published: 10 /
Keith How reflects on the rediscovered career of 60's folk artist Karen Dalton and new box set, 'Recording is the Trip'.
With only two album releases to her name Karen Dalton is a legendary figure in folk blues and Americana. Her name was whispered in reverential terms a few years back by such luminaries as Devandra Banhart and Joanna Newsom in the New Folk revival spearheaded by Vetiver, Espers and the like.
Dalton’s story makes salutary reading. Leaving Oklahoma in the early sixties, victim of two divorces at 21, she arrived in New York and found her way into the folk music scene in Greenwich Village. Playing at the same time as Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin,Fred Neil and Richard Tucker (whom she later married), Dalton would often be found at Cafe Wha ?. As a performer she covered old folk and blues classics. Heroin and alcohol took their toll on her and her lack of recognition caused her much distress.
Her first album 'It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best' was recorded in 1969 and legend has it that producer Nik Venet and Fred Neil managed to record Dalton only by pretending the tapes were not rolling; such was her reluctance to be part of the music business.
Her most popular record 'In My Own Time' (1971) was a more rounded affair. Sporting a brilliant Elliot Landy photograph on the cover and accompanied by bass, drums and piano, Dalton sounds in fine form and the resulting album of freewheeling laid-back folky blues is relaxed and poignant.
Listening to that first release now is a fascinating experience. The bleak fragile world weariness captured on those all night one-take sessions is simply riveting. Haunting and almost spectral you are transported into a lo-fi world that is simple and beautiful and yet timeless. She hated being compared to Billie Holiday but her interpretations of folk blues, like Holiday, are unparalleled.
This definitive summary of Karen Dalton’s career is a sumptuous affair and includes a double live album 'Cotton Eyed Joe,' which consists of a set of remastered 1962/3 live recordings which are pretty much the Holy Grail.
'In My Own Time' benefits from smooth production values and commercial arrangements. The songs are finely crafted and beautifully played. A blend of country rock, soul (check out 'When a Man Loves a Woman”), folk and blues make this album an easy, laid-back listen that easily sits alongside say, 'John Wesley Harding' or 'Music from Big Pink.' A far cry from 'Time' are the early recordings captured by Joe Loop in his attic folk club in Boulder, Colorado in 1962 (?).
These dusty, sepia-toned recordings find a mid-20’s Dalton both powerful and vulnerable; just voice and guitar echoing around the space. Dalton plays guitar and sometimes banjo, sparsely scraping the strings to accompany her strong vocal performance. Lo-Fi before the term was ever needed, these performances are pure magic and capture a time long departed, making the box set into a historic document.
'Recording is the Trip' is a completists’ dream and new listeners who are inclined to investigate this sumptuous box set will discover one of folk music’s lost treasures.
P.S. Anyone who might be interested in discovering modern day equivalents to Karen Dalton could investigate Cinderwell (U.S.A), Nightbird (Finland) ( and Katie Spencer (U.K.), not forgetting Meg Baird from the above mentioned Espers.
O.K. I am off to dig out my video of 'Inside Llewyn Davis'; I recommend this movie as an insight to the early folk scene in Greenwich Village in the early ‘60s.