Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Karen Dalton: strong pain plucks at my heart

Though she wasn't a songwriter, Karen Dalton was a personal favourite of Bob Dylan, Fred Neil and Tim Hardin, and has joined the exalted company of Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs in the ecstatically rediscovered artists sweepstakes. Unlike them, however, relatively little is known of her. Even those who knew her well (she died of an AIDS-related illness in 1993)  have commented on her inscrutability. "Karen had a very queenly quality about her,” her friend Peter Stampfel (of the Holy Modal Rounders) told me for a piece I wrote about her in Mojo a few years back. “She could intimidate anyone." Here are some odds and ends that I have accumulated, which fill in a few gaps about this enigmatic singer.

Firstly, here's the press folder that Capitol sent out with promo copies of her snappily-titled debut , It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You The Best, in September 1969. It's interesting to note that, contrary to received wisdom, she was in fact eager to record the album, and enjoyed the process:  

Front cover
Back cover

I'll also add here a section of the back cover of the album, as it's the only place I've ever seen any original writing by Dalton, and also includes her signature, as well as giving full credit to Fred Neil for alerting the world to her talent:

The album sold poorly, but Dalton's unconventional voice and awkward personality can only account for part of its failure. In all the many old US magazines I combed while researching my new book, Endless Trip, I found precisely no references to it - no release announcement, no adverts, no reviews, not even a mention in Billboard's thorough monthly round-up of forthcoming titles. The only review I have ever seen appeared in the March 1970 issue of Poppin, a short-lived Canadian underground magazine:

The only foreign territory the album appeared in was - bizarrely enough - New Zealand (and if anyone has a Kiwi copy to sell, please let me know). Like a number of other artists whose LPs appeared on Capitol in the second half of 1969 (The Common People, Euphoria, Food, Gandalf etc), the label seems to have been contented to let her album simply vanish. 

Unsurprisingly, her association with Capitol didn't outlast that of producer Nik Venet, and by mid-1971 she'd moved out of NYC and set up home in Woodstock. where a sympathetic community of musicians (including Dylan and members of The Band) happily included her in their music-making. Michael Lang, one of the organisers of the Woodstock festival, was in the throes of establishing a record label, Just Sunshine (distributed via Paramount), and signed her up for a second solo album. In My Own Time appeared in May 1971. Here's a poor scan of a letter he sent out to interested parties at the time:

The section about Dalton reads: 'Karen's album is very layed (sic) back. You may notice some similarity to Billie Holliday in her voice. She's 33 and has been around for quite awhile (sic). She and Fred Neil and Tim Hardin sort of started out together in the Village about 11 years ago. She's quite well-known among artists and performers, but not yet to most people. We hope you dig it because people like Karen are what music is all about.'

And here's the press release that was sent out with promo copies this time around:

Reviews for the album were mixed. Billboard, as ever, was first out of the traps, publishing the following in their May 22nd 1971 issue:

On July 22nd, Rolling Stone wrote that 'Karen Dalton is a folk legend whose name is spoken with reverence on MacDougal St., in Woodstock, in Texas, or anyplace else where she has performed', adding that 'at her best her sound is hauntingly beautiful, addictive. Her mood is always melancholy, the songs all complex and three-dimensional.' The review also commented (accurately, in my view) that 'some tracks (‘How Sweet It Is’, for example) are overproduced. In general the occasional horns don’t add to her singing and the album works best where the arrangements are simplest', before concluding that 'there’s magic on this record, and it’s worth getting into. The Karen Dalton legend can only grow with the release of In My Own Time.’ 

At around the same time Dalton gave what I believe was her only ever interview, to Circus magazine, who ran it in their July 1971 issue. It's intriguing that the article states that 'she has recorded once before, on a small label in the mid 60s'. This is of course wrong - but might just be a reference to Walt Conley's Passin' Through album, which came out on the tiny Premiere label (operating out of Denver) in 1961, and has vocals from Dalton on one track, 'Red Apple Juice'.

In October, Stereo Review offered their assessment of the record. 'Dal­ton sounds not so much like the early 60s as the early 50s, when jazz was at its peak', it began. 'Her voice, her phrasing, and even her hesitant rasp might be unique if there had never been a Billie Holiday… Karen Dalton, unhappily, seems to be caught in a time lag where appreciation for what she does well – good, solid jazz singing, done with intelligence and taste – has very lit­tle of its original audience left, and has yet to develop any appreciable nostalgia cult among young people. She proves that she is indeed able to sing them the way that they used to. But who’s listening?’ Unfortunately, the answer was, once again, hardly anyone.

Nonetheless, the disc was issued on Paramount in France, Holland and the UK (where the back cover prudishly omitted Neil's famous statement that 'she sure can sing the shit out of the blues'). A 45 also appeared in France, in a picture sleeve:

Dalton apparently did little to promote the album, though (surreally) she toured Europe as the opening act for Santana in the summer of 1971. Before long, In My Own Time had disappeared almost as completely as its predecessor. "She disliked performing almost as much as she loved music, and once told me that in a perfect world she wouldn't ever have to be onstage,” Stampfel told me. Intriguingly, Dalton shared this attitude with Nick Drake and Mike Taylor (about both of whom I have also posted). Nonetheless, she did play occasional gigs, and Billboard reviewed one brief appearance she made in New York, in their November 13th 1971 issue:

Despite the tantalising promise in the Just Sunshine press release that 'her next album will include several she's written herself', Dalton's recording career came to a standstill at around this time. Long-term drug addiction apparently made her difficult to rely upon, and though she made a cameo appearance on The Holy Modal Rounders' 1975 Alleged In Their Own Time LP (she can be heard in the background on two songs, 'Low Down Dog' and 'Rocky Road'), thereafter she contented herself with home recordings. She is known to have made many of these, accompanied by local musicians in Bearsville, and it's a great shame that they haven't been unearthed and reissued. As Stampfel told me: "Her open tuning 12-string guitar version of The Walker Brothers' 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore' is one of the greatest things I've ever heard – and lost forever, it looks like."


  1. this is fascinating stuff.

    i first heard about karen in "mojo" something like a decade ago...it was just a little sidebar that mentioned a few tidbits, but it was enough to get me interested in hearing what her music sounded like. for years all i could dig up was "it's so hard to tell...", in its initial cd release (sans-dvd), and nothing else. thankfully, over the past few years more has become available. funny how quickly obscure and long out-of-print music will become available again when the artist in question is being name-dropped by people who are considered "hip" or capable of piquing interest, and record execs think they can make enough money to justify a reissue of some sort. not that i'm complaining; i'm happy anything is available at all, especially with as small a body of work as karen recorded.

    for me, the apex of her recorded work is "cotton-eyed joe", which is ironic, because i'm sure it was never meant to be released at all. but it seems to me this is how karen was meant to be heard; stripped-down, alone (mostly), without studio polish or unnecessary embellishments. that last studio album is something i just can't get into entirely. it seems...wrong somehow, hearing her with a full band behind her. it's as if the production is pulling things in a more conventional, "radio-friendly" direction, when her voice and personality won't be bent that way. "katie cruel" sounds more like the album she would have wanted to make, had karen been in the producer's chair. then again, that's just what i hear.

    long-winded rambling aside, trying to dredge up information about karen has always been difficult. the internet helps, but also makes things more confusing. stories contradict themselves. almost everything written about her states unequivocally that she died on the street, destitute and alone. then a friend says in an interview that she died under the care of another friend, and the story that has become accepted as the truth is in fact bogus. the material you've unearthed sheds some light on who she was, pokes some holes in a few things that have been stated as true but were perhaps just speculation, and makes for really interesting reading. thanks for that. it would be nice if someday, someone skilled and emotionally invested enough decides to try writing a book about her to untangle the mystery once and for all.

    would you know offhand roughly when your story was published in "mojo"? i've been collecting the magazine pretty regularly since about 1999, and if i have the issue in question i'd definitely like to give it a read. i just unearthed a good article about bobbie gentry from early 2003 and enjoyed reading it again...now there's another unjustly neglected talent.

  2. Hi Johnny, thanks for the kind words. My Mojo piece was Buried Treasure in an issue dating from around 2005 - no idea which one, I'm afraid. I must say, as far as I'm concerned there is no 'mystery' about her - like so many artists, she was talented but undisciplined / unreliable, and thus undermined her own prospects. And, of course, not being a songwriter, her approach was out of step with the times.

  3. Thank you very much. Best wishes.