Sleepy Hollow celebrates the music of Karen Dalton

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Karen Dalton | Photo by Elliott_Landy_| www.landyvision.com
Karen Dalton | Photo by Elliott Landy | www.landyvision.com

Of all the decisions made during the recording and release of Karen Dalton’s second album titling it In My Own Time was, in retrospect, the most apt. Take Dalton’s country-soul workout of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “How Sweet it is (to be Loved by You)” and listen to it next to the haunting folk-informed pleas on her take of Richard Tucker’s “Are You Leaving for the Country” and try and figure out how they work together on the same album; they do.

Like her cohorts in The Band, Dalton was at once ahead of, and behind, her contemporaries. Her recordings valued a wide swath of American music that starts with folk and blues, but also includes R&B, soul, and pop.

Dalton’s career lasted only a few years, falling into latency after 1971 as she lapsed into substance abuse, a condition that would reportedly affect her until her death in 1993. However, time has proven kind to Dalton’s music. As a younger generation of listeners has found her two proper records through re-issue, and a few great found recordings that include a collection of demos (1966) and a 1962 live recording, Cotton Eyed Joe.

Now, with the help of fellow folk experimentalist (and close friend of Dalton) Peter Walker, a group of singer/songwriters, including Sharon Van Etten, Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams, has taken some of Dalton’s lost lyrics and put them to their own arrangements on the new Tompkin’s Square release, Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton.

Here we focus on a few standout selections from that compilation as well as some of our favorite Dalton recordings to give you just a brief picture of a remarkable artist.

Karen Dalton-“Little Bit of Rain” (It’s So Hard to Know Who’s Going to Love You the Best; Capitol; 1969)

Dalton had already spent years in the Greenwich Village folk scene when she recorded her debut with Fred Neil (who reportedly had to convince her that the tape was not rolling in order to get her to play this set), and though it fails to introduce Dalton as a songwriting force, it does display her ability to masterfully interpret her chosen material, particularly on this album-opening version of Neil’s “Little Bit of Rain.” And while detractors often point to Dalton’s vocal delivery and style as her greatest shortcoming, admirers will note its similarity to Billie Holiday’s–an expressive mid-range croon that capitalizes on her ability to give emotional weight to the material over any elastic dexterity that she may possess, in other words: she keeps it simple. Also included on the album are her takes on tunes written by Tim Hardin, Huddie Ledbetter and Eddie Floyd/Booker T. Jones alongside traditional songs like “Ribbon Bow” and “In the Evening (It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best).” The sparse, acoustic setting differs drastically from the more produced, “full band” sound of her next release, In My Own Time.

Julia Holter-“My Love My Love” (Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton)

On her 2013 release, Loud City Song, California singer/songwriter Julia Holter used acoustic instruments in tandem with tape loops and synthesizers as a template for her unique vision and top-notch compositions. On “My Love My Love,” Holter follows a similar, if not more simplistic, approach–giving the impression of a field recording with subtle atmospherics and birds chirping, all the while accompanying what is essentially an acappela performance with airy synthesizers and droning woodwinds alongside the occasional mic scratch. She sings, “my love, my love / I will watch you / I watch you, watch you grow / from a child of shimmer / to a goddess of the snow,” the innocence of which quickly turns into something else entirely as the recording becomes more fractured, more desperate over Holter’s minor-key textures, recalling not only the complexity that Karen Dalton could bring to an arrangement, but also the more recent work of the late Trish Keenan and her band Broadcast.

Isobel Campbell-“Don’t Make it Easy” (Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton)

Alongside luminaries like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, much of the “folk” movement of the ’60s and early-’70s lends itself to the acoustic blues of artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Blind Lemon Jefferson (both of whom Dylan would cover on his first album), and Karen Dalton is a particularly emphatic example of this, applying elements of the blues into almost everything she recorded. Scottish singer and cellist (and former Belle & Sebastian member) Isobel Campbell offers Remembering Mountains‘ best incarnation of this side of Dalton’s music on “Don’t Make It Easy,” a hushed, haunting arrangement that features Campbell’s trademark hush over minor blues guitars and piano. She sings, “Things that you said / don’t leave my head / I may take my time / forgetting you // and loving you / the way that I do / don’t make it easy,” offering another stark example of the despair that permeates much of Remembering Mountains. And it is appropriate, considering the difficulty with which Dalton lived most of her life, that these songs represent a complex, embattled artist. This is an important snapshot into the work of an artist who too seldom was able to record her own compositions in her own lifetime, here they are performed and presented impeccably by an immensely talented cast who, thankfully, have come to love and be inspired by the music of Karen Dalton themselves.

Karen Dalton-“In a Station,” and “Are You Leaving for the Country” (In My Own Time; Paramount; 1971)

Karen Dalton is closely associated with the Woodstock, NY scene of the late-’60s and early-’70s, and she pays tribute to its torchbearers in her rendition of Richard Manuel’s “In a Station,” originally recorded for The Band’s 1968 debut, Music from Big Pink. Like Dalton, there are few singers in the popular era that could transform the material they approached in the way that Manuel could (exhibit A being his definitive take of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”), and they would prove to share the common bond of a troubled life (Manuel died by suicide in 1986). While The Band’s version features the circus-like flourishes of Garth Hudson’s keyboards atop a decidedly atypical rhythm, with Levon Helm and co. (purposely) taking much of the blues out of the sound in favor of a more syncopated approach, Dalton’s version is all blues and soul, with acoustic piano and Hammond B3 leading the way underneath Dalton’s straight-faced vocals that only break in the song’s final phrase when she belts “oh, save me.” As if to answer (though written and recorded before the fact), The Band’s “Katie’s Been Gone,” originally released on their collaboration with Dylan, The Basement Tapes (and co-written and sung by Manuel), has long been said to be written about Dalton. Listen below to both songs in the Spotify playlist.

“Are You Leaving for the Country” is a bit of an anomaly amongst the rest of In My Own Time, recalling the subtlety of Dalton’s first album over the more produced sound of her second. Written by Dalton’s husband, Richard Tucker, it may be the crown jewel of her “proper” discography: allowing Dalton’s vocals to shine solely in a way that they could not on the rest of the album, but with enough production-savvy to separate it from virtually anything included on It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best.

Listen both of these songs and many more in the Spotify playlists below featuring the music of Remembering Mountains, Karen Dalton, and those in her vast musical circle.

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