[JPL] The best singer you've never heard of
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Mon Mar 26 08:02:57 EDT 2007
The best singer you've never heard of
Bob Dylan was a big fan, like most of those who heard the late, great
vocalist. Now, 14 years after her death, Karen Dalton's time has come. By
Friday March 23, 2007
'Karen's voice is a voice for the jaded ear; a combination of Billie
Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Jeannie Ritchie, the Appalachian singer." The
country singer Lacy J Dalton is on the line from Nevada, trying to put into
words the voice of Karen Dalton, whose surname she adopted in tribute.
"There's a horn quality to it and her phrasing is exquisite," she says. "I
once heard it described as cornmeal mush, but it's more than that. When she
sang about something, you believed her."
Dalton is the great lost voice of the New York's Greenwich Village folk
scene in the 1960s. Hers was a voice to make the listener feel sad and lost.
At times it was warm and supple, rippling over Something on Your Mind, for
example; at others it was twisted and other-worldly, as when wrapped around
Katie Cruel. It was a voice that earned her the tag "folk music's answer to
Billie Holiday" - a comparison she loathed, but which was inevitable,
Dalton's voice possessing that same welling, bluesy sadness. "She sure can
sing the shit out of the blues," is how another singer on the Greenwich
Village scene, Fred Neil, put it.
Dalton died in 1993, but you can see her now on YouTube, standing stock
still, long black hair parted in the centre, her lower two front teeth
missing, that voice seeming to rise up out of nowhere.
Despite her talent, Dalton has remained largely unknown, a cult favourite
whose name is muttered like a secret handshake: Nick Cave labelled her his
"favourite female blues singer". She has inspired Joanna Newsom and Devendra
Banhart, as well. As the great folk revival wagon rolls on, Dalton, too, is
starting to become known beyond a coterie of musicians. Her first record,
It's So Hard to Tell You Who's Going to Love You the Best (1969), was
rereleased last year, and was followed recently by her second and final
album, In My Own Time (1971). It is a strange and bewitching record. That it
was made at all is as remarkable as the fact that it has now been reissued.
Dalton turned up in Greenwich Village in the early 60s. She had left behind
her husband in Enid, Oklahoma, and arrived with her 12-string guitar, a
banjo and at least one of her two children. She began to sing at the
pass-the-hat folk venues that were flourishing at the time and played with
Bob Dylan, Fred Neil and Richard Tucker. Dylan recalls her as "funky, lanky
and sultry". "My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton," he
remembers in Chronicles. "Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday's and played
the guitar like Jimmy Reed."
Lacy J Dalton rented out a room to Karen and her boyfriend, and they became
firm friends. Karen served as a mentor to the younger singer, teaching her
to speak songs, not sing them. "Why do you think you have to sing so loud?"
she once told Lacy. "If you want to be heard you have to sing softer."
Lacy was captivated, too, by Karen's story. "Her mother, Evelyn, was
Cherokee. She would sleep on a brass bed in her backyard," she remembers.
"And Karen was willowy with long, black native American hair. She was
perfect for those times.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."
Although Dalton was in the right place at the right time, hanging with the
right people and boasted a rare talent, she was also self-destructive. She
drank heavily, used drugs and had a tendency to disappear on a whim. She
played only cover versions, and her decision to not play her own material in
an era that belonged to singer-songwriters perhaps also hindered her
success. She was uncomfortable performing live, and she also loathed
recording - It's So Hard to Tell You Who's Going to Love You the Best was
only recorded because Fred Neil fooled her into believing the tape wasn't
The follow-up, In My Own Time, was recorded at Bearsville studio, near
Woodstock in upstate New York, which was set up by Bob Dylans's manager,
Albert Grossman. In order to make herself feel more at ease with recording,
Dalton returned to Oklahoma to fetch her two teenage children, her dog and,
reputedly, her horse, before going to the studio. Producer Harvey Brooks,
who had played bass on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, recalls the sessions as
fraught. "The fact that she wasn't a writer meant that we really had to
create something for her," he says. "It was a lot of work, because her
emotional personality had to be dealt with every step of the way. And
The very nature of the record brought its own problems. "This was a
folk-rock record that tilted towards pop, and on pop records you concentrate
on getting the performance out of someone," Brooks explains. "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. But my favourite track is Take Me. It was done in the middle
of winter and I can feel the chill in my bones when I listen to that song."
Despite the album's impeccable cast, In My Own Time failed commercially. "It
just didn't work out for her," says Brooks. "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."
After the failure of In My Own Time, Dalton seemed to drift out of view,
participating less in music and more in drink and drugs. "I only knew her as
an addicted personality," says Brooks. "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." Lacy recalls that Dalton and her boyfriend "were probably
dealing drugs. They did dangerous things, heavy things like heroin." Dalton
once overdosed at her house. "She called me up after that 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
Dalton's unhappiness was partly personal - the failure of her marriage and
her later estrangement from her children hurt her considerably, according to
Lacy. But it was also part of a wider cultural despondency. "She was of the
old beat generation that felt you had to be burning the candle both ends and
dying of hunger to call yourself an artist," says Lacy. "I've always called
them canaries in the coalmine, 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."
By the early 90s Dalton was living on the streets of New York. "Whenever I
performed there she would show up," Lacy remembers. "She didn't look too
bad. She had an odour and her teeth were awful, but she was a very clean
person and very beautiful to everyone, so I don't think people noticed her
As Dalton drifted steadily downwards, Lacy pulled some strings to get her
into rehab in Texas. "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. 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 realise at the
time was that her teeth was how she was getting access to codeine. And so
she went back to New York and died on the streets a year later."
Quite how she died remains muddled. "Some said it was a drug overdose," says
Brooks. "But from what I understand, she ran out of steam."
"Karen had true, true greatness that had not been recognised," says Lacy. "I
said to her, 'It's going to annoy the hell out of you but you'll probably
only get recognised after your death.' I think her time is coming now,
because people are fed up of 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." The song Lacy most remembers Dalton singing is
Just a Little Bit of Rain: "If I should leave you/ Try to remember the good
times," she says, singing softly down the line, the way Dalton taught her.
"Warm days filled with sunshine/ And just a little bit of rain."
· It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You Best is out now on Megaphone;
In My Own Time is out now on Light in the Attic
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
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