Karen Dalton

by Thomas Conner


Even before she rose from the dead, Karen Dalton always sounded like a ghost.

Her voice was an unearthly coo, a mournful banshee wail, baying the blues with clutching patience. The only urgency was in the timbre of her voice—fairly high, very round, all soft palette, and just shy of shrill. On first listen, everyone starts in with the comparisons to Billie Holiday. Eventually, though, you feel the need to get beyond that blurb, to go deeper, lured by her slow, slow siren call.

“No one sang the blues slower than she did,” says Richard Tucker, a fellow folk singer and Dalton’s ex-husband. “It was her sound, her tone. To me, that’s the big thing in her music. Her voice is so distinctive, nobody sounds like that. Madeleine Peyroux a little bit, but she’s more ‘up,’ not so bluesy. [Karen] sounds a fair amount like Billie Holiday, and of course, you hear that a lot about her. They could’ve said ‘the new Billie Holiday’ or ‘the country Billie Holiday,’ and she might have made a bigger impact, sold more records. I told her that back then, but she didn’t want to think about it.”

He chuckles. “You couldn’t tell her anything.” Then he really laughs at the thought. “Nobody had a clear picture of how to come out of it commercially and make her a known person. Only certain underground people hear her and say, ‘Wow.’ Nine out of ten don’t get it, but people who get it think she’s the greatest thing in the world.”

Nearly 20 years after her death, and 40 years after her last commercial recording, Dalton is just now gaining ground as a “known person.” She had everything going for her—a signature and authentic sound, moving from Oklahoma to Greenwich Village at exactly the right moment, the vocal admiration of that scene’s rising star, Bob Dylan—but none of it panned out, nothing translated into commercial success.

In the 21st century, though, all music is current and available. The temporality of tunes has been abolished. A teenager jumping into the pop music pool today need not dive, because everything’s on the surface—the Rolling Stones floating right alongside the Stone Temple Pilots, the Beatles with the English Beat, the Flamin’ Groovies and the Flaming Lips—all of it reachable within a smattering of keystrokes and hyperlinked by relativity and shared adoration. Degree of fame is irrelevant, or at least recast and often upended by the number of page views.

So someone like Dalton sounds at once old and new. Hipsters of each succeeding generation have reveled in her rediscovery—boomers embracing a new shoot from old roots, millennials donning another badge of indie identity. She’s the embodiment of the surrealistic, out-of-time ambassador in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.”

“My daughter’s been at parties and people say, ‘I heard this on YouTube the other day,’ and they’re talking about her grandmother,” says Dalton’s daughter, Abbe Baird. “She says, ‘The other day I was watching this movie, and they were playing Grandma.’ Like she was still alive, like she just recorded the song.”

Online, in footage filmed in her time, Dalton sounds and seems ghostly, utterly haunting of any decade. A black-and-white clip from a French documentary shot in 1969 (available on YouTube and as part of the new Cotton Eyed Joe CD collection) shows Dalton singing Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too.” She’s at a microphone, sitting stock-still. Her straight, dark hair hangs slightly lower than her empty gaze. She plucks a tinny 12-string guitar with silver picks on her fingertips, which glisten just outside of her antediluvian (or merely “retro”) lace cuffs. Only occasionally, and barely, does she let a grin slide across her pale, pretty face. It’s a flash of humanity—the only sign that she may be more than merely an earthly amplifier for that otherworldly voice.

Look closely, too, and you’ll notice the missing teeth. Dalton’s story had no classic Behind the Music narrative arc. There was no rise to fame before the trouble started. Her life was tumultuous from the get-go, from her days growing up in Enid. She drank hard, she took drugs, she acted out. She was married and divorced twice before age 21, before leaving Oklahoma. Those two bottom incisors stayed behind.

“She was living with a guy who caught her in bed with my eventual stepfather, and she got punched in the face,” Baird says. “She used to say she was going to get her teeth fixed when she got to be a big star.”

Dalton, however, never got to be a star—and didn’t always seem to really want to be.

Like another Okie transplant in the Big Apple, Woody Guthrie, she sabotaged many chances to move her career forward. She hated recording; her first album, It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best (1969), was only captured because producer Fred Neil fooled her into believing the tape wasn’t rolling. She never wrote her own songs, performing and recording only covers in an era that valued the individual voice of the emerging singer-songwriter. Releasing only two albums, she never toured.

Saddled with drug and alcohol addictions, she roamed the country for years until even her two children and closest friends lost touch. She had one friend to the end, a country singer named Lacy J. Dalton (yes, she adopted the last name as a tribute), who got her into rehab a couple of times. But those missing teeth and the pain they caused were Dalton’s ticket to getting codeine prescriptions. She died in 1993, in Woodstock, New York.

“But she was more than just this junkie person that had a horrible life,” Tucker insists. “People have a tendency to think of musicians that way instead of thinking about the music they made. I don’t see Karen as a tragic figure but more as a misunderstood artist. There’s a lot of good times and inspiring music.”

The good times were rooted in Enid, in Oklahoma’s red dirt (and, eventually, Red Dirt music) heartland.

Dalton, born in 1937, grew up on three acres near the edge of Enid. The land was big enough to have horses. By all accounts, Dalton loved horses.

“She always had horses,” recalls Tucker, now 72 and holed up in Bellingham, Washington. “We had horses [when we lived together] in Colorado. We’d ride all day through the Rockies with the dogs. She really knew horses, too. We went to one big horse sale, were going to buy a couple. This guy had 50 horses in his pasture. She immediately pointed to one horse, which turned out to be the owner’s fastest quarter horse. She bought it. She just knew how its legs were shaped or something. She never lost a race—not on a racetrack or something, just in the hills. She raced a pickup truck once and beat it. Even when Abbe was living with us, she had a pony.”

To counter her aversion to recording, before retreating to upstate New York to record her second album, In My Own Time (1971), Dalton first returned to Enid to fetch her kids and her favorite horse.

“It’s no wonder she loved them so much,” Baird says. “She had the same wild spirit.”

Tucker visited with Dalton once back home in Enid. “Her dad was a welder, her mom was a nurse.”

“They were real Oklahoma people, the whole family having lived there forever,” he says. (Dalton’s mother, Evelyn, was of Cherokee descent.) “I remember on that visit, her mother picked us up at the bus station. In the car on the way home, after just five minutes, Karen started talking like her mother, talking more Okie. It was fascinating.”

“She loved to tease people with that accent,” Baird says. “She’d hear people use bad grammar, and she’d put on that act of an Okie hick to one-up them. But she didn’t have to act too hard.”

“You can hear Oklahoma in her voice in a different way when she sings,” Tucker says. “It’s that, I dunno, that lonesome sound. It’s not a hillbilly sound, it’s something else.”

“The phrasing, the gospel sound, the haunting minor key,” Baird adds. “It’s a backwoods thing. Her mother was a staunch Baptist, but they don’t believe in dancing, so Mom became a Methodist so she could dress to the nines and go to a church where they were singing all the old songs. ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ all those. Plus, that farm of her grandparents’—there was a dividing line in Enid between where the black people lived and the white people, just two blocks north of it. I know she interacted with the whole black community in ways most people—most white people—didn’t get to.”

Dalton left Enid around 1961. She wasn’t clamoring to escape; she just wanted a new adventure. She’d taught herself guitar and was ready to find an audience. At least, at first.

“Enid was a small Midwestern town, and it was the mid-50s,” Baird says. “The only thing to do at night was drive up and down the main drag and try to get a date. Think about what was expected of women then. Most of them weren’t even expected to go to college. You got married and had babies as soon as you could. You stayed home and kept house. Karen did not want to do that. She liked to paint and play music. … She went to New York to do that. First, she went to Colorado, then to New York.

One of my favorite stories about her getting to New York was her discovery of spaghetti. There were no Italians in Enid, no Italian restaurants. She was very excited about it.”

Eventually landing in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Dalton found herself among the folk music revival of the early 1960s. She started making the rounds of pass-the-hat clubs, singing and playing her 27-fret banjo or a 12-string guitar. Tucker was a folksinger, too, and this is where they met and married.

This is also when Dalton met Jill Byrem, who would become Lacy J. Dalton. She, too, remembers Karen’s impact, specifically in a piece of advice she was given. “Why do you think you have to sing so loud?” Lacy, in an interview with London’s Guardian newspaper, recalled Karen telling her. “If you want to be heard you have to sing softer.”

Dylan was coming up through the same scene and often backed Dalton on harmonica. She had an effect on him, too, one he still remembered years later. Early in the first volume of his memoirs, Chronicles (published in 2004), on page 12, Dylan writes, “My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. She was a tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky, and sultry. … Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it. I sang with her a couple of times.”

“Katie’s Been Gone” by Dylan & The Band is allegedly about Dalton. A generation later, she also inspired Nick Cave’s “When I First Came to Town.” Like Dylan, Cave has referred to Dalton as his “favourite female blues singer.” Devendra Banhart has proclaimed, “Without a doubt, she is my favorite singer.” Peter Stampfel, of The Holy Modal Rounders, later wrote of Dalton: “She was the only folk singer I ever met with an authentic ‘folk’ background. She came to the folk music scene under her own steam, as opposed to being ‘discovered’ and introduced to it by people already involved in it.”

The posthumous accolades began appearing within the last several years, as Dalton’s music began resurfacing—in both reissues of her two records as well as three new compilations of unreleased recordings. Cotton Eyed Joe (2007), named after the Bob Wills hit she loved to sing (downshifted into a slow, regretful reading), draws from the tape of a house concert for a small audience of friends from 1962 in Boulder. Green Rocky Road (2008) gathers home recordings from 1963. The most recent is this year’s chronologically titled 1966, featuring songs recorded by visiting pal Carl Baron in a Colorado mountain cabin.

“I sing on a few of those, and play,” Tucker says. “We were living in the hills outside Boulder. Carl was a friend of ours and loved to come up and jam with us. I didn’t even remember it, but apparently, on more than one occasion he had a cheap tape recorder and taped it. The quality is not good. A lot of things are so distorted we couldn’t use them. Like, she was doing this Lead Belly song, and she’d do this ‘Whoop!’ The distortion is so horrible they couldn’t fix it electronically. … See, none of this stuff was ever meant to be put out. If you were seriously trying to make a recording, you would’ve done a better job than most of these tapes. They’re just things that were captured in the moment, for personal mementos or maybe to help one of us remember parts of the songs. Now they’re just these ghosts come back to haunt us all.”

After recording In My Own Time at the turn of the ’70s, Dalton never made another record. She drifted, around the country and deeper into drugs. Lacy J. Dalton claims she had a recording session scheduled for Karen in Texas in 1992, but Karen exited rehab, went back to New York, and disappeared until her obituary the following year.

Tucker last saw Dalton in ’67, two years before she was tricked into recording her proper debut album. The two split up in Denver and Dalton never saw her again. Years later, when he sought to remarry, he says he tracked her down in order to send her divorce papers, which Dalton signed and returned without comment.

Even Baird, now relocated to eastern Illinois, eventually lost touch with her mother. “I was married and having children. I called her and told her I was going to be a mom. There was a long pause,” Baird says. “Then this voice said, ‘You bitch.’ … She never met her grandchildren.”

Baird says she doesn’t mind the revisitations via reissues.

“People keep saying they’ve come up with more stuff, so I guess she’s going to walk the earth a while longer,” she says. “You’re never really
famous until you die.”

This story originally appeared in the August 1st, 2012 issue of This Land.