Of the doomed folkies to wander dazed and forsaken through the dank cafes of 1960s Greenwich Village, Karen Dalton stands out as the most tragic and perhaps, the most talented.
Having made a rough way from Oklahoma to New York with a young daughter in tow, Dalton installed herself precariously amid the growing wave of folk musicians selling their wares in the big city. Descending from dead steels towns and drought battered farmlands and lead to the light by the Great Woody Guthrie, this new generation was preaching both social politics and the ecstasy of the outsider. Dalton would have fit in snugly had she been willing to be anyone other than herself. Instead, she quickly established a reputation for stubbornness, misanthropy, and a voice that could bite to the bone.
To hear Dalton sing is akin to a receiving stab to the heart, that same high irrefutable ache that comes whether youre falling in love - or out of it. Comparisons to Billie Holiday were something Dalton loathed, but there is an undeniable similarity in the pain held in their voices - the pain of the addict, the drunk, of a strong woman undone by weak men.
Dalton made the rounds alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Fred Neil, singing for her bread with musicians who would ultimately define a genre. Continually doing fevered battles with booze, drugs and various demons, Dalton was a difficult lady to pin down. As a result, recordings were rare, and by the time she died in 1993, she had only laid two albums onto vinyl.
Both 1969's It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You Best, and 1971's In My Own Time are beautiful and haunted. Dalton is one of those singers who can wrestle soul into any genre. Whether blues, country or rock, her vocals push each song down the well and into poignancy it might never have gained until she sang it.
Her music is endlessly evocative and sad and strange, a collection of tracks that feel like a fall landscape leaves gold, branches bare. Dalton occupies each of these songs like a slender ghost, lending a plaintive, haunting tint to even the most optimistic of numbers. In the end, this was one of her finest gifts; to instill a true gravity into everything she sang - to lift songs up, and then bury them deep in the bittersweet.
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