Desperately Seeking Karen Dalton
New Reissues Keep Shedding Light on an Overlooked Career
By Steven Rosen
Those who knew her tell the story of the doomed folkie; plus, her intersection with the contemporary emergence of our “Golden Age” of reissues.
Dan Hankin, now a retired school social worker living in Denver, fondly remembers back to 1966, when he would visit Karen Dalton’s Colorado mountain cabin to play folk music with her and Richard Tucker.
Another musician-friend, Carl Baron would come up from Denver and spend time with Dalton and Tucker, too.
“She was a charismatic, very powerful person – musically and socially – who could attract people like me and Carl, very young men, and she would have us at her bidding,” Hankin recalls. “We were very happy to be there. She was so entrancing, there was hardly anything like it.”
She died in 1993, long after separating and getting divorced from Tucker. But it turns out that, as Hankin and Baron once found her so charismatic all those decades ago, others are finding her to still be that way posthumously, thanks to ongoing reissues. An old tape originally made by Baron in that cabin has just been released by Delmore Recordings as Karen Dalton 1966. It is the fifth Dalton recording to be released since the revival started in 1997 and the fourth in six years.
Dalton, who was born and raised in Enid, Oklahoma, had first moved to New York to be part of the Greenwich Village folk movement. By the time she left, still in the early 1960s, she had already made an impact. Among those who found mesmerizing her bittersweet and melancholy, soulfully introspective, interpretations of folk and blues standards were Bob Dylan, Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. She also was accomplished at 12-string guitar and banjo.
She didn’t move, however, to turn her back on folk music – Boulder and Denver comprised a sort of Greenwich Village of the Rockies, with a Denver Folklore Center patterned on the famous one in New York. So she was eager to make music with others once she arrived and settled into a cabin in the ghost town of Summerville.
“I lived at that time in the mountains in another cabin,” says Hankin, who himself had come out from Brooklyn. “These were in foothills outside Boulder, which 50 years ago were dotted with old and, for the most part, abandoned cabins from the miners’ rush. I got here in 1965, and they were already here. A lot of the cabins, including Karen’s, had no indoor plumbing, no running water, no central heating. But an enterprising young beatnik could contact the owner of a cabin and ask if they want to rent this, and it would be $25 to $35 a month.”
Dalton was maybe was too introspective for stardom in her own time. She also maybe waited too long to record. Her two albums came late in the folk-revival cycle – 1969′s It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best for Capitol Records and 1971′s In My Own Time more or less sank like a stone.
The latter was produced for Michael Lang’s new Just Sunshine label, as Lang was flush with the success of producing the 1969 Woodstock music festival. It had contemporary production and material for its time, with such fine supporting musicians as violinist Bobby Notkoff, guitarists Amos Garrett, John Hall and Hankin, and trumpeter Marcus Doubleday. Never much of a writer, she covered Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Paul Butterfield’s “In My Own Dream” and the Band’s “In a Station” in addition to such traditional material as her signature “Katie Cruel.” She also recorded one of Tucker’s compositions, “Are You Leaving for the Country.”
The rest of her life, spottily documented after the latter album’s failure, is as mysteriously, heartbreakingly tragic as Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. She left her idyllic Colorado sanctuary for rough-and-tumble New York, lost contact with Colorado friends (Tucker had to divorce her by mail), struggled with substance abuse, and eventually died of AIDS-related illness in 1993 at age 55. At the end, Peter Walker – the great raga- and flamenco-inspired guitarist – helped take care of her as she stayed in someone else’s guesthouse. Afterward, that cabin burned – with it, possibly, tapes that she had been making throughout her later years. Few outside her small, immediate circle even knew about her long, hard fall.
The current quest for old tapes and recordings is spurred by the impact of her voice, now that it’s finally getting heard. With its dreamily wavering sadness, many find her the folk generation’s Billie Holiday, as Dylan called her in his book Chronicles.
It started with the 1997 U.S. (and, subsequently, European) CD reissue of her first album. While that Koch Records release created a ripple of interest, the breakthrough came in 2006 when Light in the Attic brought out In My Own Time with liner notes by Nick Cave, Devendra Banhart and Lenny Kaye. It was a major success for a reissue.
Stephane Bismuth, of French reissue specialist Megaphone Records, then found old tapes from Colorado. He released them in Europe and Mark Linn’s Delmore Recordings issued them here. Cotton Eyed Joe, from 2007, was from a 1962 performance at a Boulder coffee house called the Attic. In 2008 came Green Rocky Road, home recordings from that same tape, which had been kept for decades by the owner of that long-gone coffeehouse, Joe Loop.
Linn, like Bismuth, had gotten interested in Dalton after the Koch reissue of her first album. “I think there were a small group of people looking for anything else out there for recordings, because it was such a short mysterious story about her,” he explains.
Through contacts made during his other releases, Linn found Baron and his tape from 1966. On this, Dalton performs traditional folk-blues material along with Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” Tucker shares vocals on several songs. But of particular note, she covers several newly written compositions by her friend Hardin (“Reason to Believe,” “Don’t Make Promises,” “While You’re on Your Way”). For a while in the mid-1960s, Hardin rented a home in the mountains outside Boulder, himself.
“What I remember is Karen and Richard were having some big gig they were going to do and wanted to check out how they sounded,” says Baron, who had come from Brooklyn for graduate study in biochemistry, but had a 12-string guitar and loved folk. “I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and set it up. It was a practice session. I did start and stop the tape quite a lot. At the end, I had to go to a slow speed because I didn’t have enough tape left. It was recorded in mono with a single microphone on an old Wollensak I used to have.”
It is most definitely a home recording. But while the quality isn’t professional, the tape is bursting with feeling. And it has an ethereal quality – you feel like you’re listening in on a fragile dispatch from some utopian, countercultural Land of the Lost.
Tucker, who now lives in Bellingham, Wash., said he’s talked-out on the subject and referred this writer to a statement he wrote for 1966′s packaging, but was not used. Here is an edited excerpt:
“I think often of the life Karen and I had in Colorado – it was certainly the best period of our relationship and particularly of living in Summerville… (It) was an old gold mining town and all the old cabins were owned and rented out by an old mountain couple. They lived and looked just like in a western movie. Henry taught me everything there was to know about splitting wood. The house had cold running water, a gas cook stove, a wood and coal stove for heat, and an outhouse. Sitting in the outhouse you had a great view right to the top of Bighorn Mountain. One night I burned the outhouse down. There was a hot coal in the ashes I dumped in the outhouse to “sweeten” it.
“We bought two horses and a pony and fenced in an area to keep them in. Karen really knew horses and one of the ones she picked to buy turned out to be the fastest quarter horse in those parts…”
They were close enough to Boulder for Tucker to work as a groundskeeper at the University of Colorado; Dalton also had occasional restaurant jobs.
It should be pointed out there is a dissenting opinion about how wonderful a time it was. Abralyn, Dalton’s daughter from a previous marriage (she also had a son), lived there for several middle-school years, and didn’t like it. She eventually left to be with her father, an Illinois university professor.
“I wanted to live in a normal house, have my own bedroom and have lunch everyday,” she says now. “It was no more comfortable then than it is now. They were doing their own thing, even though everyone else thought they were being weird and strange – those hippies up in the mountains.”
To say it is a time that won’t come again is more than a writer’s device. The cabin burned down in a 2009 forest fire.
Meanwhile, the search goes on for more music by Dalton. Mike Davis, owner of New York’s Academy Records in the East Village and Williamsburg, is hoping for a summer release of some 1968 tapes on his small reissue label. His project started when her former manager brought in some records to sell and mentioned that he had some old tapes of her.
“We told him there had been a real resurgence of interest in her,” Davis explains. “He gave us the tapes, and I had them transferred professionally.” The tapes, which Davis thinks were made in preparation for her first album, include songs recorded with Hankin in a Colorado cabin, but also New York studio tracks of Dalton accompanying herself on 12-string guitar. There are also two New York tracks of her with a blues-rock trio, featuring Blues Project’s Danny Kalb on guitar.
Linn meanwhile is considering another release of her previously unknown early-1970s material, when Dalton was back in New York City. Linn says that during this period Dalton and Antonia Stampfel- who wrote songs for partner Peter Stampfel’s Holy Modal Rounders – would spend time with Peter and a blind jazz pianist named Chris Anderson in an apartment that previously had been the famous Jazz Loft, where in the mid-1960s W. Eugene Smith had photographed and tape-recorded musicians like Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk as they played after-hours gigs.
It was still miked when Dalton and her coterie started to hang out later. After Smith died, the place was rented to a drummer. “The tapes tend to have drums overloading everything else,” Linn says. “They’re multi-tracked tapes and he sort of knew what he was doing, but probably shouldn’t have also been playing drums. So there are lots and lots of tapes, and probably there’s an hour’s worth of Karen.”
And he follows reports of Dalton tape sightings like a tornado chaser – an early-1960s house concert by Dalton and Tucker in Bloomington, Ind., reportedly was recorded and is supposed to sound great.
Tucker may find himself benefiting in other ways from the renewed interest in her. After he returned to New York City, he formed a folk-oriented trio called Richard, Cam and Bert that played local clubs and in Central Park for tips. Warren Schatz, before he became a successful 1970s-era disco producer (Vicki Sue Robinson, Evelyn “Champagne” King), took a liking to them and recorded a limited-edition album that they struggled to self-distribute. It contains a version of “Are You Leaving for the Country.”
“It’s a really nice record, with pretty songs and beautiful harmonies that’s almost as if the Jayhawks were around in 1969 and crossed with the Grateful Dead,” Linn says.
Tucker, willing to comment on this, says: “I sure hope he does release it. He came over to my house and had never heard of it and I played it for him. And he now has some other tapes of songs not on that album that are very good.”
If there’s a lesson to all this, it’s that nowadays there’s always a second chance – even posthumously – for an earlier-overlooked musician to find her or his audience. Especially if they, or someone they knew, saved their tapes and out-of-print recordings.
“It’s the golden age of reissues in terms of the material being discovered out there and the number of people who know how to produce it correctly,” says Academy Music’s Davis.