Karen Dalton

We now live in the shadow of a monstrous culture machine whose appetites can never be sated. Along with socialites, celebrity chefs, reality stars and artificially enhanced athletes, it also chews up and spits out musical cult heroes at an alarming rate. Everything obscure becomes fodder for machinery that must be fed. In the strip-mining of music history, "It's all good" has become "It's all great." As might be expected, most of what this one-size-fits-all nostalgia throws at our wall fails to stick. It turns out to have been obscure for very good reasons. But there are a few genuine diamonds to be found amidst all the shattered glass.

Karen Dalton (1937-1993) is a diamond, and getting to know her has been one of the great musical pleasures of the last few years. It's an opportunity we've never had before, including those of us who were around when she was active. Even when she was among us, Karen wasn't really here. Public performances were rare, and copies of the two albums she was coaxed into recording during her lifetime proved to be as elusive as she was. She was more heard about than heard. And, Bob Dylan aside, the people you might have heard talking about her were almost as removed from the public consciousness as she was. Some artists were underground; Karen Dalton was just sort of elsewhere.

Her aversion to performing was only partially about the presence of an audience. It was more about the formality of the environment. When the music-making was informal, in living rooms or in front of small gatherings of friends, it was relaxed and could flow naturally. With the introduction of formality—be it concert stage or recording studio—came self-consciousness, the enemy of natural artistry. This is something all performing artists feel to varying degrees, and must overcome as part of their becoming. It was apparently something Karen Dalton experienced without the filters others are equipped with to keep these feelings manageable. It was in the marrow of her relationship with music, unfiltered and inescapable.

I cherish her two albums—It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best (1969) and In My Own Time (1971)—but have to acknowledge that they are only intermittently successful. She treated recording with the same trepidation as live performance, and her producers (Nik Venet and Harvey Brooks respectively) are due our gratitude for midwifing these records under what must have been challenging circumstances. That said, my personal preference is for the recently released tapes from 1962 (called Cotton Eyed Joe) and 1963 (called Green Rocky Road). For all the fidelity and artful frosting of the studio sessions, these amateur recordings help us construct a much fuller picture of this mercurial singer. They also provide us with crucial context—the distance between her 1962 performance of "Katie Cruel" and the 1971 album version must be measured in lifetimes.

This new release adds welcome detail to our evolving portrait. It was recorded in the cabin Karen shared with Richard Tucker in the mountain mining town of Summerville, Colorado, at a point in 1966 midway between the Green Rocky Road recordings of '63 and her first official album in '69. As captured on a portable reel-to-reel recorder by friend and musical colleague Carl Baron, Karen is rehearsing for a gig that may or may not have come to pass. Richard sometimes accompanies her on guitar, and the two perform a number of duets.

Like the cabin it was recorded in, a location so remote there was no address and no running water, this is probably the most rudimentary of the Dalton recordings to surface thus far. Its lo-fi ambience is magnified when Carl switches to the slowest recording speed to capture as much music as possible before his tape ran out. Producer Mark Linn and mastering engineer John Baldwin have done a remarkable job of finding sonic coherence in a somewhat erratic source. Yet its flaws are never a distraction. The effect is to make this music we are not simply listening to, but overhearing. It may be the perfect placement of an audience in relation to the music of Karen Dalton. It was not made for our benefit, but if we’re willing to listen closely it can be.

The earlier recordings concentrated on the country-folk repertory she carried on her occasional, and always short-lived, attempts at nesting in New York City. The Summerville reel alternates between this older material and the songs she brought back from Greenwich Village. The former camp includes versions of what have become her signature pieces, "Katie Cruel" and "Cotton Eyed Joe." Every Dalton release except her 1969 debut album has included a version of "Katie Cruel." This one restores the whistling she had employed in the 1962 performance but omitted in '63. By the time of her harrowing reading on In My Own Time she was fully inside the song, and there was nothing left to whistle about. This version is not as world-weary, but there is a sure-footed rhythm in her reading that is almost hypnotic. The more I listen, the more I think this might be the definitive one. She remade "Cotton Eyed Joe" as completely. Listening to her slow, wistful and delicate interpretation, it's hard to believe that the tune is best known as a sprightly dance number by Bob Wills and every Western Swing outfit in sagebrush history. These songs are labeled traditional but when Karen Dalton sings 'em she owns 'em.

At a time when "authenticity" was a subject of great concern within the trad folk community, Karen was given a wide, almost reverential berth because of her unassailable credentials. A native of Enid, Oklahoma, she was a child of the Dust Bowl just like Woody! And she possessed a certain measure of Native American blood. Not just an Okie, an oppressed minority to boot! You couldn't have found a better embodiment of folk authenticity if you'd constructed one out of Woody Guthrie's old typewriter ribbons.

Karen Dalton was more authentic than most of the upper-middle-class folk wannabes of the era, though not necessarily for the reasons outlined above. Yes, geography and lineage can leave an indelible imprint on art. You don't need much imagination to hear the windblown Oklahoma plains in her voice. But what is inarguably authentic is Karen's connection to her music. It comes from a place beyond credentials, where all the usual man-made obstructions—self-consciousness, pretense, ideology, artifice—never come into play.  There was no distance between the essence of the music and the voice that expressed it.

What also marks her as authentic was the famous folk "process" at work in her singing. The notion of remaking a song every time it is sung is among the hoariest of clichés, but Karen is one of the few whose personal process validates the cliché. As with any blues singer of worth, the integrity of the source material is of little consequence; it is about what she will make of it. So "2:19 Train," a slight recasting of Jelly Roll Morton's "Mamie's Blues," also contains echoes of the blues classic "Trouble In Mind," while the Ma Rainey evergreen "Honey Where You Been So Long" nestles into "Mole In The Ground" like it had always been there.  

The version of "God Bless The Child" helps temper the notion that Karen hated hearing her voice compared to Billie Holiday's. "No, she didn't hate it," confirms Richard Tucker. "She just didn’t think it was very accurate. She liked Billie and we played her records, but she thought that if people took the time to really listen, they'd hear that she was more influenced by singers like Bessie Smith." Richard now thinks that, whatever its accuracy, the perceived similarity to Holiday should perhaps have been played up more, that it would have at least provided prospective listeners with an entry point into the work of an otherwise unclassifiable artist.

("God Bless the Child" is missing its first two lines. Her reading of Ma Rainey’s “Misery Blues” and the fragment of the “Hallelujah” section of “Shiloh Town” are similarly incomplete. But like treasured photographs that have lost a corner to age or calamity, we see what's left, not what's missing.) 

Her voice was not only a vessel though which ancient folk and blues ghosts could reconnect with the here and now, it also effortlessly located what was timeless in the contemporary material she selected. This recording is the first where the contemporary songs are on an equal footing with the traditional tunes in her repertoire, and they come principally from two of her closest Village friends, Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. Like her, they were folk music outsiders who'd been buffeted by stormy urban seas, and took refuge in each other's company personally and musically. Like her, they could handle an excess of almost everything. Everything but New York City, which they could only take in small doses. This tape is a testament to their friendship, reflecting the comfort they took in each other's company and in each other's music. Fred Neil and Tim Hardin were friends who recognized and respected each other as kindred spirits; Karen Dalton was the nexus.

One of the many things this threesome shared was "Green Rocky Road," the Alabama jump-rope chant that became a folk standard after being recollected by poet Bob Kaufman and set to music by Len Chandler in the early 60s. Neil and Hardin have always vied with Dave Van Ronk for this writer's favorite interpretation, but Karen's performance of it here demands a place among them. Her 1963 rendering on the Green Rocky Road CD is also compelling, and contains a verse I've found in no other version. Based on another playground song, her verse concludes "Circle circle circle dot/You can't give what you ain't got," making me think Dalton might have been adding something from her own childhood. Three years later that verse is gone and the familiar "hooka tooka soda cracker" refrain has been reinstated, but her singing is the revelation. Karen’s low-key approach served a weariness in her voice and suited the blue undertow of most of her material. Here she achieves the same understatement by being relaxed in a way she seldom was outside her own space, allowing for a performance of incomparably gentle melodicism.

Fred Neil, the profoundly conflicted and extravagantly freckled songsailor from Florida, was one of the first people Karen met when she arrived in New York. (The 1961 Fred McDarrah photograph of the two of them onstage at the Cafe Wha? with a fresh-off-the-boat Bob Dylan may be better known than they are.) Like Dalton, Neil was a country soul adrift in the big city, and he seconded her aversion to the music business. The professional concessions Fred made to survive—whether hosting the afternoon hoots for tourists at the Cafe Wha? or churning out chart contenders uptown at the Brill Building—would have been constitutionally impossible for Karen, but both were at their best in smoky, late-night Village living rooms, trading songs the way other people might share intimate conversation.

Neil was a master at taking the time-honored forms of the blues and twisting them just enough to coax new shapes from the most familiar materials. The songs of Freddy's that Karen performs on 1966 can be found on his classic album Bleecker & MacDougal released the previous year, though she undoubtedly made their acquaintance well before that. The version of "Little Bit of Rain" here is rough, as Karen and Richard are obviously trying to negotiate space for their two guitars; by the time she recorded it for her 1969 debut it had become another of her signature pieces. "Other Side To This Life" was a folk-rock staple in the hands of Jefferson Airplane, the Animals, the Youngbloods and other electric bands, a song speaking to future horizons, but Karen and Richard's duet reconnects it to its place on Hank Williams’ lonesome highway.

Karen's history with Tim Hardin was almost as lengthy. Hardin had formed a duo with Richard Tucker not long after the fledgling folkies arrived in New York. This became a trio with the addition of Dalton in early 1963. The combination of their voices produced what Richie Havens described as "mountain magic." Blues singer Lisa Kindred was among the fortunate few who saw the trio perform publicly: "I first heard Tim when he was singing with Richard. They did murder ballads, a lot of Appalachian type stuff, a few blues. They weren't close to anything else I can remember. They had a nice blend, but Karen gave it a knife that could cut through. As a duo they were good but not exceptional. With Karen they were armed to the teeth."

The trio only lasted a matter of months, eventually dissolving when Karen and Richard became romantically involved and headed for the hills of Colorado. According to Susan Hardin, “Tim always referred to Karen and Richard as his musical family. He’d talk about how special their three voices were together. [Tim started on piano, and] he credited them with teaching him much of what he learned about guitar. I think he looked to Karen as a sort of mentor. I was a little intimidated when I first met her. Because of what Tim had told me I had idealized her as this incredibly beautiful, strong woman doing all these amazing things, sort of a pioneer of the ‘back to the earth’ movement that came along later. She lived up to everything Tim told me about her before we went there, but you shouldn’t ignore Richard’s role in this. He was the rock, a very important part of whatever stability she and her daughter Abbe were able to achieve.”

The Hardin-Dalton-Tucker trio's setlist had been weighted toward the traditional; Hardin showed absolutely no sign that he was about to produce a clutch of songs that would make him Dylan's only serious creative rival on the Village scene. So it must have been as much a shock to Karen as to anybody else when Tim showed up in Colorado, most likely stopping over on a coast-to-coast expedition in 1965, with some of the immortal songs that would form the basis of his debut album. If the Fred Neil songs fit her like a worn, comfortable pair of jeans, the Hardin numbers made different demands. Tim was among the first of the modern singer/songwriters to chart an exclusively personal emotional landscape. Though their songs were constructed from many of the same root materials, Fred's tended to sail outward while Tim's were directed inward. Karen was willing to follow where both her friends led.

Of the four Hardin songs she sings on this tape, three are from Tim Hardin, one released in July 1966. This tape was recorded shortly before or after that—none of the surviving participants can say for certain—making these the first of what would eventually be hundreds of covers of Hardin compositions. "Reason to Believe" made an immediate impact whenever its author played it. His Cambridge pal Jerry Corbitt had been singing it with Jesse Colin Young in their duo that had evolved into the Youngbloods, but Karen was the first to commit it to tape. Thanks to Rod Stewart's hit and countless other covers over the years, casual listeners have been seduced by its gorgeous melody into accepting "Reason to Believe" as some kind of romantic devotional. Karen Dalton sees it for the declaration of vulnerability it really is. It is a song of deepest heartache, and Karen's understated performance taps quietly into its wellspring of distress.

"Don't Make Promises" finds Karen and Richard working out a duet arrangement. Given Richard's description of their constantly on-again-off-again relationship, one can't avoid reading a pinch of personal resonance into the song's central message: "don't make promises you can't keep." There are similar resonances in "While You're On Your Way," which Karen would later cut for her Capitol album. This is key to Hardin’s unexpectedly brilliant burst of writing.  His songs were utterly unconcerned with anything outside the fluctuations of his own heart, exercising a confessional freedom that would eventually mire much of the singer/songwriter genre in a bog of self-indulgent emotional mush, an outcome for which Tim Hardin can in no way be held accountable. With his genius for plain-spoken poetry and ardent melody, the songs that came out of Tim’s preoccupation with his heart found their way into ours. He was completely self-absorbed, yet his music achieved complete connection.

The other Hardin copyright here is "Shiloh Town." The song sounds like an adaptation of an older, possibly Civil War-era lament that I have not been able to identify. Its "All sing hallelujah" thread is easily traced, but the source for the body of the song remains unknown. Any musicologist with illumination to offer is encouraged to contact me c/o the Delmore Recording Society.

The songs from Fred Neil and Tim Hardin were not just pieces that became part of Karen Dalton's core repertoire, they are emblematic of friendships that would endure until the end of their lives. Hardin, who moved to Colorado the year after this recording to be closer to Karen and Richard as he battled his personal demons, died in 1980 without ever finding another musical home like the one they provided. It was Fred Neil, so reticent when it came to promoting himself, whose tireless promotion of Karen made her two official albums possible. And even after Neil had withdrawn from the music industry, and from most of the world, he maintained contact with Karen and helped provide for her when she became sick. As did the guitarist Peter Walker, who cared for her in her final days. She got this level of devotion because she gave it.

“She took a maternal attitude toward most everything,” says guitarist Dan Hankin, one of a select group of musicians who can claim to have played with Dalton, Hardin and Neil. “She was the mother hen, and we—me, Richard, Carl Baron, even Tim—were the little chicks there to support her. Everybody knew she was killer, and it was an honor to play with her. At the same time, 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.”

Richard Tucker, who was her husband for five years, agrees. “Karen’s favorite thing was just to sit in her rocker, playing guitar or banjo and singing when people came by,” he says. “She could sometimes be as good in public but it was never consistent. 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.”

Richard can’t explain it, but he doesn’t have to. It’s all there in her voice, the fragility and the strength, which is as much as any listener needs to understand. When I think about Karen’s curious relationship with her musical profession, I’m reminded of a line from comedian Steven Wright. “I don’t want everything,” he’d deadpan, “where would I put it?” Karen had no use for most of the things that “pros” want from music – there simply wasn’t room for it in her life. There was a place for music, a central place, but it wasn’t going to be on the supermarket shelf, and it was never going to lend itself to spectator sport.

All Karen appears to have ever really wanted was a few people willing to stop long enough to listen, really listen, to her music. Thanks to recordings like this, and the good folks who preserved and protected them for decades, that’s what she has finally acquired. And with each new release there are a few more believers. “In my own time” indeed. She had no idea…

Ben Edmonds
July 2011