For some reason I can warm to Country, but I seem to have a blind (deaf) spot about Anglo-American folk. Apart from being a tad allergic to guitar songs, it’s quite unfair of me to reduce it to a wholesome image of apple pie and right-on social activism. But Karen Dalton crashes right through all that.
She may not have approved of Dylan likening her voice to that of Billie Holiday, but it’s inevitable. Billie only rarely sang the blues—though she saved her greatest ever blues for her 1957 TV appearance.
Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton, and Fred Neil, early 60s.
There’s more artifice, and variety, in Billie’s voice, and in her opulent backings. Karen emerged from the Greenwich village folk scene, but there’s a rare depth of anguish in her sound, accompanying herself on twelve-string guitar or banjo. “Not interested in playing the music industry’s games in an era when musicians had little other choice”, she managed to self-destruct without going through the usual stages of celebrity and tabloid exposure. So despite her admirers, her music remained a niche taste until quite recently (see e.g. here).
Here’s a playlist for her 1969 album It’s so hard to tell who’s going to love you the best:
Though she only sang covers, she transformed them. It hurts me too had long been a popular blues standard—here’s Elmore James (1957):
and Junior Wells (1965):
But Karen’s version has a plaintive, personal quality:
While I prefer the very basic production values of It’s so hard to tell…, here’s her 1971 album In my own time, opening with Something on your mind—another Yesterday… song:
Here’s Katie cruel:
This playlist has more:
Here’s a short documentary from 2009:
And a trailer for a recent documentary:
How little I know of all the cross-fertilisations of blues, Country, soul, pop, and onwards… Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the 60s were remarkable—Coltrane, Miles; soul; Beatles, Stones… Meanwhile in the rarefied echelons of WAM, the Mahler craze was growing, and the early music movement was getting going.