Lady Twanged the Blues: Karen Dalton

Folk songwriter Fred Neil said Karen Dalton "sure could sing the shit out of the blues," and Bob Dylan said she sang like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed. Dylan's description wouldn't be the last time this under-the-radar folk singer was likened to Lady Day. Like Holiday, Dalton's haunting croon completely transformed whatever folk, blues, or pop standard she sang.

Dalton with Bob Dylan and Fred Neil. I'd kill to hear what they were playing when this photo was taken!!

Dalton moved from a small town in Oklahoma to Greenwich Village in the 1960s, where she met Neil, Dylan, and other musicians in the folk revival scene. Dalton hated playing in front of crowds, and didn't like being recorded, but still managed to make a name for herself within the folk scene (although she never made it big during her lifetime). In the liner notes of one of her reissued records, Peter Stampfel said "She was the only folk singer I ever met with an authentic 'folk' background. She came to the folk music scene under her own steam, as opposed to being 'discovered' and introduced to it by people already involved in it."

Her second and final album In My Own Time (1971) swings from the forlorn "Something on Your Mind" to the upbeat "How Sweet it Is," which puts James Taylor to shame even more so than Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." Both songs are conveniently on one YouTube video! (The tracks split around 3:20.)

Poking around on YouTube I found this little piece, made by a French film company which documented Karen for a short period of time. Not only do you get to see that she was a badass mountainwoman (she also called Colorado home), when the song "Blues Jumped the Rabbit" kicks in at :44 you can see what all the fuss is about.

Also like Billie, Dalton was a heavy drinker and drug abuser--both her career and health floundered after the release of In My Own Time. Although rumored to have "died on the streets" in 1993, her friend Peter Walker reports in the Austin Chronicle that she died of AIDS while being cared for in upstate New York.

You can find Dalton's work on Light in the Attic Records, who just reissued It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You The Best, her debut album, on vinyl. Listen to "In the Evening" at Gorilla vs. Bear. And for more reading, seek out the Winter 2007 issue of Bust for an article chronicling Dalton's life.

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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