AmericanA to Z: Karen Dalton

Many artists go unrecognised in their lifetimes. Some of them end up with a “cult” following, and some end up with such a huge weight of myth surrounding them that their music often fails to live up to the hype. The obvious exception to this is Judee Sill, whose two magical albums surpass all expectations. If the film of her life currently in production is a success, then the next subject for a movie could well be Karen Dalton. The parallels between them are obvious. Two albums of sublime music, a history of substance abuse and rubbish relationships, and a tragic and slightly mysterious end.

While Sill’s musical legacy still needs some polishing, Dalton has had the sumptuous box set treatment earlier this year. Martin Johnson’s review of  ‘The Recording Is The Trip – The Karen Dalton Archives’ here on AUK described it as “some of the best music of its time and genre”. Given that Dalton’s time and place was Greenwich Village in the 60s, this is high, but well-deserved praise. Café Wha? was the jumping off point for the careers of Dylan, Fred Neil & Tim Hardin, all of whom she played with. Like Sill with Laurel Canyon, Dalton has become typecast as a part of that New York folk scene. Dalton’s recording career began with ‘It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best’ in 1969. A mix of songs from her Greenwich Village contemporaries and other material stretching back to 1940 with Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘Sweet Substitute’. If this album had been released three years earlier it would probably have been a hit, as it was it sank without trace. This was despite songs of the quality of Hardin’s ‘How Did the Feeling Feel to You’. Much is made of the similarity of Dalton’s voice to Billie Holliday’s, but the style of her best songs has as much to do with her 12-string guitar as her voice. The closing song of her first album, Leadbelly’s ‘Down on the Street (Don’t You Follow Me Down)’ adds a totally unnecessary electric guitar that overwhelms both her voice and her other instrument, the long neck Pete Seeger style banjo.

Dalton’s second album ‘In My Own Time’ was issued in 1971 and was a far more polished affair. More diverse instrumentation including brass and a violin on traditional folk song ‘Katie Cruel’ that with hindsight turns into a lament for Dalton’s own life. “When I first came to town, they brought me the bottles plenty; now they’ve changed their tune, they bring me the bottles empty.” On both her albums she recorded covers of soul hits. On ‘In My Own Time’ ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ is not a success, the song simply doesn’t fit her voice. Holland, Dozier, Holland’s ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)’ is far more successful, taken as a shuffle rather than simply copying the “soul” arrangement.  The best songs on the album by far are Richard Manuel’s ‘In a Station’ and Paul Butterfield’s ‘In My Own Dream’. The George Jones/Tammy Wynette hit ‘Take Me’ and ‘Are You Leaving for the Country’ written by Dalton’s husband Richard Tucker point the way to where her work may have gone if Capitol records hadn’t dropped her after the failure of ‘In My Own Time’. Pedal steel guitar complemented her voice well, and she could easily have found a home alongside Maria Muldaur and Linda Ronstadt as a darling of the folk, country and americana scene that was forming around the time she was let go by her label.

The later life descent into problems with her family and substance abuse before her death in 1993 from an AIDS-related illness, distracts from her music. Included with the recent box set and available as standalone albums are several post Capitol sets of recordings. They mostly sound like Dalton recording for her own interest rather than an audience. They are not always easy listening but are very much an authentic voice blending many American music traditions, blues, Jazz, Country, and Soul into her background in the folk music of the early sixties. On her first album Dalton recorded a song credited to Fred Neil called ‘Blues on the Ceiling’, which is really a retread of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Never Get Out of These Blues Alive’. And that could be her epitaph, but on the journey she left some affecting interpretations of songs across the whole range of American song. Like her contemporary Judee Sill she is a voice that each generation should seek out and appreciate for what her singing and playing tell us about the human spirit’s ability to turn tragedy into uplifting music.

Selected Discography

‘It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best’ (1969)
‘In My Own Time’ (1971)
‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ (2007) (recorded live in 1962)
‘Green Rocky Road’ (2008) Recorded at home circa 1962-63
1966 (2012). Best of the “unreleased” recordings

About Tim Martin 247 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.
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Excellent reading Tim and you set someone up very nicely for a Judee Sill piece!