The Legacy of Karen Dalton

Recently reinterpreted by modern artists like Laurel Halo and Marissa Nadler, the impact of this ’60s folk singer lives on.

“The last performance I ever saw her do was at The Joyous Lake in Woodstock. It must have been the early ‘80s. She was trying to get her shit together and she was in fragile but functional form, so the owner of the place, Ron, went around all the tables; shaking his fist in the noses of everybody in the audience and saying, ‘I don’t wanna hear any wisecracks, any talking or any sound while this lady is performing.’” Peter Walker pauses for thought. The phone line crackles. “So, that was the sort of feeling that Karen inspired in people.”

Walker is one of the few remaining members of the old guard that helped stoke the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 1960s. During this period he released two albums, in 1966 and in 1968, both of which on Vanguard, the go-to label of the era. The 76-year-old is speaking from his home in Woodstock, New York, and offers answers packed with the kind of details that come easily when you’re talking about someone you love.

That someone is his late friend Karen Dalton, also a folk singer in New York in the 1960s, having moved from Enid, Oklahoma, at the start of the decade. Reportedly of Cherokee descent, she sang in an eerie, quavering voice that conveys the comfort in being sad. She was a regular on the coffee house circuit and performed more than once with Bob Dylan, who mentioned her in his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: “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.”

Karen Dalton and Richard Tucker perform at Gerde's Folk City in New York, pictured on the Sept. 15, 1963, cover of the New York Herald Tribune Sunday magazine Light in the Attic Records

Like Walker, she released two albums in the Greenwich Village era, It’s So Hard To Know Who’s Going to Love You Best (1969) and In My Own Time (1971). Both albums consisted solely of traditional songs such as “Cotton Eyed Joe” and covers of contemporary artists, such as Fred Neil. Walker puts this desire to record other people’s songs rather than her own down to a love of the material: “She wanted to pay tribute to the other people that she thought were great, and she wanted to do that before promoting herself.”

When her second album flopped and she was unable to secure a record deal, Dalton lived in poverty and released no music between 1971 and her death in 1993, at just 55 years old. The reasons for this are at once obscure and well documented, a paradox that results from years of rumours of addiction and self-destructive impulses. A 2007 a Guardian article distilled the received wisdom on Dalton’s life into one sentence: “After the failure of In My Own Time, [she] seemed to drift out of view, participating less in music and more in drink and drugs.”

Karen Dalton - Something On Your Mind

This mythmaking is frustrating for Walker, a close friend of Dalton’s throughout her life. He cared for throughout her ten year battle with AIDS, the disease that finally killed her in a trailer on Eagle’s Nest Road, an artistic community in the town of Hurley, near Woodstock. “Like many [purportedly tragic artists], once she’s dead she’s much more valuable and popular,” he says dismissively. “The minute she’s dead, everyone wants to be her long-lost best friend. I didn’t think it would be like that in Karen’s case. I thought she would just fade away.”

Dalton has proved more prolific in death than she ever was in life, with three posthumous albums – a live recording and two collections of cleaned-up demos, the latter compiled by Nashville-based Delmore Recordings – released between 2008 and 2012. Now, thanks to Tompkins Square, even her unrecorded work is seeing the sun. When she died she left behind a songbook full of unrecorded lyrics, which are now given life on Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton: a new album on which modern musicians, such as electro producer Laurel Halo and singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, put those lyrics to original compositions.

When he launched the label in 2005, Josh Rosenthal resolved to recruit esteemed artists that had retired to semi-obscurity. “I had a shortlist of people that I thought would be really cool to find,” he says. “Some were easier to find than others. Peter Walker was really difficult. It was pre-social networking, so there weren’t really anyway obvious ways of finding someone like that. Also, his name is Peter Walker – there are zillions of them in the United States.” Rosenthal finally found Walker through a contact at the singer’s publishing company. “They weren’t supposed to give me his address but I don’t know how long it would have taken otherwise. No-one else had any idea where he was.”

Light in the Attic Records

Tompkins Square released three Peter Walker records between 2009 and 2009, A Raga for Peter Walker, Echo of My Soul and Long Lost Tapes, the latter a rediscovered “lost album” from 1970. This is when Rosenthal became aware that Walker owned Karen Dalton’s books of lyrics, which was also stuffed with illustrations. He received the book when she was diagnosed with AIDS and transferred her intellectual property rights to him (in this period, she also sold him two guitars).

It took Rosenthal ten years to utilise this discovery. “I always wanted to do something with the material but wasn’t sure what,” he says. “At first I thought we should do an illustrated book because the drawings were so cool. But then Peter hunkered down and put out his own book [self-published in 2012]. It wasn’t in the style I would have used, but it did gave me the impetus to do the record as a compilation.” Upon selecting the artists, Rosenthal presented them with the songbook and invited them to pick a song.

Remembering Mountains is a wildly diverse album but feels cohesive thanks to Dalton’s yearning lyrics, which stitch the patchwork into a single image. The title track is guided by a piano led by singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, while pop experimentalist creates Julia Holter an ambient soundscape; Country star Lucinda Williams turns the words into aching blues, and neo-folk oddball Diane Cluck cuts a chamber-pop tune. Folk singer Josephine Foster had already recorded “Met An Old Friend” as an acapella when Williams chose that same song, but Rosenthal waved it through. “It’s not in my nature to tell artists what to do,” he says, “and it’s interesting because their interpretations are 180 degrees different. It kind of sums up the project.”

Tompkins Square Records

That the album is comprised entirely of female artists “was a conscious decision,” says Rosenthal. “I think the material comes from a very feminine perspective. Listen to the lyrics of ‘This Is Our Song’ [recorded by Cluck]: ‘Typewriter smashed upon a rock… a bird loose in a barley field.’ She’s talking about things that are broken, juxtaposing different images and saying ‘This is our love.’ When I hear women talk about relationships, I can hear them in that song. I wouldn’t have anyone but a woman record that song.” Marissa Nadler – whose contribution to the album, “So Long and Far Away,” is a lush, Lana Del Rey-style ballad – laughs. Speaking on the phone from her home is Boston, she says: “I don’t know about that. I would say any lyric could be feminine or masculine. A good lyric is applicable to any song or singer.”

To see this tracklist filled with woman musicians, without having that be the selling point of the album, is a breath of fresh air.

Marissa Nadler

Still, it was the universal message of the lyrics that informed Nadler’s choice: “In my work, I’m always attracted to memory, distance and escapism. Those themes are heavily present in ‘So Long and Far Away’: it’s a about missing someone or something, which is a pretty universal theme.”

Two days later, though, Nadler emails to say that she’s changed her mind since hearing the album in full. She writes: “While I am undecided whether lyrics can be inherently feminine or masculine, it seems to me there are themes that Dalton touched on that express something uniquely feminine, yet somehow still appealing to both sexes. There remains an unrelenting culture of sexism in the music industry — from the upper echelons of highbrow music criticism, all the way down to sound checks and humiliating visits to music stores. To see this tracklist filled with woman musicians, without having that be the selling point of the album, is a breath of fresh air.”

Meanwhile, Laurel Halo turned “Blue Notion” into sparse electro that simmers with muted beats and double-tracked vocals. As a producer her music is largely instrumental, so she chose the song with the most abstract words, using their rootlessness to convey the desolation at the heart of Dalton’s work. There’s a chill when she sings: “Reach down from heaven / Outside the walls / Outside of heaven, everything falls.” Rosenthal describes “Blue Notion,” placed in the middle of the track list, as “the glue of the album.”

Halo coveted the copy of the book that Rosenthal emailed her. “It contained lyrics with chords over specific words,” she says, “while some were more like poems without any chords. Some were these crazy, existential crises, train-of-thought type pieces. I love [Dalton’s] music and as a fan you only see someone objectively from the outside – you see their album – and so it was it was special to get this very intimate glimpse into her mind.”

Rosenthal admits the book was tough to decipher. “I had to parse out what was her work and what were other people’s songs,” he says. “Sometimes she would transcribe a song that maybe she heard on a record and she would give it her own title. That was a little tricky. It got me into trouble here and there.” This talk of “existential crises” and fragmented lyrics evokes the picture of Karen Dalton that has persisted for decades: a tormented soul with a scattershot mind, perhaps disordered by drink and hard drugs. But Walker, who became friends with Dalton in 1961, bristles at the suggestion that her addictions are “well documented.”

Disputing the Karen Dalton legend, Walker insists that she was no tragic figure.

“How can somebody document that?” he says. “I’d really like to know. ‘Well documented.’ I knew her for – what? 30 years? And I never saw her take any dope. I never saw her with a needle in her arm. She’d maybe smoke a little pot or have a beer, but beyond that I never saw any drug taking, drug buying - none of it. And I spent a lot of time with her. That’s an assumption that people make based on rumour and because the rumour get legs, it’s assumed that it’s fact. Like all of us from that generation, she had a private life and she experimented. What she experiment with and how far it went – I don’t know. I don’t know what she did at night in her bedroom. Or what she did with her life when I didn’t see her. Whatever she did, it was private, and it certainly wasn’t who or what she was.” Rather than being hindered by addiction, he says her output tailed off because she simply didn’t have the “stamina” to keep up with the demands of being a professional musician – punishing tour schedules and constant creativity.

Mark Linn of Delmore Recordings

Disputing the Karen Dalton legend, Walker insists that she was no tragic figure. Despite her poverty and illness, he says her last years were as comfortable as possible. She had good friends (one loaned her a house in Hurley with a heated pool while he was jailed for several years in the late ‘80s), and two children and three marriages.

He says that Dalton advised many friends to follow suit and leave the city for the countryside, away from the “constant struggle” of 1980s New York (before leaving she lived in a rent-controlled apartment and had a job handing out restaurant flyers in the street), away from the “hand-to-mouth musician experience” of touring and hustling. “She was really big on that,” he says. “I’ve had several people tell me that she found them living on the streets of New York and convinced them to live up in the country where it was healthy. She lived more than ten years with AIDS because she was a tough customer in that respect.”

It’s undeniable, though, that she died in obscurity, with little expectation that anyone would be unearthing her work some 22 years later. How did Walker feel when he received the call from Rosenthal?"

“I didn’t know how to feel at the time because it was so unexpected,” he says. “It was a shock. I thought: ‘Okay, this is interesting, but where’s it gonna go?” Having listened to the album, I realised: This is great. These musicians are honouring Karen and I think she deserves it. It’s wonderful. But also I think of what she said [when she signed over her intellectual property rights]…” He adopts a slack-jawed imitation of her Oklahoman drawl, a joke that could provide a Dictionary definition of the word ‘bittersweet’. “‘...It won’t make any difference to me, Peter. I won’t be here.’”

By Jordan Bassett on May 29, 2015

On a different note