Karen Dalton - Biography
Among all of the folk singers, eccentrics, and wannabes of the early 60s Greenwich Village scene, Karen Dalton was the shining light, the real deal. She possessed a coarse, raspy performance idiom, along with a heavy burden of personal demons, and while comparisons with Billie Holiday are inevitable, Dalton’s voice ultimately resonates with distinct significance and total clarity. She ran with the Holy Modal Rounders and their cantankerous leader Pete Stampfel, who writes of her: “She was the only folk singer 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.” In his biography, Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan recounts an encounter with Dalton when he first arrived in New York City. He was transfixed. "My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. She was a tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky, and sultry. [She] played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it. I sang with her a couple of times." Dalton was an authentic in every sense, proficient on folk banjo and 12-string blues guitar, and far too entwined with stage fright, substance abuse, orneriness, and outright dysfunction to ever score big-time success, and she recorded too little, and too late. And despite all of that, fifty years after her prime, her voice still resonates.
Born in 1937, Karen Dalton came from hardscrabble Enid, Oklahoma, but biographic details are scarce and murky. She never had a thirst for the limelight, and preferred performing in intimate settings. Dylan first heard her in a bar in the Colorado Rockies; in later years, she would play for drinks rather than mainstream accolades. Her sound was expressive and intense, but she shied away from the studio, and her first album – she only issued two in her lifetime – was made after hours, on a pretext. Veteran producer and Capitol Records A&R man Nik Venet (he recorded everyone from Sam Cooke to Frank Zappa) was smitten, and coaxed Dalton into the studio to record a version of a Fred Neil song, then rolled tape while she traipsed through enough material to comprise an album. It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best (1969 Capitol) features songs by Jelly Roll Morton, Booker T. Jones, Leadbelly, and Tim Hardin. It wasn’t widely popular. It should have been recorded and released at the beginning of the decade, when it would have made an impact; by 1969 performers were expected to write their own material, and with the rise of the singer/songwriter, Dalton’s approach was perceived as passé.
Dalton’s second album is more highly regarded. In My Own Time (1971 Paramount) was arranged and produced by Harvey Brooks (he played bass on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisted and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew), with contributions by experienced session players, including Bill Keith, Amos Garrett, and John Simon. Dalton’s vocalizing is extraordinary. She twists and turns and undulates, wringing out emotive nuance and crushing moments of desire and despair. After this album, she faded away into a fog of alcohol and drug abuse, living on the streets of New York, and eventually contracting AIDS. She passed in 1993. Fortunately there are recent and crucial additions to the Karen Dalton discography: In 2007, Delmore pulled out all the stops with a series of live recordings from 1962. Cotton Eyed Joe: The Loop Tapes / Live in Boulder 1962 (2007 Delmore) is a lavish double-disc set with a DVD that contains her only known performance footage; it firmly establishes Dalton as a strident voice in American blues. This was followed promptly by Green Rocky Road (2008 Delmore), which contains a series of home recordings from 1962. In the liner notes of current editions of her various albums, Dalton’s belated influence is articulated by the likes of Nick Cave, Devendra Banhart, and Lenny Kaye, but folk legend Fred Neil probably says it best: “She sure can sing the shit out of the blues.”