[Today: The wounded bird…]
Karen Dalton knew pain. She was a late-60s Greenwich Village folkie by way of Boulder, CO, and no less than the great Fred Neil called her “the greatest female singer I’ve ever heard.” She sings like a wounded bird, each note cracking under the weight of enormous suffering. There’s something so plain and raw in her voice that anything she sings instantly becomes the blues – a broken, Billie Holiday-style blues that comes from a place beyond hope. Like a latter-day Holiday, her voice is all texture, and her choice of covers only underscores the heartbreak within it.
Her debut, It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best, was recorded at The Record Plant in New York City in 1969. She would make just one more album before drifting into an itinerant, hand-to-mouth lifestyle that consisted of booze, hard drugs, extreme poverty and erratic behavior. According to Brian James Barr’s liner notes to the 2009 reissue, “By most every account, Karen Dalton shot up with a dirty needle sometime in the 80s and died of complications from AIDS in 1993.” Her landlord burned all of her belongings out of fear of infection, including tapes of home recordings that she had safely guarded through decades of hard living.
Her bad end is foreshadowed all over It’s So Hard To Tell…, in covers of Fred Neil’s ‘Little Bit Of Rain’ and ‘Blues On The Ceiling’, Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘Sweet Substitute’, Leadbelly’s ‘Down On The Street (Don’t You Follow Me Down)’, and the standard ‘It Hurts Me Too’. Dalton plays her longneck banjo and sings with just sparse, acoustic accompaniment, and the recording is so intimate and soul-baring that you feel like you could drown in her tears. This side of Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday, I can think of no other artist that I’d rather reach out to through time and space and offer a great big hug…
Listen: Little Bit Of Rain
Listen: Sweet Substitute