2004: Someone Famous writes a memoir and mentions her, favorably, on page twelve. People start poking around in the archives. Blurry footage from a French documentary pops up on the Internet—the lens screwing in so close to her face and mouth that it feels like surgery. In addition to Someone Famous, her admirers include Nick Cave, Lucinda Williams, Joanna Newsom, Fred Neil. The list goes on. One singer even took her surname, which is either a grand homage or glorified identity theft. But to your average music listener, she is just another footnote to the 1960s, a country mouse swallowed up in the bright, cruel city. She recorded two albums, all covers, then vanished. This Cherokee/Irish girl sang the blues with a long-necked banjo, a twelve-string guitar, and a voice made of abrasive so soft and deft it could skin a peach and leave the fruit intact.
2006: Three or so decades after they were originally recorded, both of her albums are re-released: It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best (1969) and In My Own Time (1971). This month, Cotton Eyed Joe will appear, a gritty mix of live performances recorded on tape in 1962 (like a Lomax field recording, the terrible sound quality only enhances the voyeuristic thrill).
Like other neglected-in-their-lifetime artists, the inscrutable Karen Dalton may now be securing a slot on the bigger game-show wheel of posthumous fame with a prize better than fancy appliances or a fat check: Immortality.
Come on down, Miss Karen Cariker Dalton! [APPLAUSE] Hello, Karen. So you're from Enid, Oklahoma—Injun Country!—[APPLAUSE; LAUGHTRACK], and you're a single mom raising two kids, Johnny Lee (a juvenile delinquent?) and an adorable little girl with a fancy name-either out of "Tarzan" or "Arabian Nights"—what is it—Ali Baba? Oh, no, that's right, Abra. And you play a banjo carved from a bedpost? And you played with Bob Dylan and other musicians who got really big while you languished? And, let's see, you recorded two albums that didn't sell and you've been married at least twice, once to a professor you met in your one semester of college, and you died when you were fifty-five, penniless. That's really living! [APPLAUSE; LAUGHTRACK] Oh, and before I forget, you're known as: "The Hillbilly Holiday"? And "Sweet Mother K.D"? And you're still close with your ol' mom back in Enid and she's here in the audience? [APPLAUSE] Can you speak some Cherokee for us? Or sing some Leadbelly? And can we see your funny teeth?
"She sounds like she's about to cry," someone says; another describes her voice as "braying." A major newspaper calls her the "Folk Harpy." My friend tears up when listening to "Katie Cruel," even before the narrator, a "roving jewel," turns into the town has-been. Sure, Dalton's languid pace, the minimalist arrangements, the tender cracked insides of words ("there's no use try-I-I-ing"), the wobbling, unforgiving elongations and register leaps, it's all kind of heartbreaking. The lyrics, granted, are usually desperate ("oh...save me") or codependent ("if things are going wrong for you, you know it hurts me too") or lovelorn ("he gives me one night of love, sometimes he gives me two"). But Dalton inhabits a song like fire in a furnace. In her version of "Katie Cruel," a traditional folk ballad, the following vocals become some sort of coded answer to the whole damn riddle of life:
If I was where I would be
Then I'd be where I am-not
Here I am where I must be
Where I would be I can-not
Accompanied by the spectral violin of Bobby Notkoff, Dalton sounds like a soothsayer with a lullaby delivery—strange elisions pulling you along—and "as old as old is able/to be and be there still," as Anne Sexton put it. Some sort of elemental metal feeds her voice, which makes it clear and highly conductive, like a brass instrument, a trumpet, even the mistakes are triumphant and organic. It's not so much pretty and practiced as naturally majestic. In this sense, she is like Billie Holiday, who admitted, "I don't think I'm singing...I feel like I'm playing a horn."
She's been around the block, yes, but she's not bawling about it. Watch the clip of her singing "It Hurts Me Too": "Without you darlin' I can't be satisfied and if things are going wrong for you, you know it hurts me too." On paper, it's all very compassionate. The perfect moment to shed a few tears or, at the very least, maintain solemnity, but instead Dalton smiles—or smirks (and by this point, you may well be discomfited by the sight of her missing teeth)—as if she's kind of delighted by the prospect of her darlin's misery.
Dalton's longtime guitarist and close friend, Dan Hankin, tells me repeatedly how strong she is (sometimes he corrects the tense), how no one tells her what to do or play. I ask how she was as a leader and he pauses. It's like in bluegrass where the band has a boss, he says, the person who calls the song. With her, you just didn't have that. She just played and you went along with her. Even when they were recording the first album, he recalls, it was like we were in a living room, just kind of sitting around and playing. We did the entire record in one day.
Recently, it seems that the excess of Dalton's singing has aroused the inner life of my home: how else to explain lightbulbs exploding above the stereo in the middle of the night, dinosauric insects splayed portentously on the bedroom walls? Her voice has a primal quality that is not so much feminine as female, half croon, half lament. Not one of those polished little songbirds. Not like the little boy down the street who insists on attention, yelling, "Look at me! Look at me!" She sounds like a woman alone on a porch, lost in thought while her hands are busy, knitting or sweeping or combing knots out of her long hair. If there is seduction here, it is of the snake-charming variety.
1938: Born of humble roots in the plains of Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie territory, she got pregnant at fifteen, had the baby, got pregnant two years later with another guy (they married, divorced, then remarried), then left the guy and took off across the country with her kids (some say she kidnapped them) and her twenty-seven-fret banjo to Greenwich Village. By then, she was around nineteen. Her timing was perfect—arriving in New York in the early 1960s—and she quickly became part of the coffeehouse scene at such Village joints as the Café Wha? (where she bonded with moody Fred Neil, who claimed her as a great influence). Dan Hankin says the coffeehouses were a fateful setting for her: She liked to play for a beer. She is really beautiful, he adds. Dylan says she played the guitar like Jimmy Reed. But her coffeehouse success didn't lead to a record deal till '69 and by then taste had changed and her record did poorly. Perhaps you can imagine what it is like to get that one lucky break in your twenties and to not have it pan out. Even now, music critics seem to find it rough-going, but to me it's both ancient and progressive, revelatory, like Dock Boggs crossed with Sarah McLachlan.
It was harder the next time: more tiring and the doubts more aggressive. An exquisite alignment of luck, hard work, and talent can always happen, of course, but nothing is for sure and nothing controls the audience except, perhaps, preaching or sexual tactics. She wasn't about to go all political and righteous with her songs and forget the kitten act: "She would never play the game of being cute or sexy," Hankin says.
In his memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk wrote this of Joan Baez and other women singers from the coffeehouse era: "So whereas the boys were intentionally roughing up their voices, the girls were trying to sound prettier and prettier and more and more virginal." But Karen didn't fit this equation. For one thing, as Hankin tells me, "she never had the personality to pander to an audience—she didn't reach out to them—she had too much pride." He never saw her in a dress or a skirt. She liked to play music and drink beer, that was it. "Prickly," he calls her. "Prickly, thorny, intimidating." And when she drank, "she would have a personality change," and he admits to being scared of her on a few occasions. Once in Boulder, driving in the mountains, she took him on a "sadistic" car ride—zooming down dirt roads, sliding around corners—deliberately trying to spook him. Once he ditched her at a party and the next day his car wouldn't start: She'd ripped the distributor cap out. Others have related tales of her episodic brute strength, of how she tore a sink out of a wall in a tantrum or how, in a quieter context, she busted down walls in her cabin instead of hiring a demo crew.
In 1972, according to Hankin, Mike Lang (who helped put together Woodstock and was fond of Karen) got her a gig opening for Santana's European tour. Santana was huge then. Her big break? Well, it didn't work out. Santana's rowdy fans weren't interested in Karen's laidback performances. At Montreux—same tour—after hours of intense rehearsal with Hankin and the other musicians, she wouldn't come out of her dressing room. No explanation. "She had her demons."
For a while, she lived in Colorado with husband Richard Tucker (he claims to have fallen for her in about ten seconds) out in an old mining cabin near Hankin's place (close to the Boulder coffeehouse where Cotton Eyed Joe was recorded). Hankin remembers how happy she and Richard were—raising Karen's two kids, Abra (Abralyn) and Johnny Lee. Richard worked taking care of the trees at a nearby university. They'd have get-togethers where Karen would cook for everyone and they'd all play music. No one had much money—Richard brought home rabbits from the psych lab and she'd cook them for dinner. "There was a real hospitable side to her." She had horses and dogs and was "as happy as could be." Of course, the lifestyle included copious amounts of booze and drugs—"people were naive back then," Hankin sighs.
But lounging around in the mountains wasn't going to advance her musical career, so she returned to New York to record an album in Woodstock. She called Hankin to come in and play on it. He went for a few weeks, but the rehearsals were half-hearted. "Everyone was spinning their wheels," he says. "I was staying there on Karen time," he adds, "so I decided to go back to Boulder.
"Karen was really pissed off and got Fred Neil to talk to me—the only time I ever talked to him—to try and get me to stay, but I left. The last time I ever spoke to Karen was when she called me screaming and impaired telling me to send her 'fucking' electric guitar back to her, which she had given to me earlier."
Hankin sent the guitar back and they never spoke again. You can tell this pains him. He's a likable fellow, very empathetic, but his last conversation with a dear friend turned out to be the ugliest one.
She finished the album, In My Own Time (1971), and unlike the first one, the production is lavish, featuring contributions by A-list session players. She was thirty-three. Arranged and produced by Harvey Brooks, the album feels hopeful, and possibly a wee bit desperate, offering unexpectedly mainstream fare, ranging from soul to country, but Dalton simply uproots the familiar tunes—including "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)"—and nurtures their eccentricities. Two traditional songs stand out, "Katie Cruel" and "Same Old Man," because they delve into her trademark eerie textures, sort of like a haunted blend of Appalachian drone and Middle Eastern mourning rites.
In what may have been a prophetic self-portrait, Karen's rendition of "Katie Cruel" unravels like something out of The Canterbury Tales, the fetching new gal in town somehow turns into an outcast, the local drunk. Of course, the record didn't sell. Think of the market: James Taylor, Donny Osmond, Three Dog Night, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. It wasn't the ripest of times for chick-centered acoustics.
A career as brief as a haiku.
The biography, if there were one, would possibly trail her through New York streets, scoring dope, shooting up. And then the long terrible decline into AIDs. She'd alienated most of her friends by the time she died in 1993.
I was in grad school then, living on Fourth and MacDougal, at the base of Washington Square Park, where all the black guys played chess. In the '90s, many more people were dying of AIDs, and you'd see them trembling and skeletal in the Korean grocery stores or on a park bench, all eye sockets and bared teeth.
You may see a seraphic Dalton nickname floating around the Internet—"Sweet Mother K.D."—but Hankin says it's misleading: "People are saying she was called that, but that is wrong, believe me. She definitely wasn't called that while she was alive."
So many of the musicians of that era came to tragic ends, but sometimes it seems like she was either aware of—or somehow guiding—her own destiny. You don't need to know all the facts of her life to feel it. Some lines: "I'll never get out of these blues alive" or "Momma won't you forgive me, please?" or "nobody down on the street will ever cry for me."
Even without the sorrowful first-person lyrics (usually addressed to a remote or unloving or disapproving "you"), these are songs of self-exposure. Pressure inside the notes creates fissures, cracks. Sometimes her voice smears through a succession of syllables with a wet squeak like a wiper on a windshield or she'll hum a sentence or she'll hold a note until it asphyxiates. You will attempt to follow her voice, which moves with a mysterious, rabbity logic of its own. If you try singing along, you will keep bumping into her like a clumsy dance partner.
Louis Menand observes that biography often proceeds in reverse—we know the ending so we shape the backstory accordingly. He wonders if it is possible to re-create any life with accuracy. Diaries, letters, and intimate recollections are dug up and arranged but they hardly add up to the whole truth. Everything is fleeting. Your feelings fluctuate, even your convictions.
Questions: Did Karen Dalton care about acclaim at all? Were drugs an escape-hatch or a cop-out? How come she so rarely smiles? Why didn't music save her?
When I listen to her singing the Jelly Roll Morton tune "Sweet Substitute," I am almost certain that she believed life ain't so bad. "My man went away, I said I'd miss him every night and day...then I began to look around—wish I could show you what I found." Use the Stanislavsky method and become the voice. Understand that a moment can outlast eternity. "My new recruit is mighty sweet and cute, I'm crazy 'bout my substitute."