Karen Dalton (AKA “Sweet Mother K.D.”) was a folk-blues singer and a part of the early 1960s scene in New York’s Greenwich Village. She played a 12-string guitar and banjo. Her idiosyncratic voice (and missing tooth) saw her called “the hillbilly Billie Holiday” and sadly, the comparison was apt in more ways than just one.
In his Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan, describing the folk scene at the Cafe Wha? said of Dalton:
“My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed.”
Dylan would sing with Dalton several times.
“All I can say is that she sure can sing the shit out of the blues” was Fred Neil’s appraisal. She was also admired by (and performed with) the Holy Modal Rounders. Rounder Peter Stampfel later wrote of Dalton: “She was the only folk singer I ever met with an authentic ‘folk’ background. She came to the folk music scene under her own steam, as opposed to being ‘discovered’ and introduced to it by people already involved in it.”
Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton and Fred Neil sometime in the early 1960s.
A reluctant performer who had to be tricked, initially, to enter a recording studio, Dalton only released two albums in her lifetime, It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best (1969) and In My Own Time (1971). Both were flops. Severe heroin addiction and alcohol problems saw her career slip away from her. “Katie’s Been Gone” a number on The Basement Tapes, by Bob Dylan and The Band was written about Dalton.
Sadly, Karen Dalton would eventually lose her two children, become a street person and contract AIDS. She died in the upstate New York home of guitarist Peter Walker in 1993 at the age of 55. In recent years her albums have been reissued with liner notes by Nick Cave and her music is revered by the likes of Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Cat Power.
When the rarities collection Cotton Eyed Joe came out in 2006 on the French label Megaphone-Music, the package contained a DVD with a handful of seldom seen performance clips, of which some have unsurprisingly turned up on YouTube, like this black and white performance of “It Hurts Me, Too.”
Below, “Blues Jumped The Rabbit”:
One of Nick Cave’s favorite Karen Dalton songs, “Katy Cruel”:
Thank you, Adrian