In the hyper-documented, post-digital world can there really be any unknown great music? The back catalogues of the 1960s in particular have been trawled on an industrial scale, and the scrapings from the ocean bottom packaged and re-released to fading acclaim. In the context of rapidly diminishing returns, the low-key arrival of Karen Dalton’s 1966 is positively seismic. This is the closest we are likely to get to songs that we’ve never heard before, that deserve to be considered with the best.
Karen Dalton was from one perspective a tragic casualty of her time, and from another one of the greatest blues singers ever recorded. She was a doyen of the early 60s Greenwich Village folk scene in New York, where Bob Dylan heard her perform and described her as his favourite singer. But while New York launched Dylan and many others to global fame, Dalton hated the city and the attention. She left with her estranged husband, Richard Tucker, for remote Colorado where they lived in a cabin so far from any settlement that it had no address and no running water. Nevertheless, fellow singers Tim Hardin and Fred Neil joined her there for a time, and they played and sang together.
Dalton released only two albums, one of which she was tricked into recording under the impression the tape wasn’t running. Both vanished, and her official output ended there. The rest of her life was a disaster: she developed a heroin problem, lost custody of her children, spent time living on the streets of New York and died in complete obscurity in 1993, aged 55. She was a child of the 60s in every way: talented beautiful, willowy, with long dark hair from Cherokee roots; feckless, irresponsible and deeply self-destructive.
Since her last release in 1971, two further compilations of demo material have emerged, but the discovery of 1966 significantly increased the amount of material that has survived. The album is reel-to-reel home recordings, made as she and Tucker rehearsed at the Colorado cabin, and they contain some of the most intense music you could hope to hear. Most of the tracks include nothing more than Karen’s voice and Richard’s banjo or guitar on a crackling, hissing, single track tape. Sometimes they duet and there’s a little whistling, but that’s it. Yet the music is a portal into the past, projecting the listener back into a lost era through the beauty, personality, and poignancy of Karen’s voice.
The first track, ‘Reason to Believe’, leaps out of the speakers and grabs at your throat. Dalton address an unknown man, brutally exposing both his faithlessness and her self-deception: “Knowing that you lied straightfaced while I cried / still I’ll find a reason to believe.” The dead-pan emotional honesty is shocking and her singing, with long sweet phrases but a rough blues edge, is impossible to disbelieve. Her singing is mesmerising, crowd-stopping. Dalton stands dead still and sings, while everything whirls around her – literally in fact, as Youtube footage demonstrates.
‘Katie Cruel’, a traditional folk song and the nearest thing Karen has to a signature tune, features a rolling banjo and a mysterious story of rejection, apparently inflicted as punishment for making “the young girls merry”. Sorrow and exile suit Dalton’s voice down to the ground, and her delivery of the lines “When I first came to town they called me the roving jewel / Now they’ve changed their tune / They call me Katie Cruel” is eerily timeless.
Tracks such as ‘Katie Cruel’ appear on other Dalton records, but stripped of any attempt at production these version shine even more brightly. Further highlights include ‘Green Rocky Road’, a Fred Neil song, and a traditional number, ‘Cotton Eye Joe’. Dalton induces a similar state of mind on each track, turning each into a warning of indefinable disaster, trailing betrayal and loss behind them. But she makes deep sadness more beautiful than almost anyone.
Dalton sings the blues like folk, and folk like the blues, stripping traditional styles down to their common themes of love, loss and death. ‘Misery Blues’ just over a minute long, shows her in complete command on a blues standard, while ‘Mole in the Ground’ is banjo blues, relocating southern music in the mountains of the north. Dalton draws comparisons, frequently made, with Billie Holiday with a version of the bleak self-reliance blues song “God Bless the Child’. It may sounds even more like a field recording than the rest of 1966, but it displays her voice to heartbreaking perfection.
Her friend Lacy Dalton (no relation), interviewed in 2007, said “Karen had true, true greatness that had not been recognised. I said to her, ‘It’s going to annoy the hell out of you but you’ll probably only get recognised after your death.’” We’ve waited long enough: it’s time to celebrate a singer who sounds like no other.