In Her Own Time and Ours: The Cult of Karen Dalton
Sometimes the voices that move us most are the ones that are most on the edge: the ones racked with pain, the ones that sound beyond hope. One such voice belongs to the late Karen Dalton, a tragic beauty who left a paltry but bewitching legacy of two albums, the second (In My Own Time) reissued for the first time last year.
Dalton was a junkie for the best part of twenty years. Photographs of her remind one of Billie Holiday with her sleepy street-addict demeanor, her far-gone indifference to the world. Her voice, too, draws inevitable comparisons with the late Billie Holiday of, say, Lady In Satin.
She was born Karen Cariker in or around Enid, Oklahoma, in the early ’40s. Her mother was Cherokee, her father Irish, her musical roots rural and Baptist. By 1960 she was Karen Dalton, with a son (Lee) who remained with her mother when Karen drove two thousand miles to New York City with her daughter Abby.
One of the few images of Dalton performing, dateline February, 1961, shows her singing at the fabled Café Wha? club in Greenwich Village. Seated on a stool with her eyes closed while young Bob Dylan blows harp and Fred Neil strums a guitar, she looks like an American Juliette Gréco. “My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles, Vol. 1. “She was a tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky and sultry.”
One of the reasons Dalton kept her eyes closed was that she was acutely uncomfortable on a stage. An intimidatingly handsome Amazon who quickly acquired an unwanted reputation around the Village as a kind of “hillbilly Billie Holiday,” Dalton preferred singing privately, or jamming in her kitchen with friends. Nor did she care for recording, which was why Capitol Records producer Nik Venet virtually had to trick her into cutting It's Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best (1969) at New York's Record Plant.
One can hear the junkie stance in Dalton's phrasing and her intonation. “She wasn't Billie Holiday,” Venet told Goldmine, “but she had that phrasing Holiday had and she was a remarkable one-of-a-kind type of thing… Unfortunately, it's an acquired taste, you really have to look for the music.” The voice is horn-like, elemental, free of legato and sparing of vibrato, each note a piercing straight line to the soul. “She's a blues singer to me,” Nick Cave says in his tribute to Dalton in the booklet for In My Own Time. “It's full of idiosyncrasies you can't repeat.”
Dalton's most harrowing performances reach back to her bluegrass roots. The standout track on It's So Hard… is "Ribbon Bow," the aching plaint of a poor country girl who lacks the alluring fineries of her big-city rivals. Unarguably the highlight of In My Own Time is the darkly chilling "Katie Cruel," with Dalton accompanying herself on her banjo with only Bobby Notkoff's electric violin for company. I don't know of a lonelier Appalachian lament than this song, unless it's Gillian Welch's similarly-inflected "One Morning." It's hard not to hear the song as autobiographical in its narrative of a fallen woman — one who will end her life destitute on the streets of New York.
In My Own Time is a far more realized record than It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best, which sounds as off-the-cuff and first-take as it almost certainly was. To first-timers the voice of In My Own Time will have a certain shock value; some will even find it hard to get past the catch in the throat that starts every phrase and makes Dalton sound hoarse. Certainly there's an outsider quality to the voice as it swings through songs of loss and love, starting with Dino Valenti's anxious, dread-filled "Something on Your Mind" and winding up with her old friend Richard Tucker's wistfully resigned "Are You Leaving for the Country?"
“I was going to say it's a fragile voice,” says Nick Cave in the album's booklet. “But of course it's not a fragile voice, because it's been smashed into a million pieces. In ‘Katie Cruel'she does embody the character absolutely. There's something that's inherent in her voice, an understanding of this kind of sorrow. She knows how to be sad.”