Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dust It Off: Karen Dalton - In My Own Time

In My Own Time
Album: In My Own Time
Paramount, 1971

This is gonna be a long one, but trust me, she deserves it...

So it's tax time, and when I was trying to fill out my 1040, I had to scrounge up last year's tax documents, which I keep in my "papers I don't want to throw away" drawer. When I finally managed to locate the tax documents in the pile, sandwiched between them I found a small slip of paper that bore unfamiliar handwriting reading: "Karen Dalton 'In My Own Time' 1970?"

It took me a while to figure out where this paper had come from, but at last I recalled that over a year ago, I was chilling in Cake Shop with a friend when some music came on that caught our attention. I'd never heard anything like it. Somewhere in the no-man's land between soul, blues and lo-fi folk, the song was dominated by a voice so unique and emotive it literally took my breath away. And once I resumed breathing, I found the young man who seemed to be manning the iPod, he jotted down a name and I tucked the paper away for later.

The fact that I was so struck by Dalton's music knowing nothing about the singer's identity or the music's age (I assumed it was contemporary) proves that Dalton's merits are not dependent on her tragic backstory. But it's still a story worth telling.

A Cherokee Indian, Dalton was born in Enid, Oklahoma, at the tail end of the Great Depression. However, as a young woman, she found her way to New York City in time for the Greenwich Village-centered folk revival of the early 60's. Dalton was already an established figure within the tiny movement by the time Bob Dylan arrived in the city, and she became Dylan's immediate favorite among the first Village folkies.

Karen Dalton
Karen Dalton

But despite this, she would remain an obscure figure in music history for the rest of her life. A notoriously slow recorder, she didn't put out a record until 1969, and didn't put out In My Own Time, her masterpiece, until 1971, even though she'd been a leader in the folk revival from its earliest days. She had already begun to struggle with serious drug and alcohol abuse and after the album's release, she sank into its mire once and for all. In My Own Time would be her final recording.

The last two decades of Dalton's life are relatively undocumented. After years of struggling with addiction, illness and financial ruin, Dalton died of AIDS in 1993. At the time of her death, she was homeless. (However, contrary to many reports, she spent her final weeks not on the streets but in the care of longtime friend and fellow musician Peter Walker.)

In hindsight, it's easy to find Dalton's personal tragedy foreshadowed in her music, but it's also important to remember that even if her life had taken a different course, In Your Own Time would remain one of the most powerful recordings of its time.

Dalton has been primarily classified as folk because it's in the folk community that she found acceptance. However, her music has as betrays a much greater influence of motown, soul and country blues than any of her folk comptemporaries'. She also developed a close relationship with the Holy Modal Rounders, linking her to the New York art-rock scene that would give rise to the Velvet Underground.

In addition to being an exceptional singer, Dalton was also a talented twelve-string guitar and long-neck banjo player, and throughout the album, her skills are backed by a wide variety of instrumentation. Some songs are richly orchestrated, others feature only Dalton's banjo or guitar as backing, which allows some tracks to sound like early soul, others like old-timey blues and yet others like the folk bands with whom she is most commonly associated.

Unlike most folk revivalists, Dalton didn't write her own material, but her versions were anything but derivative. The most obvious example, "When A Man Loves A Woman," is a completely different song when Dalton sings it - completely different from Percy Sledge's original R&B version, that is. (To compare it to the cringe-inducing Michael Bolton version is like comparing apples and oranges. Actually, more like comparing apples and the War of 1812.)

The most important piece of Dalton's unique music is her voice, which bears an often-noted resemblance to Billie Holiday's - rich and deep, yet weary and almost distant. At times, the music is profoundly relaxing; at others, it is tortured and haunting. The sweet sigh of "Something On Your Mind" is music to come home to, while "Same Old Man" would make a better soundtrack for suicide.

The album features only two true folk songs. The first is "Katie Cruel," an enigmatic Scottish ballad: "When I first came to town / They called me the roving jewel / Now they've changed their tune / They call me Katie Cruel." The song never explains what changed, but it's thick with regret and betrayal. Even more chilling is "Same Old Man," an adaptation of a little-known folk song, which included what could fittingly have been Dalton's last words:

"My mind is failing and my body grows weak
My lips won't form the words I speak
I'm floating away on a parallel plane
New York City won't see me again"

The injustice of Dalton's obscurity and her tragic death overshadow her intensely affecting and beautiful music. Isolation rings through in every note. It's too late to undo the cruelty with which life treated her, but it's not too late to pay tribute to one of music's greatest overlooked greats. May she never be forgotten and may her soul rest in peace.

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