Tim Hardin: “She’s an incredible broad.”
Fred Neil: “… the greatest female singer I’ve ever heard.”
Bob Dylan: “… a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it.”
Who are these icons of the folk world showering with compliments? The best folk singer you’ve never heard – Karen Dalton.
Dalton was one of the most original folk singers in the early 60s Greenwich Village scene but languished in obscurity – mostly of her own doing. Opportunities were frequently presented to her but she was always reluctant to take advantage of them. She didn’t release an album until 1969 and by then she’d missed the opportunity to connect with a broad audience that was by then listening to more rock oriented music. And she hated public performances. Carlos Santana met her at Woodstock and invited her to tour with him in Europe. She accepted and appeared in a few cities but refused to come out of her dressing room (paralyzed with fear) for the rest of the tour. She died in 1993 at the tender age of 55 from an AIDS related illness, destitute and homeless.
The SotW is the Dino Valenti (Valente?) penned “Something on Your Mind” from her 1971 album, In My Own Time.
What grabs you first is the quality of Dalton’s voice. Sharp as shard glass; yet fragile and vulnerable too. But let’s not overlook that she’s a pretty damned good guitar player too.
Thom Jurek at allmusic.com summarizes the song nicely:
The material is choice, beginning with Dino Valente’s gorgeous “Something on Your Mind.” [Harvey] Brooks’ rumbling single-note bassline opens it with a throb, joined by a simple timekeeping snare, pedal steel, and electric guitars. When Dalton opens her mouth and sings “Yesterday/Anyway you made it was just fine/Saw you turn your days into nighttime/Didn’t you know/You can’t make it without ever even trying/And something’s on your mind…,” a fiddle enters and the world just stops. The Billie Holiday comparisons fall by the wayside and Dalton emerges as a singer as true and impure as Nina Simone (yet sounds nothing like her), an artist who changed the way we hear music. The band begins to close in around her, and Dalton just goes right into the middle and comes out above it all. She turns the song inside herself, which is to say she turns it inside all of us and its meaning is in the sound of her voice, as if revelation were something of an everyday occurrence if we could only grasp its small truth for what it weighs.
Dalton was recently honored with a tribute album – Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton – that includes Sharon Van Etten, Patty Griffin, Isobel Campbell, Julia Holter, Marissa Nadler and Lucinda Williams performing her own compositions.
Enjoy… until next week.