I can’t think of any other singer who makes exhaustion sound so good. In every song, Karen Dalton seems to be aching for a drink, a cigarette, a throat lozenge or a nap, but somehow her narcoleptic phrasing and sandpaper vowels transform the hangovers and the sadness into things of ineffable, spooky beauty. Take the traditional song ‘Katie Cruel’. Accompanied by a plaintive violin and long neck banjo, played by Dalton herself, the tune is as raw as the words are resigned: ‘Oh that I was what I would be/That what I be that I am not/Here am I where I must be/Go where would I cannot.’ As her mournful voice plays tag with the violin, their mutual anguish entwines and shoots straight at the heart. She may never have recorded her own songs, yet she made every note she sang her own.
There are only two albums available by Oklahoma-born Dalton. The newly re-released In My Own Time was recorded over six months in 1971, and produced by Bob Dylan’s former bassist Harvey Brooks. Her first album, the languid It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best, was recorded, apparently without Dalton’s realization, in one take in 1969, and re-released by Koch Records in 1996.
Dalton was associated with the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, particularly with Dylan and Fred Neil. She battled with drugs and alcohol for many years and died, near-destitute, in 1993. Her voice has often been compared to Billie Holliday, but the comparison is too easy; Holliday sounds like a woman who rarely ventured outside a smoky bar, whereas Dalton sounds like she was suckled in a drafty cabin and arrived in town with windburn and a sore throat. Which, I hasten to add, is a recommendation – how can a voice so fragile have such bone-chilling power?
Her voice slides and scrapes, looking for the right moment to release a note before moving onto the next. Often she pushes her range so far it cracks with the strain; but nothing breaking has ever sounded better. It’s impossible to imagine her singing a song the same way twice. She might have sung a lot about rejection, but, as they say, every rejection is unique, and Dalton sings like she is experiencing a broken heart for the first time; beneath the sadness lurks a throbbing bass note of astonishment.
In My Own Time is far livelier than the minimal It’s So Hard to Tell…. Up to 12 musicians on some songs allow Dalton’s influences to shine through: from the lush phrasing of Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone to the sparse purity of traditional Appalachian songs, country, rhythm and blues, jazz and soul. The record opens with the majestic ‘Something On Your Mind’, moves into a smoky version of ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ and then steps outside into the cold sad air of ‘Katie Cruel’. But perhaps the most astonishing song is the traditional ‘Same Old Man’ in which Dalton’s voice, accompanied by a hypnotic banjo, is at its most hallucinatory and intense as she sings: ‘It’s the same old lady standing in the rain/My lips won’t form the words I speak/New York city won’t see me again.’ It’s possibly the loneliest song ever recorded. The final song on the album – and the last Dalton ever put on vinyl – is the sweet, almost breezy, ‘Are you Leaving for the Country’. She sounds, for once, almost happy when she sings: ‘Do you feel that something’s not real? Let the spirit move you again.’