Jun 20, 2008, 05:48AM

ALBUM REVIEW: Karen Dalton, Green Rocky Road

One of Bob Dylan's big influences, Karen Dalton was one of the unsung heroes of the Greenwich Village folk scene. A new disc of home recordings shows why she deserves all the accolades, and why she never really fit in to any particular scene in the first place.

Dalton.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Photo copyright Delmore Recordings.

Many things have been said of Karen Dalton. She was often tagged as "folk music's answer to Billie Holiday." Bob Dylan once described her as "funky, lanky, and sultry." And the late Fred Neil noted, "She sure can sing the shit out of the blues." But perhaps the truest thing to be said of Dalton is that she was never truly comfortable in her life. She arrived in New York City in the early 60s, leaving behind a husband and at least one child in Enid, Oklahoma. Her piercing beauty and long black hair made her an obvious fit in the Greenwich Village folk revival scene along with some of the guys quoted above. But many argued that Dalton was authentic country blues and not just an admirer—closer to Mississippi John Hurt than The Holy Modal Rounders. You could even say her career mirrored that of Townes Van Zandt, in that she was never commercially successful but received acclaim from both the genuine Appalachian musicians and more famous contract songwriters.

Dalton was especially uneasy in the studio. She was more or less tricked into recording her first album It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best when Neil assured her that the tapes were not rolling. She had just as hard of a time recording her second album In My Own Time, and, after it failed to appeal to audiences, she became increasingly more isolated and self-destructive until her death in 1993. But, the legend of Karen Dalton has grown with each posthumous release of her work. And following in the footsteps of last year's Cotton Eyed Joe live sessions, Delmore Recordings is unveiling a new nine-track set that supposedly catches the late-great singer at her most comfortable and earnest.

Green Rocky Road finds Dalton deep in Appalachian country and blues. The album is just her on her banjo tackling folk standards. There is nothing slick or polished about the instrumentation and Dalton does indeed sound more tranquil than on most takes from Cotton Eyed Joe. Front and center is her bruised and willowy voice. Even after listening to her for years, her voice still manages to leave me breathless. Part of the appeal is Dalton’s excellent phrasing. Her drawl gives her words an authentic character without undermining her lyrics, and she conjures a profound sadness with her soft, hushed tone. It's difficult to tell whether she is personally damaged or simply appointing that mood to her song.

The title track is a cover song, but Dalton uses the occasion to reflect on her hitchhiking lifestyle, singing,

 When I go to Baltimore/Need no carpet on my floor/Get your coat and follow me/I know a man in Galilee.  

But further in, as she sings, "Green, green rocky road/Promenading green/Tell me who you love," her voice takes on a striking fragility. Her excitement for companionship turns into a plea for honesty.

Some of the songs on the album were also released on Cotton Eyed Joe but now find greater accessibility with the different production style. The traditional number "Katie Cruel" pushes Dalton's voice more up front, where before it sounded somewhat constrained and subdued. One of Dalton's most precious songs is her rendition of Leroy Carr's "In the Evening." The version found on Cotton Eyed Joe felt a bit too slow and overly meandering. But here, after some bizarre banter about dancing, Dalton unwinds the jazzy tune with excellent pacing, her falsettos and elongated stresses giving the song a stinging tenderness. While this version can't top the original recording from her debut album, it is better fit for a candle-lit evening.

Some other highlights from Green Rocky Road include the rollicking (if you can even call a Karen Dalton song rollicking) "Red Rockin' Chair." Over some more lively banjo picking, Dalton sings, "Can't make a living this way/Ain't got no honey baby now, oh no." "Skillet Good and Greasy" is also memorable, not just for its delightful title but also for its 1940s down home appeal à la Elizabeth Cotten.

While Delmore Recordings stresses that this release is a far more genuine and accurate account of what Karen Dalton sounded like in the 1960s, it doesn't exactly represent a composed Dalton. With accompanying artists or not, Dalton always sounds slightly tormented or damaged. In this instance, with just the bare bones of her banjo and a friend sitting alongside her, Green Rocky Road feels more intimate but no less perplexing. But then again, Dalton was always a complex figure—a strikingly beautiful woman with two missing front teeth, whose music only hinted at her shadowed life. Green Rocky Road doesn't reveal much more about her back-story, but it is an absolute gift of an album.           

Selections from Green Rocky Road are available here, and a short documentary about Karen Dalton can be viewed here.

  • Great. Another record to buy with money I don't have. Thank you, Mr. Baker, for your continued efforts to bankrupt me.

    Responses to this comment
  • she did a great cover of "god bless the child".

    Responses to this comment
  • While you're at it, AS, you should spring for the double Fred Neil cd (a couple hours long; one side studio recordings, the other live) and it's pretty cheap via Amazon.

    Responses to this comment
  • Yo, Sour! A while back a good bud of mine uploaded some Fred Neil on my laptop, and I summarily forgot about it until a few weeks ago during an extended shuffle session — and I'm totally hooked. Thanks for the heads up on the live album. It's def going on the list.

    Responses to this comment
  • Didn't she die of AIDS about 15 years ago? Sad that a contemporary of Dylan and Joan Baez never got the attention she deserved, but folk singers were a dime a dozen in those days.

    Responses to this comment
  • SeaLion's being purposely cavalier or just dumb. Folk singers, like musicians today or any other era, might've been a dime a dozen, because it's so difficult to break out. However, just a partial list of vital folk singers: Fred Neil, Tom Paxton, Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, Buffy St. Marie, Eric Andersen, Big Bill Broonzy, Odetta, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Tim Buckley, Richie Havens, Malvina Reynolds and Pete La Farge, to name just a bunch.

    Responses to this comment
  • To add to her mystique, it was rumored that she didn't die fro AIDS, but instead "she ran out of steam."

    Responses to this comment
  • Which is the equivalent of saying that she died from "bad vibes."

    Responses to this comment
  • Mort, loved the "bad vibes" line. You must be, as my grandparents used to say, "a card." But seriously, you're of the 60s generation, so did you see any of the great folk musicians live at concerts, coffee houses, hootenannys or marches?

    Responses to this comment
  • Well, I only moved out west after I retired, so I missed that whole California scene. I saw a few good acts when they came my way, though. When I was younger, I paid five bucks to see this no-name girl sing blues in a dive bar. I didn't even know her name at the time, but it was still the best show I've seen to this day. Heard her playing on the radio a few years later and asked someone who she was. "Janis Joplin," he said. Since then I've been hooked on her sound.

    Responses to this comment
  • So Mort, you grew up in Texas, where Joplin got her start? The "California scene" didn't really take off until a few years after Greenwich Village and Cambridge, which is what I was referring to. Guess I'm mistaken, but I assumed you were from the East Coast and might've seen some of the folkies in small venues.

    Responses to this comment
  • By the way, for those interested in Karen Dalton's era and contemporaries, several years ago a four-CD set was put out by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, "The Best of Broadside, 1962-1988." Some artists included are Pete LaFarge, Tom Paxton, Malvina Reynolds, Eric Andersen, Phil Ochs, Bonnie Dobson, Sis Cunningham, Richard Farina and Nina Simone.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment