January 27, 2012 9:03 pm

Play, lady, play

Karen Dalton was Bob Dylan’s favourite singer and a folk-scene legend but died virtually unknown

If you like Bob Dylan a lot, you ought to love Karen Dalton a little. A legend of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, the singer is lionised by other performers and a tragic heroine for her fans. Today, nearly 20 years after her death, more of Dalton’s music is available than ever, and the people who knew her best have started to talk.

Tales about Dalton are as tall as she was. She had an aura that turned men’s heads and an attitude to spur girl-crushes in women who paint her as a “pagan mother goddess rooted in this planet”, as one purple liner-note has it. The stories mention her Native American blood, her hard drugs and her suspicion of recording studios, that she kidnapped her own child and died of Aids at 55 in 1993, a derelict on the streets of New York. The truth is more nuanced, but no less involving, than the fiction.

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Only two Dalton albums were released while she was alive. Her first LP did sneak out again in 1997, but it was the publication of Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles, that sparked her revival. He wrote that Dalton was his favourite singer in that Greenwich Village scene: “[She] had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it.” The going all the way is crucial. From the off, Dalton had an unforgettable blues voice, with a cracked, mournful, horn-like quality, weary beyond its years. What she wasn’t was a songwriter. Singer-songwriters were soon all the rage.

In 2006 Dalton’s low-key debut, It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best (1969), and its more extensively produced successor, In My Own Time (1971), were both – in record-industry parlance – “lavishly reissued”. Glowing reviews followed. The Dalton trail, cold for so long, was giving off heat.

1966 is the third and latest collection of previously unreleased – indeed, previously unknown – reel-to-reel recordings to have emerged since. The others are Cotton Eyed Joe (2007), a 1962 live set of 21 tracks, and Green Rocky Road (2008), nine home recordings from 1963. Each sounds thrillingly raw, low-fi and antique, but 1966 is the pick. As her then husband – duettist and guitar player Richard Tucker – observes, Dalton is “relaxed and in her element”. The location is an old gold-rush cabin in the hills near Boulder, Colorado; their retreat from beatnik living “back east”. Dalton plays banjo and sings the folk standards that were the core of her repertoire along with songs by their Greenwich Village peers Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. Hers must be the first cover of Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” (a song later popularised by Rod Stewart) because Hardin’s own debut album wasn’t even pressed at that point.

On the phone from the Pacific north-west, Tucker, now 71, still seems slightly in awe: “I was totally amazed by her right away. I remember carrying her guitar for her down the street. I was like a groupie ... The first place I saw her perform was a tiny spot on Bleecker Street called the Flamenco Café ... Peter Tork [the future Monkee] was washing dishes.”

cover of Dalton's latest album '1966'

Cover of Dalton's latest album '1966'

For five years Dalton and Tucker would go back and forth between New York and Colorado, where the Attic folk club in Boulder became a pit-stop for musicians travelling coast-to-coast. Dalton was a draw for the likes of Hardin, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and a pre-Byrds David Crosby. She played few formal gigs. “We did do a really good concert at the university in Indiana,” says Tucker. “Somewhere in the world is a tape.” Recording together was almost unheard of, not something that occurred to young folkies existing day-to-day.

Theirs was a “very tumultuous relationship”, Tucker recalls. “Karen was strong-willed but she wasn’t self-confident. There was a fragility there.” They split up soon after the 1966 session was captured by their friend Carl Baron. “I remember having an argument in the middle of Denver and me getting out of the car and walking away and never seeing her again,” Tucker says.

Dalton’s daughter, Abralyn Baird, now 55, was born when Dalton was 17; her elder brother, Johnny Lee Murray, when Dalton was 15. Two fathers, two divorces. “My mom was kinda headstrong. She wanted to get on with stuff,” says Baird. “In most states then you could get permission to marry before you were 16; it wasn’t a total scandal or anything.”

By her own admission, Baird has the same “deep, hoarse” speaking voice as her mother. Asked to name the most erroneous of the Dalton myths, she answers disarmingly: “The Cherokee princess one makes us all laugh.” Her mother’s parents, John and Evelyn Cariker, came from “mostly Irish” stock, she says. One grandmother was distantly related to Will Rogers, the Cherokee cowboy-actor, but the link was “pretty dilute”. A nice story then? “Isn’t it though?” Baird replies.

Dalton’s Oklahoma background was a badge of authenticity in Greenwich Village. Tucker remembers her family as “classic Okies”, rural flotsam of the Depression, and her father as “incredibly alcoholic”.

Baird bristles: “Her dad was a respected welder; her mother was a nurse. Not terribly Grapes of Wrath.”

So what of Abralyn’s kidnapping? “Yeah, she took off with me. But, remember, she was a 19-year-old girl.” Having already lost custody of her son, Dalton reconciled with Baird’s father, a literature professor, who had been granted custody of their daughter – then fled with her to New York. “They had the same temperament, my mom and dad,” says Baird. “They were very forthright, quick to anger. Very stubborn.”

Little is known publicly about Dalton after the early 1970s other than that she was living in New York. Drink and drugs surely tightened their grip but friends such as the folk guitarist Peter Walker have rebutted suggestions she died homeless and destitute. Baird maintains her mother had throat cancer and was in a hospice near Woodstock at the end. As for Aids, Baird says: “Well, she could have had that too, but it was never said to me specifically that she did.”

Dalton’s career stalled through corporate indifference and her own intransigence. “She wasn’t seen as very commercial,” Tucker explains. “The people in charge [of record labels] didn’t get it.” Baird believes it wasn’t so much that her mother didn’t want to record albums as that she resented the loss of control the process implied.

And as Harvey Brooks, the producer of Dalton’s one fully realised studio outing, In My Own Time, told me in 2006: “She didn’t like pressure. She was a very intimate performer – we didn’t have the word ‘stress’ then.”

Dalton is increasingly recognised, however, as an astonishing vocal interpreter. “She was taking something else and making it her own,” says Baird. Dalton’s technique owes more to jazz than folk. According to Brooks, “She crosses the bars… She’ll bend a note and you don’t know if she’s gonna make it or not, but she does.”

If Dalton has a signature song it’s the ballad “Katie Cruel”, which opens: “When I first came to town they called me the roving jewel, now they’ve changed their tune, call me Katie Cruel.” You don’t need to spend ages wondering why it appealed to her. “Oh, because it sounds like she’s talking about herself,” Tucker says. “Or more like an image of herself.”

Dalton’s original Capitol Records biography from 1969 asks rhetorically where she has been: “She’s been around,” it concludes. At last, her music is getting around, too.

‘1966’ is out on Delmore Recording Society on January 30

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