By the early 1990s, Karen Dalton was living on the streets of New York. She was a heroin addict and had been diagnosed as HIV positive in the mid-1980s. She died in a friend’s cabin in Woodstock in 1993 of an AIDs related illness at the age of 55. Few things are definite about Karen Dalton. Her biography is wrought with contradiction and even the most insignificant details of her life are disputed. Perhaps the only thing we can be sure of is the small amount of extraordinary recordings she left behind.
Her life was as undoubtedly tragic as her talent was great. The voice of Karen Dalton is one that is rarely forgotten. Although often compared tonally to Billie Holliday, her voice has a unique strained quality that leaves a visceral impression on the listener. She was an accomplished player of both twelve-string guitar and the long neck banjo. Her relative anonymity may be because she didn’t write the songs herself but her arrangements, especially of traditional songs, are exceptional.
Background & Early Life
Karen Dalton was born Jean Karen Cariker in 1937. Although many sources say that she was born in Bonham, Texas, it seems more likely that she was born in Enid, Oklahoma to a Cherokee mother and Irish father, although her heritage is also disputed. Few details of Dalton’s early life are known but her son was born when she was 15 and then a daughter followed at the age of 17. By the early 1960s Dalton was living in New York. She was an associate of Bob Dylan and Fred Neill and was known in the thriving Greenwich Village folk scene.
It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best
Dalton’s first album, It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best was released by Capitol Records in 1969. It includes versions of songs by Lead Belly and Jelly Roll Morton as well as covers of songs by contemporary folk musicians, Fred Neill and Tim Hardin, with whom she often collaborated. Dalton objected to the formal environment of the studio which presumably contributed to the fact that her recorded output was so limited. Dalton’s rendition of blues standard, It Hurts Me Too (credited to Mel London) demonstrates both the power of her voice. Below is one of the very few pieces of footage of Karen Dalton performing. Harvey Brooks, producer of the album explained
She didn’t like pressure. She was a very intimate performer – we didn’t have the word ‘stress’ then. Harvey Brooks
In My Own Time – The Second and Final Album
In My Own Time was released in 1971 by Paramount Records. Dalton’s second album focussed more on the American folk tradition and includes Are You Leaving for the Country, penned by her husband, guitarist Richard Tucker. Although In My Own Time now receives critical acclaim, at the time it passed into obscurity beyond the immediate folk scene.
Little is known of Dalton’s life during the 1970s and 1980s other than she continued to struggle with alcohol and drug abuse. Anecdotal reports of her crippling stage fright and a lack of financial ambition may well explain the stagnation of her career and decline into poverty.
Katie Cruel is one of the most enduring of Karen Dalton’s recordings. An American variation on a traditional Scottish song, Katie Cruel is a bleak anthem to rejection and regret.
A Revival in Interest in Karen Dalton
Since Dalton’s death her two studio albums have been re-released. A live album, Cotton Eyed Joe, originally recorded in Boulder, Colorado in 1962, was released for the first time in 2007. Two further albums, Green Rocky Road (2008) and 1966 (2012) are collections of home-recordings, released posthumously. Resurgence in interest may well have coincided with the release of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume I (2004) where he praised Dalton;
My favourite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. She was a tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky, and sultry. I’d actually met her before, run across her the previous summer outside Denver in a mountain pass town in a folk club. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it. I sang with her a couple of times.” Bob Dylan
Although her music attracts radio play and a cult following, it is still a mystery to many that she remains relatively unknown.
Read more about Karen Dalton
Play, lady, play – Financial Times
The best singer you’ve never heard of – The Guardian
The music of Karen Dalton is featured regularly on the Sunday Soul with Jo Bowler, every Sunday at 10am GMT