CRAVEN’S NOTES: The broken mold
Free Press Music Columnist
Like velvet falling on wet, cracked cement.
That’s how Craven would describe the voice of Karen Dalton, and yes, it’s a pretty weak simile. But at least it makes a nod to the tactile nature of a voice that was truly one-of-a-kind. After God made Karen Dalton’s voice, he didn’t just break the mold — he stomped it to dust, swept it into a lockbox, and threw away the key.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Karen Dalton. Don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. Way too many folks never heard tell of the dark and willowy folksinger who shared the stage with the likes of Fred Neil and Bob Dylan during the 1960s heyday of folk. She only released two albums during her lifetime, and like too many creative greats, she spent the last few decades of her life in a long, agonizing skid into self-destruction. But the music that remained after her death from AIDS in 1993 is an amazing legacy for a criminally under-appreciated artist.
When I say her voice was one-of-a-kind, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t compared to other singers. You can understand why folks always brought up Billie Holiday when talking about Dalton; both singers traded in a low-register, matter-of-fact style that spoke in dark tones of world weariness and melancholy. But Dalton’s unusual breathiness, which gave her singing a glottal, cracking quality that would have been trained out of her had she been “properly” tutored, marked her performances as specifically as a fingerprint.
Dalton’s life was always chaotic. She was married and divorced twice before she was 21, and she lost her two lower front teeth relatively early in her life when she wound up taking a punch in the face from a boyfriend who found her in bed with another man and was aiming to hit the other guy.
Her crippling stage (and mic) fright kept her from becoming as popular as contemporaries like Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins. In fact, her first album, “It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best,” wouldn’t exist if Fred Neil hadn’t lied to her in the studio and told her the tape wasn’t rolling when it actually was. She was also unfortunate to come to age during an era when the singer-songwriter had taken the spotlight away from the interpretive singer, and Dalton was primarily the latter, someone who specialized in imprinting her spectacularly sui generis personality on traditional folk and blues numbers or chestnuts like “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
After the commercial failure of her second album, “In My Own Time,” the alcoholism and drug abuse with which Dalton had already struggled took full control of her life, and the next couple decades were spent in harrowing, degrading circumstances that left her a hollow shell of the gorgeous, talented woman she had been.
She died homeless, estranged from her family, and forgotten by the world. But in the 20 years since her passing, her work has been rediscovered by a new generation. There is a chilling truth to the words she sang in “Blues on the Ceiling” on her first album, “I’ll never get out of these blues alive.” But thanks to the music she left behind, now readily available via mp3, it was also prescient when she sang on the same album: “I may come back to see you, darlin’, some old rainy, rainy day. Oh, in the evening, in the evening, darlin’, maybe when the sun goes down.”
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog and also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog at http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog/. You can also find him on Facebook.
Notes is made possible by Tina Harbin of Real Estate West, the premier resource for all real estate information and services on the Western Slope.
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