One of my all time favorite female folk singers is Karen Dalton. She has an angelic moon face like Winnie Cooper from the Wonder years and a voice to rival Billie Holiday. She sings with such a strength that you imagine her to be a soulful woman in her 70's from a Southern Church choir. You never doubt her experience with the blues and wonder why she is the best kept secret of vinyl. Then someone shows you the picture of her strumming along side Bob Dylan and you nearly die. She is a hippie darling folk singer- the kind with hair that swings back and forth when she sings- She was a single mom and a life long dumpster diver too. Then you find out she died way too young and your heart aches. This entire week I've been coveting my computer to bid on her original LP -- It's so hard to tell who's Gonna Love you the Best-. I've had dreams that it actually once existed on vinyl. It was around forty dollars with 6 hours left. I was full of hope. Then later with four hours it was at $90. I still imagined it arriving in my mail box. Then tonight when it sky rocketed to $147 dollars and out of my reach-I was somehow happy for Miss Dalton- somewhere in heaven she must be smiling with her banjo.
A cult singer, twelve-string guitarist, and banjo player of the New York 1960s folk revival, Karen Dalton still remains known to very few, despite counting the likes of Bob Dylan and Fred Neil among her acquaintances. This was partly because she seldom recorded, only making one album in the 1960s--and that didn't come out until 1969, although she had been known on the Greenwich Village circuit since the beginning of the decade. It was also partly because, unlike other folk singers of the era, she was an interpreter who did not record original material. And it was also because her voice--often compared to Billie Holiday, but with a rural twang--was too strange and inaccessible to pop audiences. Nik Venet, producer of her debut album, went as far as to remark in Goldmine, "She was very much like Billie Holiday. Let me say this, she wasn't Billie Holiday 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." Dalton grew up in Oklahoma, moving to New York around 1960. Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders, who was in her backup band in the early 1970s, points out in his liner notes to the CD reissue of her first album that "she was the only folk singer I ever met with an authentic 'folk' background. She came to the folk music scene under her own steam, as opposed to being 'discovered' and introduced to it by people already involved in it." There is a photograph from February 1961 (now printed on the back cover of the It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best reissue) of Dalton singing and playing with Fred Neil and Bob Dylan, the latter of whom was barely known at the time. Unlike her friends she was unable to even capture a recording contract, spending much of the next few years roaming around North America. Dalton was not comfortable in the studio, and her Capitol album It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best came about when Nik Venet, who had tried unsuccessfully to record her several times, invited her to a Fred Neil session. He asked her to cut a Neil composition, "Little Bit of Rain," as a personal favor so he could have it in his private collection; that led to an entire album, recorded in one session, most of the tracks done in one take. Dalton recorded one more album in the early 1970s, produced by Harvey Brooks (who had played on some sixties Dylan sessions). Done in Bearsville studios in Woodstock, it, like her debut, had an eclectic assortment of traditional folk tunes, blues, covers of soul hits ("When a Man Loves a Woman," "How Sweet It Is"), and contemporary numbers by singer-songwriters (Dino Valente, the Band's Richard Manuel). The Band's "Katie's Been Gone," included on The Basement Tapes, is rumored to be about Dalton. ~ Richie Unterberger, All Music Guide
What we do know is she posessed a voice that can only be described as that of a white 'Hillbillie Holiday' if one can imagine such a thing, a rural, twangy, Okie timbre that polarised audiences, and scuppered any chances of commercial success on the level of a Dylan or even a Fred Neil: however, as she was more reclusive then even Neil himself, rarely even thinking about public performance, one suspects this is how she would have wanted it. She also only recorded two albums in her lifetime: this is the first, released in 1969 (allegedly she was TRICKED into recording it) by which time she had been on the Greenwich Village cicuit for some ten years!! Never a composer, these are highly stylised and personal renditions of traditional material, Neil, Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly, Tim Hardin and Julie London that, once familiar, can be some of the most rewarding listening experiences one could ever have. Extremely recommended.
WOW-I just found this next bit of info and was amazed that the writer also compared her lovely face to that of Winnie Cooper-
Karen Dalton should have been a national treasure. She should be a household name, but unfortunately she is not. She’s so underground she makes Nico look like Britney Spears.
I think this quote by musician Steve Ritchey said it best, “Karen Dalton’s voice sounds like the moment before you start to cry”.
Dalton was a strikingly beautiful girl, by way of Oklahoma, who became a fixture of the late fifties/early sixties Greenwich Village music scene. This was back when “the Village” was a magnetic sanctuary for artistic bohemians looking to live cheaply and start a cultral revolution.
Karen eventually found herself in the circle of beat standouts like Allen Ginsburg, Bob Dylan and Fred Neil. She is often referred to as the “white” Billie Holiday because well, she was white and kind of sounded like Billie Holiday. But that’s not really an accurate comparison.
I believe a better comparison for Karen Dalton is Nick Drake. The way the lyrics fall out of her mouth, the way she sounds in every song as a bird slowly dying from a broken heart; you could imagine her to be the saddest, most brutally beatiful thing to ever come out of the world. But there is that little wink of hope just like Nick had in his songs, that let’s you know in the end things might be cool.
Karen was known for playing the twelve string Gibson guitar and the long neck banjo. She released two albums during her time, It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best (1969; re-released in 1996), and In My Own Time (1971). The former album is said to be the better, more representative album of the two.
Karen predominantly sang cover songs, because she generally lacked the confidence to write original material (she was apparently tricked into recording one of her albums by a friend). However her versions are so good, many are considered the standard. She also performed live rarely with the exception of small coffee shops and dive bars in The Village.
As I mentioned earlier, Karen Dalton was strikingly beautiful. I can’t speak for her appearence in person, I can only estimate based on what I hear in her voice. Her voice reflects inner beauty. It sounds as beautiful as you could imagine your dream women to be. Beautiful like Winnie Cooper, beautiful like the first girl you kissed at camp. Amazing, poetic, quiet, dreamy, romantic, you know her well.
A voice so beautiful it should have changed the world, but instead it made only a tiny roar. Karen Dalton never recorded another album after 1971.
To this day Karen Dalton remains one of the most mysterious artists in folk history. Very little is known of her later years. She suffered through problems with drug and alcohol addiction all her life and possibly died from AIDS related symptoms in 1993, but few know for sure.
Unlike John Lennon, Karen Dalton wasn’t assassinated, but her story seems nearly as romantic and tragic. Perhaps it’s the mystery and astounding lack of information surrounding her life, or maybe it’s the haunting texture of her voice.
Karen Dalton draws you into every song with your mouth wide open, wondering how humanity let someone so precious wither away without knowing how special she really was.
(Michael Harris -- found at https://www.freshoutmedia.com/category/folk/)
Go take a small listen-- my favorite song is "a little bit of rain"