Like the swans of Socrates singing for the joy of cutting their corporeal ties, Karen Dalton too sang herself smiling softly into some kind of easeful, transitive state. While performing, the singer often retreated inwardly behind closed eyelids, leaving her audience spellbound by the quiet, sustained rapture that was her voice.
Dalton was one with a voice so captivating others felt it incumbent upon them to commit her vocals to record, despite her oftentimes ardent protestations, ever championing the act of crafting her art over that of preserving it; one whose voice could wrap up a suffering listener with the mollifying impression of warmth and understanding; one who with song conjured woebegone souls blighted by human cruelties like unrequited love, shipwrecked friendship foundering in the swells of misunderstanding, failure to achieve one’s chief desire and any other festering et cetera that might bog one down deeply.
In short, Dalton evoked despondency, alchemized it in the act of singing, sang the blues—and she did so with such moving power that twenty years after her death, as well as over fifty years since she began singing in front of audiences, listeners are still hunting her recordings and searching for unreleased gems bearing her inimitable imprint.
Like the rest of us, Dalton wasn’t here for very long. Despite the steadily increasing appetite now for what little recording she did decades ago, Dalton did not leave posterity a name that would garner much attention when she died on the streets of New York City in the winter of 1993. Considered largely under-heard even now, Dalton was, in the early 1960’s, far less recognized for her indubitable talents—amongst the public, that is.
You might know her for her influence on other artists, particularly those who bear the glow of fame, like Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, and Lenny Kaye, all of which sing her praises and commend her influence on their creative output. Dalton was no stranger to her contemporary fellow singers and songwriters as well, these too not failing to commend her artistry with words of reverent affection, or, as in the case of Fred Neil, some curt and truthful words of simplicity: “Her voice is so unique that to describe it would take a poet. All I can say is that she sure can sing the shit out of the blues,” said Neil, whose song, “Blues On The Ceiling,” a staple in Dalton’s set, is known largely for her unique rendition of it.
While she roamed the West coast (Colorado and California in particular), performing the songs she would later be praised for making her own—“Katie Cruel,” “Ribbon Bow,” “Green Rocky Road,” “In the Evening,” amongst others—Dalton attracted a stellar reputation amidst singers, songwriters, and listeners alike. These included David Crosby, Dick Weissman (The Journeymen), and Joe Loop (co-owner of infamous folk club The Attic), who respected Dalton not only for her talent for interpreting the songs of others—Fred Neil, Huddie Ledbetter, Ray Charles, Jelly Roll Morton and Booker T. Jones, just to name a few—but also for who she was: a strong-minded, caring woman who abhorred overt ignorance, be it directed towards herself or those in her protective company. “Sweet Mother K.D.” they called her.
“My mother was the kind of woman who would scream at bank tellers” recalls Dalton’s daughter, Abralyn Baird, in an interview with NPR, calling attention perhaps to a quick temper fueled by a domineering will rarely challenged, but when challenged, strongly resistant to what she perceived wrong or untruthful.
Peter Stampfel (The Holy Modal Rounders), in an essay composed for the CD re-release of Dalton’s first “proper” album, It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You Best (1969), reminisces about Dalton’s protectiveness exemplified by her standing up to unwarranted cruelty in the form of noxious thrill-seekers chasing down both she and a friend (on horseback) with a car. Stampfel writes: “Karen picked up a small tree branch and took off on horseback hell-for-leather in pursuit of the car, which she forced to a halt by beating on its windshield with her branch . . . Karen made the driver get out and apologize.”
Musically, Dalton’s aesthetic often matched that of her personality. She was never wholly comfortable performing on stage, refusing even to leave her dressing room for a string of European tour dates during the latter half of her singing career in support of her second and final studio album, In My Own Time (1971)—a horrendous experience for both she and the musicians journeying with her.
Though the virago side of Dalton, when present, was many times enflamed by her alcohol and drug use, friends and contemporaries recall in her essentially a strikingly beautiful, lithe woman of granite presence and mysteriousness who could render an audience attentive by the sheer dominance of her mesmerizing voice and delicate finger-picking style, but, conversely, one who, despite the surface appearance of masterful ease and felicity, preferred not to be where she was—on stage.
Stampfel remembers Dalton describing her ideal venue as one to match that of her intrinsic comfort created and sustained while jamming with friends—her living room, a place of warmth where “[s]he could just play music . . . and (magically) there would be a large audience, rapt, silent, and enthralled, which Karen could then totally ignore.” This marked adversity to the stage carried over tenfold to the recording studio, where too many hands in the deal manipulating her sound fueled her uncomfortable and boisterous mien. As Baird recalls, “She wanted to have her sound . . . That’s what they told her they wanted to hear, and then she’d get in the studio, and they’re like, ‘Well, we’ll just add a couple tracks to this.’ And she’s like, ‘No.’ She’d get furious.”
Years before Dalton even entered the studio, came the precursory Green Rocky Road (2008), officially released some forty-five years after its making in 2008. Green Rocky Road was recorded privately by Dalton and her close friend, Joe Loop, while ensconced in a cottage in Boulder, CO in 1962/1963; it’s a home-made record recorded on two tracks with Dalton picking banjo and playing guitar on every one except “In the Evening,” in which fellow musician Richard Tucker plays guitar. The song selection constitutes those Dalton made essential in her set, songs centering on the suffering female characters her voice brought to life in “Katie Cruel,” “Little Margaret,” and “Ribbon Bow.”
With consideration of the fact that Dalton never gave interviews about her work and/or artistic principles, alongside her choice to record independently, it would appear that Green Rocky Road was the album Dalton yearned to make—one entirely on her own terms, in her own way.
Green Rocky Road presents a side of Dalton even lesser known than what’s captured on It’s So Hard . . . and In My Own Time. Heard here is the living-room intimacy and inspiring passion of musicality that moved Dalton to sing in the first place, as she sings the songs of those who came before her, bearing tradition in her own distinctive way with a new voice demonstrative and intuitively brilliant.
Rife with interruption (a ringing phone; guest appearances—Dalton holds a conversation with her mother, Evelyn Cariker, before beginning “In the Evening”—) and glitches of faulty, makeshift recording equipment, Green Rocky Road is by no means a “proper” record, but, arguably, it is for that reason alone that it is so special in the handful of recordings left behind from this incredibly talented and inspiring singer. It’s as close to comfort as Dalton ever got with us being in the room while she sang.