubborn.
LACY J. DALTON:
Her soul was very deep and powerful. She was tall, willowy, had straight black hair, was long-waisted and slender — what we all wanted to look like. [She had] a voice for the jaded ear. There’s a horn quality to it and her phrasing is exquisite. I once heard it described as cornmeal mush, but it’s more than that. When she sang about something, you believed her.
She was also missing two of her bottom teeth.
The man she was living with at [that] time, he came home and found her in bed with my soon-to-be stepfather. And yeah, and a fight ensued. And she got punched in the face. She always said, you know, when she got that big recording contract and became famous, she was going to have teeth put in.
1969 CAPITOL RECORDS PRESS RELEASE:
New York City was the marketplace where you could see the greatest things happen, if you could stand to hang around that long. Karen couldn’t, so she and Richard moved to Boulder, Colorado, gigged locally, and gradually became the social centre of a hip community that included Hardin (again), singer Judy Roderick and filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Back in New York, they forgot Karen “just because I disappeared”. What really happened was that it was great living in the mountains and even though the living was poor, everything was groovy. [But] not all of it. Richard had to trim trees to make a living. And Karen found herself working as a maid for $1.25 an hour. Part of the time it was for people in their homes, part of the time for a fraternity.
You think it’s temporary and…suddenly…it’s your life.
Karen and Abby, during those years, lived in a small series of cabins — typically renting for about $15 a month and furnished with objects such as an old rocking chair found in the trash and an old orange crate with a head of cabbage on it. But in typical Karen style, they were a perfect old rocking chair, a perfect orange crate, and a perfect head of cabbage — all in exactly the right place.
One morning I drove up to Karen’s and found her tearing out the wall between the cabin and the tool room built on the back of the cabin, and burning the wood in the wood stove. The roof of the tool shed was lower than the cabin ceiling, so Karen tore out the wood floor [and] burnt it in the stove too. She then carried stones up from the creek and made a stone floor so she would have enough head room to stand up in there, and turned the tool shed into her kitchen. I had never known another woman that would have or could have done that.
She was the only folksinger I ever met with an authentic “folk” background. She came to the folk music scene under her own steam, as opposed to being “discovered” and introduced to it by people already involved in it. By 1960, there were a number of young folksingers who had listened to folk music all their lives, but that was due to the academic, bohemian, professional, or political orientation of their parents. Karen was the real thing.
(from a 1971 Just Sunshine Records press release):
Karen is part of the generation of writers and musicians who came to The Village in the early sixties, and played at the pass-the-hat clubs, at the Gaslight, at the Bitter End when it was still called the Cock and Bull. That was in the days when Dylan had just arrived, when Tim Hardin, Dino Valenti, Fred Neil and the rest — and Karen Dalton, too — were all learning together, influencing each other. If it is not far from the truth that you had to be one of those people to know about Karen, it’s probably because she had a way of packing up and heading back to Texas or to Colorado, to spend a couple of years in the hills.
I like being alone. If you don’t like solitude then Colorado will drive you nuts. You can go for days without seeing anyone, when you don’t go out and nobody drops by. I like that.
Karen knew that she had to be in NYC to further her career, but she didn’t want her daughter in the public schools in NYC. So she would go to the city for a while and then retreat to the mountains to rejuvenate.
I first picked up on her one night in the Village at Cock and Bull, which later became the Bitter End. Her voice grabbed me immediately. She did “Blues on the Ceiling”, which is my song, with so much feeling that if she told me she had written it herself, I would have believed her.
1969 CAPITOL RECORDS PRESS RELEASE:
Neil, who had spoken of her to Capitol producer Nick Venet, found her in Boulder and asked her to audition for Venet in New York. Eight bars of Neil’s “A Little Bit of Rain” led to a recording contract.
Her voice is so unique that to describe it would take a poet. All I can say is that she sure can sing the shit out of the blues.
In 1969, Karen’s first studio album “It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best” (a line from blues singer Leroy Carr’s song “In the Evening”) was released. Stories have been circulating for years that she had to be tricked into recording it.
[That album] certainly never would have happened without the brilliant sneakiness of Nick Venet. Nick had wanted to work on a Karen Dalton record for quite some time, and he had made four previous attempts, which Karen had thwarted in one way or another. Finally, she was invited to a Fred Neil session and required to bring along her instruments. Nick asked if Karen could, as a personal favour, record Fred’s song “A Little Bit of Rain”, for his private collection. The ice was broken, and the rest of the album was recorded in a single session. Most of the cuts on this album were Karen’s first and only takes.
In the press release that went out with promotional copies of the album, Karen told a different story.
The album took three days, three separate sessions. We knew what we wanted and we went in and did [it]. I like it a lot and Nick Venet is a great producer. I’m happy with it. It shows how well I play the guitar.
There are also stories that Karen didn’t know she was being recorded until after the fact. It’s hard to say what the truth is. What everyone can agree on is that Karen was not at her most comfortable in a studio environment.
Like many instinctual musicians, Karen tended to freeze up in situations involving recording or playing for people in the industry. She did some harmonies with me on a Holy Modal Rounders album in 1972, and everyone had to wait over an hour for her to “prepare” herself, a complicated procedure which concluded with her ripping the bathroom sink off the wall.
She had a way of carrying herself and an aura about her of strength that made it surprising that somebody who had such a strong personality would get in a situation like a recording situation and be really shy and intimidated by the whole thing.
She didn’t like pressure. She was a very intimate performer. We didn’t have the word “stress” then.
One fan at the time was Cheech Marin. Seriously. Cheech.
Karen Dalton I heard when i was living in Vancouver and I was reviewing records, and this record came through, and I heard this voice. It was the most incredible voice I’d ever heard. I go, “I gotta find out some more about this woman.” When I came to LA and I was reviewing records for magazines here, I asked them. They said, “Who would you like to interview?” I said, “Karen Dalton.” [Surprised voice] “Oh…she…really? Karen Dalton?” So I knock on the door. They told her I was coming. It’s Karen Dalton. And I was looking for a place to stay at the time, ’cause I was getting kicked out of wherever I was, and they had a room there to rent out, and I rented the room. So I lived with Karen Dalton for maybe six months, and I got to see [her] up close. She’s the most incredible voice. And then there was this other person there that lived in the house named Jill Byrem, who later became Lacy J. Dalton [she took her stage name in tribute to Karen, who she saw as something of a mentor].
Karen never recorded any of her own songs. Though some people feel that hurt her career at a time when audiences wanted to hear singers perform original material, she felt more at home interpreting the songs of others.
Although she had written poetry for years, Karen never became a songwriter. But she gave everything she sang a singularly haunting, bluesy touch. Almost everyone used the same two words to describe her voice: Billie Holiday. I sometimes referred to her as Hillbilly Holiday, but never to her face. She didn’t like the comparison at all. I think she just happened to sound more like Billie Holiday than anyone else. Karen simply sounded like Karen.
She’d take some old blues song or spiritual you’d never heard before, and just make it devastating. It was all in her voice. And it worked in harmonies too.
She had an advanced understanding of time and phrasing. She knew she was going to get there eventually.
She wanted to pay tribute to the other people that she thought were great, and she wanted to do that before promoting herself.
She tended toward the more obscure, unknown songwriters, but occasionally she would take on something more familiar. Her version of the Walker Brothers’ pop hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”, which she did in an open guitar tuning, is one of the most stunning pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and I never cared much for the song during its top ten heyday.
(from a poem)
The singer strums a chord, and bends
the silent after-drum
into the singularity of my mind.
She picked up live gigs where she could. Things didn’t always go well.
In 1969, Michael Lang, one of the organizers of the Woodstock festival, lined her up a European concert tour opening for Santana, of all people. She had a stellar backup band and great support, but she was difficult to travel with. By the end of the tour, she had missed at least one date by simply refusing to come out of her dressing room.
She didn’t have much of an act at all; she didn’t get up there and try to entertain like most people did. Her music was, of course, some kind of communication, but she didn’t get up there and talk very much or anything like that. She just sang. And she had quite a bullshit detector. She didn’t care much for bullshit and bullshitters, and that’s most of what you get. That’s pretty much the world she had to live in, and she just wasn’t commercially oriented at all. She was real laid back, and shy, actually. She was a really strong woman, but in a lot of ways, she was shy. It was just a foreign thing to her to go out there and say, “Hey, I’m great.”
Before we went on this European trip, she bought me a guitar. After that trip, she went back to Woodstock and was trying to get another band together. She invited me to join her, and after several weeks with nothing happening, I started saying, “When are we gonna rehearse?” I had to leave because I had a life elsewhere, but she didn’t want me to leave. After I got back, she called me up in the middle of the night and demanded that I send her the guitar back. I sent it back and never spoke to her again.
The album sunk without a trace, given no promotional push by Capitol Records. Her second studio album was released in 1971 on a different label. It was called “In My Own Time” — as perfect a title as you could give a Karen Dalton record.
Fall, 1970, Mike Lang is in the process of putting together his record company, and hears that Karen [is] out of her earlier record contract. Fred Neil calls to tell her to expect Michael’s call. Karen’s mother once saw a picture of Lang and thinks he looks like Jesus, so she approves. Karen talks to Harvey Brooks (another of the old gang — he played bass on her first album), and she comes into Woodstock to do some demos, with Harvey as producer. She went back to Enid, Oklahoma, to pick up her two teenage kids (Lee and Abby), her dog (Shalom, a poodle-chihuahua), and her horse (who shall remain nameless).
This trip to New York was the first one for my son. I told him it was a lot different from LA but when we got off the plane and stood on the bus and saw all those cemeteries you pass on the way into the city, it just blew his mind. I don’t blame him. I think that shit is worse than air pollution. The Indians used to just bury their dead in a tree. Just put them up in a tree and soon there’s nothing.
The process was very different this time around. The album was recorded over a period of six months.
The fact that she wasn’t a writer meant that we really had to create something for her. It was a lot of work, because her emotional personality had to be dealt with every step of the way, and respected. This was a folk-rock record that tilted towards pop, and on pop records you concentrate on getting the performance out of someone. On folk records you accept what it is. With pop, you have to work the singer. So I worked her. It took some cajoling, but she let me do it, and she liked the idea of the more pop-sounding record. But she made sure that she had “Katie Cruel” on there.
She wanted to have her sound. That’s what they told her they wanted to hear. And then she’d get in a recording studio, and they’re like, well, we’ll just add a couple of tracks to this. And she’s like, no! You know, she’d get — just get furious. my mother was the kind of person who would scream at bank tellers.
The musicians on the back cover are very well known to regular readers of back covers. She does a Valenti song, a Butterfield song, a Richard Manuel song, several blues standards and traditional songs. Her next album will include several she’s written herself.
There was no “next album”.
Always brutally honest, she never went out of her way to ingratiate herself, and she nonetheless expected the whole world to acknowledge her musical brilliance. Unfortunately, that attitude only works after one has become very famous. She disliked performing almost as much as she loved music. She once told me that, in a perfect world, she wouldn’t ever have to be onstage. She could just play music with friends in her living room and (magically) there would be a large audience, rapt, silent, and enthralled, which Karen could then completely ignore.
Her music was so personal that she couldn’t just put it out there the way most performers can. She knew how talented she was. I think she longed for the kind of recognition she’s only beginning to get now. All these home attempts at recording that we’ve begun to gather from various sources represent her interest in her own music. But she didn’t have the personality to be able to follow through, so these private tapes are like her dreams of what she wanted. That living room was her only real comfort zone
It just didn’t work out for her. For some people it’s just like that; they give, but they don’t get. And it just broke her heart. After that, she couldn’t get her life together, and in the music business you have to be able to promote your product. That album didn’t sell, and nobody was gonna put the money up to make another.
She wasn’t seen as very commercial. The people in charge didn’t get it.
She had a lot of success as a musician. She just didn’t have any commercial success. She got probably $20,000 for that second record. That’s not a lot of money, especially for someone who’d been broke for such a long time. I’m sure that didn’t last a long time at all. And the only other income she had was from singing in coffee houses, and stuff like that.
She continued to play the odd live show for a year or two. The fear of performing and unwillingness to do things at anything other than her own speed and in anything other than her own way persisted.
I know she got fired from one gig for sitting and tuning too long. She wasn’t gonna play if it wasn’t in tune, but sometimes it takes a while to tune a twelve-string guitar. And back then there were lines of people waiting to come and play for nothing, just passing the hat, you know? So there was a lot of competition.
In the early ’70s I was proud and happy to be a member of her backup band, but an unfortunate pattern emerged. We would rehearse madly for a couple of weeks, and on the night of the gig, Karen would be too exhausted to get out of bed. And there she’d stay.
(from a review of a November 1971 live performance at New York’s Gaslight Au Go Go)
[Karen is] a blues singer who picks the dust of ruins for traces of dreams without bothering to refine the raw or real for those who prefer their blues polished and protected. Her cry comes in an inside, subterranean and colourless language, pulled from the hollow, the hell-hole where the blues are incubated. Applause for her short set only drove her from the boiling Gaslight platform, her two guitars crashing into each other in her confusion for something missing.
Not much is known about her life over the next twenty years.
(lyrics from the song “Katie’s Been Gone”, written about Karen)
Katie’s been gone,
and now her face is slowly fading from my mind.
She’s gone to find some newer places.
Left the old life far behind.
don’t you miss your home?
I don’t see why you had to roam.
(from a poem)
In reflection the singer seeks only own eyes,
reaching away memories,
the whale buoyant, curving suspended
huge flesh of life, breathing begin and stop,
first and done.
LACY J. DALTON:
She was of the old Beat generation that felt you had to be burning the candle at both ends and dying of hunger to call yourself an artist. I’ve always called them canaries in the coal mine, because they were in some ways hypersensitive to what was going on in the world. They were expressing their feelings of powerlessness and they felt they should live, do drugs, drink, whatever, to take the pain away.
I only knew her as an addicted personality. She had drug problems the whole time I knew her. She had a painful personality and I think she did drugs to soothe the pain.
She had drug problems, and, you know, that can slow you up a lot…and it did slow her up a lot.
I knew her for – what? Thirty years? And I never saw her take any dope. I never saw her with a needle in her arm. She’d maybe smoke a little pot or have a beer, but beyond that I never saw any drug-taking, drug-buying — none of it. And I spent a lot of time with her. That’s an assumption that people make based on rumour and because the rumour get legs, it’s assumed that it’s fact. Like all of us from that generation, she had a private life and she experimented. What she experimented with and how far it went, I don’t know. I don’t know what she did at night in her bedroom. Or what she did with her life when I didn’t see her. Whatever she did, it was private, and it certainly wasn’t who or what she was.
[We had a] very tumultuous relationship. Karen was strong-willed but she wasn’t self-confident. There was a fragility there. I remember having an argument in the middle of Denver and me getting out of the car and walking away and never seeing her again.
LACY J. DALTON:
You could never take anything for granted with Karen, even her love. When she granted it, it was not given lightly. She was judicious with her affections, and knew who she was.
I’ve noticed something obvious that I missed all the years I knew her: she had always been what we now call clinically depressed, and that may have been the main factor that fuelled her extreme and obsessive need for drugs and alcohol.
I don’t remember Karen being a depressive person. You know, what was going on in this world was enough to depress anybody. Also, of course, I know she was frustrated by her lack of recognition and success. And it was hard for her to do much about that. All those things added up. And I think what was happening to our planet affected her more than most people. So it wasn’t just her personal life, and anyway, I don’t think she was more depressed than just about anybody else who was living in poverty, broke and hungry most of the time. It’s not a real happy existence for a lot of people.
Her response to being saved from an apparent overdose during these “lost” years, if it’s true, is telling.
LACY J. DALTON:
She called me up after [I called the ambulance] and she said, “I guess it’s been three weeks. It’s taken me this long to call and say I guess I oughtta thank you for something.” She was furious at me for bringing her back.
The last performance I ever saw her do was at the Joyous Lake in Woodstock. It must have been the early ’80s. She was trying to get her shit together and she was in fragile but functional form, so the owner of the place, Ron, went around all the tables, shaking his fist in the noses of everybody in the audience and saying, ‘I don’t wanna hear any wisecracks, any talking or any sound while this lady is performing.’ So, that was the sort of feeling that Karen inspired in people.
As with her music and the earlier parts of her life, different people tell different stories about her final days.
LACY J. DALTON:
We got her guitars out of the pawnshop, we got her damn cat from Pennsylvania, and we got her on a plane to Texas. There was a recording session set up for her for when she’d finished [rehab]. She called me when she got there. She said, “I oughtta stick my cowboy boot up your ass! One of us oughtta change her name. Get me a plane ticket home now!” I said, “Karen, stay long enough to get your teeth fixed.” But what I didn’t realize at the time was that her teeth [were] how she was getting access to codeine. And so she went back to New York and died on the streets a year later.
The last time I saw her was probably about the mid-70s sometime. I did talk to her in the early ’90s, I think a few months before she died. I don’t know exactly how long before.
Towards the end of her life, when she was too sick to do music anymore, she told [a friend] that music had been the only way she could relate to other people, and now she had to find some other way to do it. I don’t know if she ever did.
(from a poem)
The singer strings a song
some window reflecting my eyes
A feather flight, dreamfloating my heart away
hanged in space, a white cloud
torn on winds of birdwings.
I guess you’ve read all the stuff about her dying homeless on the streets of New York? Well, I’d like to correct that. That isn’t true. She was actually staying in a house owned by Peter Walker — a guitar player who lives up in Woodstock — and he also has a place in New York. She was staying at his house — had been for quite some time. She was there when I got ahold of her. And, she told me, matter-of-factly when I called her, that she was “staying in this cabin this guy got me to croak in”. Those were her words. We chatted and all that. Her son Lee was with her, taking care of her. And, actually, when she passed away, Peter Walker was with her in the room, and he didn’t realize she’d gone for a while. Anyway, [that’s] a little bit of a different story than the one you usually hear.
She was perfectly functional mentally. She was living in Hurley, in upstate New York between Kingston and Woodstock. She lived with AIDS for more than eight years, but with an excellent quality of life considering the disease.
Regardless of what the truth is about her drug use and supposed periods of homelessness, it would be a mistake to paint her as nothing more than another drug casualty, as some writers have.
LACY J. DALTON:
The thing I remember most about her is a certain gentle warmth and, in her best moments, a sort of cleanness that you don’t see very often in this world. She was a wonderful cook, and she could make anything grow. She was magical.
She was really intelligent and really well-read. I mean, our house was always full of books. She knew what was going on in the world. She knew, you know, how things worked. She knew literature, the whole bit. When people approached her as being the stupid farm girl from Oklahoma, it could really piss her off in a hurry.
Karen was a paradox. She thought of herself on a really high level. She considered herself great, which she was. But she didn’t approach things that way. She approached things as if she felt the opposite. I’ve known people who weren’t good, but they had complete confidence. Because they could do their not-so-good thing with such confidence, they had long careers. Karen was a strong person, a strong personality and artist, but there was an inner fragility that I can’t begin to explain to you. And I was married to her.
Only those who jammed with Karen in completely recreational circumstances know how talented [she] could be. Karen and Hunt Middleton shared a loft on 33rd and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan during the ’70s and ’80s. One evening when I was there playing with them, we were joined by Perry Robinson, who dropped over after a gig with Dave Brubeck, Victor Ortez (a Cuban conga player from the lower east side who had once played with Tito Puente), Gino Biando (who brought his double bass from his regular gig with the American Symphony Orchestra), Chris Anderson (a blind piano genius who had taught Herbie Hancock, and whose life Karen had once saved, but that’s another story), and rock/fusion drummer Frank Steo (who had played with Larry Coryell). Everyone’s common bond was that they loved playing with Karen.
I can still see her in my mind, sitting in her rocking chair with that longneck banjo, rocking back and forth playing.
LACY J. DALTON:
I think her time is coming now, because people are fed up [with] slick, over-produced voices. And this old world is not a child any more. We need the truth. It doesn’t need to be in words. It needs to be in delivery.
CIRCUS MAGAZINE, JULY 1971:
[Karen] speaks quietly when she [talks]. She’s not saying [these things] for anyone to hear especially, just ’cause they’re true.
Why do you think you have to sing so loud? If you want to be heard, you have to sing softer.
So there’s that.
A few more thoughts:
Karen could play the hell out of the acoustic twelve-string guitar and a longneck banjo someone (maybe her) carved from a bedpost. Her career was over before she was much older than thirty, but it’s easy to guess at what she might have sounded like as an older woman. She already sounded ancient when she was in her early twenties — and in a sense, given how much she’d lived in such a short time, she was.
Her dark muted trumpet of a voice imbued everything she sang with a gravity most voices with wider ranges and prettier tones never get close to. Listening to her sing Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” after growing up hearing Rod Stewart’s famous cover version on the radio is a revelation. Maybe the reason she disliked performing so much (unless it was in a living room with friends, or alone, where she felt in her element) was because she didn’t know how to perform in any artificial way. She didn’t sing songs. She lived them, for as long as they took to sing.
Hers is a rare case where I would recommend the albums that have been released since her passing over the two that came out while she was alive. On In My Own Time, something about the arrangements has never quite sat right with me. It’s as if the producer and the other musicians are trying to pull things in a more radio-friendly direction, and Karen’s voice and personality won’t be bent that way, so what you get is a weird middle ground that doesn’t always work.
When it does work, it’s fantastic. “Something on Your Mind” might be the single best example of what she could have sounded like with a sympathetic full-time band behind her. But I think trying to turn her into an upbeat soul singer was a mistake. It says something that the songs where she’s practically alone with either her longneck banjo (“Katie Cruel” and “Same Old Man”) or her twelve-string (just the closing track; her guitar-playing is barely heard throughout the album) stand out by miles and miles.
It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best is much more like her, and that was my introduction to her voice. I’m a little proud to say I got into Karen before Devendra Banhart (who was aping her singing style, which for her wasn’t a style but just the way she sang, pretty hardcore for a while there) and Nick Cave and Bobby Dylan started name-dropping her and she became “cool”. I read a tiny sidebar in a magazine that mentioned her, tracked down the 1997 reissue of It’s So Hard (before it was reissued a second time), and it blew me away.
But it’s on the live album Cotton Eyed Joe and the home recordings Green Rocky Road and 1966 that she comes into full focus for the first time, playing and singing for herself, by herself (1966 features some duets with Richard Tucker, but otherwise it’s all Karen on her own). She slips into this gripping “dark night of the soul” thing on some songs, like in her weightless, mournful version of Ray Charles’s “It’s Alright”, and it’s a thing I’ve only ever heard one other singer swim around in. That was Tim Buckley in 1969 and 1970, on songs like “Anonymous Proposition”. Maybe it’s an acoustic-twelve-string-guitar-playing, indescribable-voice-having thing. I don’t know.
Have a listen:
The strangest thing is that all these recordings, made on Joe Loop’s reel-to-reel tape machine, predate both of her studio albums. The latest of them was recorded when she was still in her twenties. And yet she already sounds fully-formed. If anything, her range is revealed to be much wider than anyone would have guessed based on either of her “proper” studio albums.
In a DVD that’s available in a few reissued album packages (I got it with Cotton Eyed Joe), you can see some footage of her playing and singing. Seeing her smile to herself, eyes closed, immersed in the music, you realize that as sad as some of the songs she chose to sing were, there was joy in that music for her. She knew who she was as an artist and what she wanted to do long before she set foot in a recording studio. She just wanted to do it on her own terms, in her own time.
Supposedly there’s more material that might see the light of day at some point, including a recording of that Walker Brothers song, presumed lost forever until some vault-combing for a documentary about radio pioneer Bob Fass uncovered two performances Karen gave on his show that no one knew about, one in 1976, the other in 1980. In most cases my feelings about posthumous releases are mixed and medium-cynical at best. Not so this time. I say bring it on. The more of Karen’s music there is in the world, the better off we’ll all be.
(Update: For years the story has been that Karen never wrote a song of her own. Turns out that isn’t true after all, because now we’ve got a book of lyrics, poems, and writings of Karen’s published by friend-til-the-end Peter Walker, and an album called “Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton”, which features a host of female artists giving voice to her lost songs, “Mermaid Avenue” style. It’s worth picking up just for the opening title track, sung by Sharon Van Etten. If I hear a more beautiful song than that anytime soon, I’ll eat my own invisible hat.)