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Karen Dalton: The Most Tragically Beautiful Folk Singer You've Probably Never Heard Of

By Lara James

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Not many people know Karen Dalton. I only found her yesterday, but I can’t stop listening to her music and thinking about her voice. Dalton got her recognition well after her time, and even then, she has not received as much as she deserves. When Dalton sings, it’s not even really singing. She’s telling you something. It’s so straight, so heavy, so stripped down. It’s like nothing you have ever heard.

Dalton played music with Bob Dylan, Fred Neil, Richard Tucker (with whom she was later involved), and most people in the folk scene in Greenwich Village in New York. She migrated from Oklahoma in the 60s, leaving behind a husband and a few children. Dalton could play the 12-string guitar and banjo, but she refused to sing her own material. She only did covers (similar to artists like Chan Marshall, whose musical limitations on the guitar have aided her perfection), which some say hurt her career. This was a time when being a singer-songwriter meant producing your own material, your own voice, your own ideas, and not an interpretation of someone else’s. Dylan once said that Dalton had a “voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed.”

Apparently, Dalton was very afraid. She could perform in public as long as she was reconstructing someone else’s ballad, but was terrified when it came to the studio. Her debut album, It’s So Hard To Tell You Who’s Going To Love You The Best, was only recorded because Fred Neil tricked her into thinking that there was no tape rolling and that it was simply a rehearsal. Her sophomore album, In My Own Time, did not do as well as expected. Maybe it was the infusion of pop production into the mix? Maybe it was the fact that, even though Dalton brought her two teenage children, her dog, and her horse to Upstate New York to ease her mind, she still couldn’t relax? The album failed commercially and Dalton drifted away. She’d always had issues with drugs and alcohol. She ended up on the streets for years, lost most of her teeth, her relationships, and faded. Some sources say Lacy J Dalton (a fellow singer and friend who adopted her last name in Dalton’s honor) got Dalton’s guitars out of the pawn shops and sent her to rehab in Texas. Others say she had been battling AIDS for eight years and was in the care of Peter Walker before her death. Either way, what is confirmed is that she died on the streets of New York in 1993.

In an article from 2007, Lacy J Dalton remembers that she once told Karen, ”It's going to annoy the hell out of you, but you'll probably only get recognized after your death.” This happens to some of the best artists, and that’s okay. Maybe these people could not really take being appreciated in the flesh. I want to appreciate Karen Dalton now. Move her beyond the cult and run her beautiful voice through your stereo that was build decades after she died.

R.I.P. (even though it was almost two decades ago) Karen Dalton.

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