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Karen Dalton – 1966
08 February 2012, 07:57 Written by Janne Oinonen

Some artists sing The Blues. Others have The Blues. Then there’s the odd rare talent who appears to channel the bitter essence and hard-won wisdom of The Blues every time they open their mouth.

Karen Dalton belongs to this select gathering of almost supernaturally gifted singers, her mournful voice and unhurried phrasing injecting a compelling dose of road-weary, ghostly grief to even the few jaunty tunes that ever got to share space with the low-down laments and traditional ballads that dominated her song kit.

Dalton’s early life was conducive to a life-long bout of the Blues. After a difficult childhood, and having given birth twice at a very young age, Dalton left her native Oklahoma for New York, where her powerful performances in folk clubs gained her friends and fans of the stature of Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin and Fred Neil. But her boozing turned out to be just as prodigious as her immense vocal prowess. Dalton died homeless, broken and penniless in New York in 1993, aged 56, her small discography long forgotten.

In a world that tends to read an extra layer of depth into each muttering of doomed figures, such a sad, wasteful fate was definitely no hindrance in the foundation of the posthumous cult of Karen Dalton. But you really don’t need to be well-versed in the tragic back story to be sucked in by Dalton’s music. All the proof needed to justify the generous praise from the high-profile likes of Dylan and Nick Cave is clearly audible in just about every recording Dalton ever made.

Of which there aren’t too many. A chronic studio-phobe, Dalton made just two albums proper (1969′s It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You Best and 1971′s In My Own Time), and even then she had to be cajoled into a formal recording situation – not that you’d guess from the uniformly excellent results. Too uncomfortable on stage to commit to serial gigging, the vast majority of Dalton’s singing was done in informal sessions with friends, far away from the clutches of the music business. Recorded by Carl Baron, who lugged his recording gear to the remote Colorado cabin where Dalton had retreated to escape the hustle of New York, these 13 tracks allow us the guilty thrill of eavesdropping on Dalton at ease and in action, picking and harmonising far from prying eyes in her favoured private musical sphere.

Handsomely packaged, 1966 captures Dalton and then-husband Richard Tucker running through their setlist for a forthcoming gig. As stellar as the duo performances are, it’s probably not the best place for newcomers to start. As you’d expect from an amateur recording, the sound quality is fairly primitive, and the relaxed setting – you can practically smell the smoke from the cabin’s wood-burning oven – means some tracks evaporate before they make it to any kind of a satisfactory conclusion.

But at its best, 1966 is an intimate, raw gem, with both the fresh (at the time) material from Neil and Hardin, and Dalton’s trademark traditional ballads throbbing with a rare and convincing degree of hurt and longing. A near-spectral interpretation of ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ is especially hypnotic, and a wounded take on Dalton’s signature tune ‘Katie Cruel’ packs a compelling howl of regret. Both are prime examples of Dalton’s key talent: tapping into the rich seam of sorrow at the core of America’s folk song tradition to produce music that’s not so much ageless as totally freed of such earthly concepts as time and decay.

Listen to 1966

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