March 23, 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. (Laura Barton, March 23, 2007, The Guardian)

'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. [...]

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 back."

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 teeth."

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."

-MP3: Little Bit of Rain (Karen Dalton)
-MP3: In the Evening (Karen Dalton)

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 23, 2007 12:00 AM

I was fortunate enough to buy a copy of her first album, IN MY OWN TIME, at a garage sale yesterday for fifty cents. Hopefully in a few days I'll be able to provide a review.

As to 'why be Billie', that's all tied into the idea, which goes back at least to the Romantic era of poetry in the early 1800's, that adversity both improves the Suffering Artist's craft and proves that the Cold Cruel World is unworthy to have such a majestic personage in its presence. Naturally it's a crock (anyone can think of great artists who didn't struggle, as well as mediocre ones who did) but the idea still has enough currency that fans of an artist who died young still try to make their hero fit the template, even though said artists these days are more likely to be rappers than poets.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at March 23, 2007 9:54 AM

If you think these driven personalities aren't overweening narcissists, then you need to think again. "The world is too much pain to bear!" "I'm a genius, cater to me!"

Think drama-queen.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2007 12:14 PM

The story of Karen Dalton brings to mind that of Carolyn Hester, also lost to dissipation. Hester sang like an angel.

Ed Bush

Posted by: Ed Bush at March 23, 2007 1:50 PM

And no, she ain't dead yet.

Posted by: Ed Bush at March 23, 2007 2:05 PM