Though she has been dead for more than a quarter-century, Karen Dalton, a staple of the Greenwich Village folk scene, had the sort of voice that still haunts those of us who love music in the margins.
Woodstock, New York after, say, 1965 was a place where musical giants roamed the earth, but the community also served as a semi-safe preserve for the walking wounded to stumble around inside. All of this is chronicled in Barney Hoskyns’ excellent, at-times harrowing book Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock (Da Capo, 2016).
Among the walking wounded were hard drinkers like Paul Siebel, a talented songwriter who suffered from intractable stage fright; John Herald, who introduced the Village folkies to the joys of the country life of Woodstock but could not find his own place therein; Tim Hardin, whose heroin addiction led to an inevitable early death; Fred Neil, best known for the covers of his songs by other performers; Janis Joplin, who periodically came to stay with her manager, and care bear, Albert Grossman; the alcoholic John Martyn; the traumatized songwriter Jackson C. Frank; and members of The Band, like Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, who just lit the candle too brightly.
Arguably the most haunted, and haunting, voice among the also rans belonged to Karen Dalton (1937-1993). Fred Neil brought Dalton to Woodstock for the first time, according to Harvey Brooks, the versatile bassist who played on her 1969 album It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best and produced her only other studio album In My Own Time (1972).
The title track from her debut album:
Dalton was a heroin addict who intermittently got clean and sober over the years. Whenever she’d encounter her friend Tim Hardin, however, she’d be back on the needle again. She was married for a time to guitarist Richard Tucker, performing as a duo with him, and sometimes as part of a trio with Tim Hardin.
Dalton was one of the first artist to cover Hardin’s “Reason to Believe”.
She was born Jean Karen Cariker in Texas and raised in Oklahoma. Smitten by traditional blues, country and folk music, she learned to play the banjo and 12-string guitar and moved to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. She was a vibrant part of the folk circle that included Fred Neil, the Holy Modal Rounders and Bob Dylan, who in Chronicles called her his “favorite female vocalist…Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed… I sang with her a couple of times.”
Although her reputation at the time was as “the hillbilly Billie Holiday,” she claimed Bessie Smith as her true inspiration. Dalton had an otherworldly voice, as unbending as an arrow. As Hoskyns describes it, “Her voice was horn-like, elemental, and sparing of vibrato, each note a piercing straight line to the soul.”
Dalton, like Siebel, was not one to relish playing live, or even in the studio. She, in fact, had to be tricked into going into the studio for the first time by her producer Nick Venet, who simply asked her to drop in on a session by Fred Neil and then got her on tape (resulting in (It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best).
“Ribbon Bow” taken from her debut album.
Her finest performances, according to friends in Woodstock cited by Hoskyns (John Hall, JoHanna Hall, Peter Walker, Happy and Artie Traum), were done in the living rooms of kindred spirits.
Here is a scarily good version of the traditional song “Katie Cruel” from her second album.
Here is a cover version of “Something on Your Mind,” a song by her friend, Dino Valenti, another troubled troubadour:
“Who cannot maintain will always fall…”
After the Village folk scene petered out—about the time Bob Dylan retreated to Woodstock, in fact—Dalton lived for years in a rent-controlled Bronx apartment, making money doing odd jobs like handing out advertising fliers on the sidewalk. She had enough friends in Woodstock so that she always had a place to stay there. She eventually moved into a trailer in Hurley, N.Y., just outside of Woodstock. She died of AIDS in her trailer in March 1993.