Karen Dalton – The Genius of Feeling
KAREN DALTON – THE GENIUS OF FEELING by Frank Carney
Nicholas Hill is a man we should be doubly grateful to. He is the hero in the rediscovery of a great lost singer, and in the process helped inspire a notable contemporary country performer. In the early 1980s he became interested in Karen Dalton, a forgotten 60s Greenwich Village troubadour, and managed to track down several copies of her two albums in second-hand vinyl shops. One of these he gave to Lucinda Williams, at that time a relative unknown about to release her third album. He was working as a radio DJ at the time for WFMU, which he describes as ‘world-renowned in hipster circles.’ Hill adds, ‘Every time I played the record I would get calls. “Who is this?!!” ` In the 90s he suggested to Barry Feldman, with whom he was working at Koch Records, that Feldman request Dalton reissue rights from Capitol, who had put out her first album, 1969’s It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best. Capitol obliged and the album, with accompanying photos from, amongst others, Richard Tucker, Dalton’s husband, was released in 1997. The reviews were good, but the record was not widely publicised. It sold modestly, several hundred a year, slightly more in the noughties.
However, word of mouth spread the news that a major performer had been unearthed and now both her studio albums are available – the second reissue selling better than the first – plus we have two informal recordings on the Megaphone label, a one-man operation based in Paris: Green Rocky Road – a home tape of superior quality – and Cotton Eyed Joe, a live 1962 performance at a Boulder, Colorado folk club. Happily, some of the money from the latter two records, together known as The Joe Loop Tapes, will go to Dalton’s son and daughter. Neither the singer nor her children received any royalties from the studio albums, as Dalton didn’t write her own material.
On Cotton Eyed Joe you can hear what Dick Weissman (folk performer and historian, and a friend, colleague and lover of Dalton in 1960) means when he says, ‘Karen, when I knew her, had a fairly loud voice, and opened her mouth wide when singing.’ On a song like Old Hannah her voice is a cross between a blues holler and a desperate, primitive-gospel prayer from a campfire revival. Dalton is unrestrained and ‘sings out’ in the traditional, approved style. But even this early you can detect what came to be referred to as her jazz phrasing, in Lenny Kaye’s words ‘her uncanny ability to turn bars on their ears.’ On Prettiest Train, for example, she displays her astonishing gift for improvised syncopation, as lyrically identical lines are given distinct stresses, both emotionally logical. Even the humble definite article is mined for possible meanings.
The besetting sin of jazz singing is arbitrariness. The exploration can lead nowhere, sidetracked into random demonstrations of technique; or the struggle against hackneyed structures culminates merely in the surrender to new clichés – as in the dead-end of scat. This is never the case with Dalton. Her melodic discoveries are simultaneously unexpected and inevitable. She revivifies the blues form, which at this period was in danger of death by formulaic overfamiliarity, rescuing the twelve-bar mode from musical redundancy just as inventively as did her British contemporaries and the emerging soul singers.
Her first studio recording, It’s So Hard To Know Who’s Going to Love You The Best, sees a crucial stylistic development; perhaps her signature device. This is her ability to crack her voice on initial phonemes or mid-syllable. Frequently the initial consonant is omitted altogether. This creates a new sonority, a creaking door sound, the sonic materialisation of a quietly breaking heart. Only Al Green uses this technique to comparable effect. The laryngeal muscles are stronger than on her early recordings, the throat and mouth now open laterally as well as vertically, and the repertoire of effects, the palette of colours, is correspondingly broader. She had also lost her two lower front teeth by this time, and this presumably further altered her tone; she doesn’t sound 31, more like a dead woman remembering her time on earth. Her voice is sometimes reined in, the dictates of studio technology both forcing and enabling her to explore new ways of communicating. As a result, for the first time the mournful, horn-like quality of her instrument comes fully to the fore. As she advised the country singer Lacy J. Dalton, ‘If you want to be heard, you have to sing softer.’ The album tests to the limit the possibilities of a restricted dynamic.
The arrangements are spare and this enhances the record’s impact. Silences are part of her style. On occasion she slows everything down well beyond the song’s natural tempo – a typical youtube comment reads, ‘This is so enchanting it stops time.’ Another trick she favours is to employ a very spoken intonation – Dalton often flattens a song’s intervals in the customary blues manner. She falls frailly a semitone short of the yearning high notes, embodying the inexorable frustration of her hopes. As the producer of her second album, Harvey Brooks, put it: ‘She had a range, but she wasn’t afraid to reach beyond it.’ Yet at other times she sings almost bel canto. Over the course of the record the clarinet/sax timbre becomes the very meaning of the songs; the melodies and words are pretexts for the deployment of her extraordinary vocabulary of honks, moans, glides and nasalisation – according to Dick Weissman, almost the only influence she ever acknowledged was Carmell Jones, a jazz trumpeter. (In her videos you can see lines around her mouth typical of a horn player.) A very pure kind of music is the result; often the lyric and even the tune are practically occluded – we are forced to attend to something less contingent – moods (perhaps more accurately, a mood) and a depth of feeling inexpressible by the usual methods.
Her second studio record, In My Own Time, was originally put out on Just Sunshine, the label owned by Michael Lang, organiser of Woodstock. Brian Hinton, in his ‘Country Roads: How Country Came To Nashville,’ says of the album, ‘Alt country starts here.’ When it came to the reissue, there was a problem with the master tapes from which the CD was digitised. Sometimes there was a choice of alternative mixes, in which case the masters were compared with the vinyl to determine the preferred version. Nicholas Hill was again involved, co-producing the overall package.
The record has fuller arrangements than her first outing. They were co-conceived by Dalton and Harvey Brooks, the bassist who worked with Miles Davis and Bob Dylan. Its most commercial track, a version of the Motown standard How Sweet It Is, formally brilliant but emotionally unconvincing, is interesting for the way it illustrates both the strengths and limits of Dalton’s style. The backing singers deliver the chorus straight, while over them Dalton wanders thrillingly in all directions, her voice full of colour and manifesting a velvety texture unusual in her performances; she is similarly creative in the verse, turning the melody inside out, brilliantly ignoring the tempo and the other musicians (Harvey Brooks: ‘She had an advanced understanding of time and phrasing.’) But the song overall is a failure, at least to my ears, and an instructive one. Firstly, the backing is unsympathetic, too cluttered to allow the listener access to all the subtleties of Dalton’s interpretation. Also, How Sweet calls for exuberance, and Dalton’s range doesn’t extend that far; a muted contentment, as in her version of Sweet Substitute, is the closest she comes to the jouissance of sixties soul. Even with celebratory lyrics, like Take Me or It Hurts Me Too, Dalton’s readings insist that there are no unalloyed pleasures, no permanent happiness.
Dave Godin said that great soul singers are great actors. The essence of soul is hyperbole; Dalton too is an emotional performer, but in a cool style, a minor key tuned to a flinty stoicism. Hers is a lyric rather than a dramatic art; she is always herself. My friend Ted Carré terms her an ‘expressivist.’ She doesn’t perform, she is overheard. It’s not even that she shares her feelings with the listener – rather, we eavesdrop on self-directed lullabies, illicitly pore over a ruined woman’s diary, gawp at a scandalously open wound. She groans and mumbles at line endings with the desperate self-vindication of the abandoned lover, mutters the stricken, lonesome self-communion of the Delta blues. We absorb her spirit from the ether.
Dalton’s is a small oeuvre: a double album, three single albums, a DVD containing four performances, harmony vocals on two tracks of a 1975 Holy Modal Rounders album. Moreover, there are whole areas of feeling she doesn’t touch – humour, anger, untrammelled joy. But within her limited range, Dalton is a prodigious musical talent – a superlative selector of songs and a peerless vocalist. In fact ‘singer’ is an inadequate term for what she does; she is as much an instrumentalist as Jimi Hendrix, Davy Graham or Miles Davis. Unlike many white folk singers of the fifties and sixties revival, who adopted an alien idiom, albeit with commendable intentions, and the bulk of whose recordings can now feel rather flavourless, she had lived her material and actually interprets the songs she sings, often radically transforming them. Without writing a single song, she changes folk as fundamentally as Bob Dylan. Fred Neil said, after hearing her performance of his Blues on the Ceiling, that if Dalton had told him she had written it herself he would have believed her. (Incidentally, both Neil and Dylan borrowed Dalton’s habit of nasally voicing and stretching final consonants.) Her achievement was unprecedented and remains unequalled.
The long biography of her style, its prehistory, is the fertility of American popular music in the twentieth century. Just as literary modernism – the fusion of the archaic and the avant garde – was practically invented in Ireland of all places, an economically backward colonial dependency, so it was in the semi-feudal American South that popular musical modernism was forged. The ingredients were jazz, folk, country, blues, ragtime, gospel and worksongs. You can hear all these in Dalton’s voice and also the sheer scale of the American planet. The whole of America coheres in her soul; she encompasses black and white, Amerindian and Anglo-Irish, man and woman, the country and the city, the rooted past and the freewheeling future. Her work sounds simultaneously ancient and experimental; she is the heir to a uniquely rich patrimony that she respected and mastered but had the musical intelligence and self-confidence to transform utterly. She had the genius and misfortune to be her own genre, to possess a voice that is more than a voice, to be a conspiracy of one.
Her afterlife flickers in such singers as Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and The Handsome Family’s Brett Sparks, but they are all at one remove from the vanished world that made her, that moment when the beat sensibility fused with the underground life of working people. Dalton is a reminder that, notwithstanding the marvellous legacy of post-rock ‘n’ roll music, there is a mode of musical understanding and a way of singing that is gone forever. It somehow seems fitting that even the woman herself seems to have been erased; on the little footage we have of her she barely acknowledges the camera, and in almost all the published photos her gaze is averted, or she is simply out of focus. She is always elsewhere. The song on The Basement Tapes which is said to be about her is entitled Katie’s Been Gone; and how characteristic that Carmell Jones, her supposed inspiration, is practically unknown even in jazz circles.
Vladimir Nabokov describes how, having read Gogol, the way you see the world is transformed forever. The same is true of music once you’ve heard Karen Dalton. She achieves in an exemplary fashion two of the effects of real singing. Firstly, she allows the listener to imagine the inconceivable, what it is like to be someone else – one of art’s core functions; there is never any doubt who she is. Secondly, she compels us to believe what ordinarily we can grasp only in the abstract – that other people feel as intensely as we ourselves do.
In a way it’s a curse to become acquainted with her special gift; it impairs your enjoyment of perfectly adequate performers. It also raises the sad spectre of the hypothetical treasures we were never to hear – her version of songs by Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Tim Buckley, Richard Thompson, Neil Young…; her collaboration with Phil Spector, Dalton wandering through his strange sound world like a ghost in a cathedral. But then again, no slow decline into self-travesty – Jools Holland playing boogie woogie piano as she churns out a pub rock version of Katie Cruel before a grinning crowd of bemused youngsters; no middle-aged, mini-skirted, Tina Turner-style reinventions; no studio assaults on that incomparable voice by clothe-eared, middlebrow sonic hooligans like Jeff Lynne and Dave Edmunds; no exile to bland chart soundscapes, duetting with Sting or Bono; never shouldered aside by synthesisers and drum machines, never stretched on the rack of an 80s mixing-desk; no slick AOR albums courtesy of Daniel Lanois (Mark Knopfler on guitar), documenting her deceleration into stasis and paunchy good taste.
Nobody would wish Karen Dalton’s life for him or herself. She contracted AIDS in the 80s, lived on the streets of New York for many years and died in relative poverty at the age of 55 – though, contrary to legend, she was well cared for at the end. However, perhaps it’s not too romantic to say that her life was of a piece with her vocation. She was a true folk singer, and she lived the life of a bohemian daughter of the American working class. She did not compromise her work; in any case, she was not to be offered the opportunity to do so, and the testimony of her peers and contemporaries suggests that even had she been she would have refused, inflexibly committed as she was to her own style. Dick Weissman describes abortive attempts in 1960 to form a group with Dalton and John Phillips: ´We did two rehearsals, which mostly consisted of Karen and John arguing about vocal parts,` and generally, ‘Karen never liked being told what to do.’
Her short, rackety life and the paucity of opportunities she was given to fully express herself are above all a poignant comment on the venal barbarism of the modern culture industry. After all, nothing she recorded is without interest and on perhaps a dozen performances she produced works of the vocal art unsurpassed in the canon of American popular music. Little Jimmy Osmond made more records than Karen Dalton.
Now the furious, braying giant pygmy that is official America is entering its terminal sickness, and what remains are the real makers of the American Century. That land is their land.
Listening to Dalton we are in the presence of a voice from beyond the grave, but it probably felt like that even when she was still alive. She is American roots music’s tutelary goddess of desolation. Peter Stampfel: ‘She knew how good she was.’ When I first heard Dalton’s unique, reed-like voice, her exquisite tonality, I was reminded of a sequence in the film Ghost World. Steve Buscemi plays a vendor of vintage LPs who sells a country blues compilation to a teenage girl. She spends the evening transfixed, repeatedly playing one track, Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman. Later she comes back and asks if he has any similar records. The Buscemi character replies, ‘There are no other records like that.’