|Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton, Fred Neil, Greenwich Village 1961.|
"My favourite singer in the place was Karen Dalton,she was a tall white blues singer and guitar player,funky,lanky and sultry. I'd actually met her before,run across her the previous summer outside of Denver in a mountain pass town in a folk club. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it. I sang with her a couple of times".
When I read these words of Bob I just thought to myself that I had never heard of her and read on, but Bob had planted a good seed in my subconscious and I'm really glad he did.
A few years went by until I was on Google one day looking for some information about Van Morrison and started to read an old article on the Guardian newspaper site about Youtube and it was saying how great Youtube was because you could see long forgotten footage such as a teenage Van the Man singing with Them at the NME Pollwinners Concert or legendary New York folkie Karen Dalton. Immediately Bob's prophetic words came back to me and I made a bee-line for Youtube. The first clip I found was Karen singing a song called It Hurts Me Too. I was immediately transfixed. I could see what Bob meant,her voice had an uncanny resemblance to Billie,not only in the sound but in the emotion,she didn't just sing the blues, she was the blues. I could also see the damage that life had done to her,from a distance she looked like a very beautiful woman with long straight dark hair but as the camera closed in you could see the effects of hard living etched into her face. Despite the ravages of abuse she still had a nice beguiling smile. The sound of her 12 string guitar was really tasteful as well.
I decided that I had to buy a cd by this great singer and I went to Selectadisc and chose an album at random. It was called 'In My Own Time' and was originally released in 1971. Then I went to Wikipedia to learn about Karen Dalton and found that Karen was born in Enid, Oklahoma of Cherokee and Irish origins. In her bluesy, world-weary voice She sang blues, folk, country, pop, and Motown making over each song in her own style. She played the 12 string Gibson guitar and a long neck banjo. Karen's second album, In My Own Time was recorded at Bearsville Studio's and originally released by Just Sunshine Records. Its liner notes were written by Fred Neil and its cover photos were taken by Elliot Landy. Less well-known is Karen's first album It's So Hard To Tell Who Is Going To Love You The Best. Known as The folk singer's answer to Billie Holiday and Sweet Mother K.D She struggled with drugs and alcohol for many years. It has been widely reported that she died in 1993 destitute and forgotten.
The CD arrived and I eagerly opened the package. On the invoice inside whoever had packed it had written "An Awesome Choice,Dig It!". This boded well and I played the CD. I haven't stopped playing it since. I love it.My favourite song is 'Katie Cruel', it has a strange ethereal haunted quality. Something On Your Mind,the opening track is fabulous but I love all of them.You will know When A Man Loves A Woman & How Sweet It Is but Karen gives them a whole new treatment. You must check out this album.What I can't understand is that it flopped on release and Karen disappeared into obscurity. I think this might be because she didn't write her own material, she just interpreted other peoples songs. Also, apparently she hated recording and wasn't bothered about the trappings of fame and was probably too sensitive. This world was too cruel for the likes of Karen and she buried the pain under alcohol and drugs and slowly slid into a terminal decline.
The word about Karen Dalton is spreading. Nick Cave who wrote a song called The First Time I Came To Town inspired by Karen's Katie Cruel described her as his favourite Blues singer and wrote a piece for the re-release of the album called 'An Understanding Of Sorrow' which is really good. Nick says "I always play her a lot,and to the people I live with and they would say, 'Please take that fucking record off'. They just didn't get it,they didn't feel the same way, I've had that reaction to Leonard Cohen,Van Morrison or Bob Dylan.That to me denotes a great, very individual, idiosyncratic voice, an exciting voice".
I urge you to listen to Karen Dalton. Below is the youtube song that first made me aware of her amazing talent. Show it full screen, turn it up and dig her voice and that great guitar.