DESPERATELY SEEKING KAREN Karen Dalton

Those who knew her tell the story of the doomed
folkie; plus, her intersection with the contemporary emergence of our “Golden
Age” of reissues.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

Dan Hankin, now a retired
school social worker living in Denver, fondly
remembers back to 1966, when he would visit Karen Dalton’s Colorado mountain cabin to play folk music
with her and Richard Tucker.

 

Another musician-friend, Carl
Baron would come up from Denver and spend time
with Dalton and
Tucker, too.

 

“She was a charismatic, very
powerful person – musically and socially – who could attract people like me and
Carl, very young men, and she would have us at her bidding,” Hankin recalls.
“We were very happy to be there. She was so entrancing, there was hardly
anything like it.”

 

She died in 1993, long after
separating and getting divorced from Tucker. But it turns out that, as Hankin
and Baron once found her so charismatic all those decades ago, others are
finding her to still be that way posthumously, thanks to ongoing reissues. An
old tape originally made by Baron in that cabin has just been released by
Delmore Recordings as Karen Dalton 1966. It is the fifth Dalton
recording to be released since the revival started in 1997 and the fourth in
six years.

 

 

 

 

 

Dalton, who was born and raised in Enid,
Oklahoma, had first moved to New
York to be part of the Greenwich Village
folk movement. By the time she left, still in the early 1960s, she had already
made an impact. Among those who found mesmerizing her bittersweet and
melancholy, soulfully introspective, interpretations of folk and blues
standards were Bob Dylan, Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. She also was accomplished
at 12-string guitar and banjo.

 

She didn’t move, however, to
turn her back on folk music – Boulder and Denver comprised a sort of Greenwich
Village of the Rockies, with a Denver Folklore Center patterned on the famous
one in New York. So she was eager to make music with others once she arrived
and settled into a cabin in the ghost town of Summerville.

 

“I lived at that time in the
mountains in another cabin,” says Hankin, who himself had come out from Brooklyn. “These were in foothills outside Boulder, which
50 years ago were dotted with old and, for the most part, abandoned cabins from
the miners’ rush. I got here in 1965, and they were already here. A lot of the
cabins, including Karen’s, had no indoor plumbing, no running water, no central
heating. But an enterprising young beatnik could contact the owner of a cabin
and ask if they want to rent this, and it would be $25 to $35 a month.”

 

Dalton was maybe was too introspective for stardom in her
own time. She also maybe waited too long to record. Her two albums came late in
the folk-revival cycle – 1969’s It’s So
Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best
for Capitol Records and 1971’s In My Own Time more or less sank
like a stone.

 

The latter was produced for
Michael Lang’s new Just Sunshine label, as Lang was flush with the success of
producing the 1969 Woodstock
music festival. It had contemporary production and material for its time, with
such fine supporting musicians as violinist Bobby Notkoff, guitarists Amos
Garrett, John Hall and Hankin, and trumpeter Marcus Doubleday. Never much of a
writer, she covered Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Paul
Butterfield’s “In My Own Dream” and the Band’s “In a Station” in addition to
such traditional material as her signature “Katie Cruel.” She also recorded one
of Tucker’s compositions, “Are You Leaving for the Country.”

 

The rest of her life,
spottily documented after the latter album’s failure, is as mysteriously,
heartbreakingly tragic as Philip Roth’s American
Pastoral.
She left her idyllic Colorado sanctuary for rough-and-tumble New
York, lost contact with Colorado friends (Tucker had to divorce her by mail),
struggled with substance abuse, and eventually died of AIDS-related illness in
1993 at age 55. At the end, Peter Walker – the great raga- and
flamenco-inspired guitarist – helped take care of her as she stayed in someone
else’s guesthouse. Afterward, that cabin burned – with it, possibly, tapes that
she had been making throughout her later years. Few outside her small,
immediate circle even knew about her long, hard fall.

 

***

 

The current quest for old
tapes and recordings is spurred by the impact of her voice, now that it’s
finally getting heard. With its dreamily wavering sadness, many find her the
folk generation’s Billie Holiday, as Dylan called her in his book Chronicles.

 

It started with the 1997 U.S. (and,
subsequently, European) CD reissue of her first album. While that Koch Records
release created a ripple of interest, the breakthrough came in 2006 when Light
in the Attic brought out In My Own Time with
liner notes by Nick
Cave, Devendra Banhart
and Lenny Kaye. It was a major success for a reissue.

 

Stephane Bismuth, of French
reissue specialist Megaphone Records, then found old tapes from Colorado. He released
them in Europe and Mark Linn’s Delmore
Recordings issued them here. Cotton Eyed
Joe,
from 2007, was from a 1962 performance at a Boulder coffee house called the Attic. In
2008 came Green Rocky Road, home recordings from that same tape, which had been kept for
decades by the owner of that long-gone coffeehouse, Joe Loop.

 

Linn, like Bismuth, had
gotten interested in Dalton
after the Koch reissue of her first album. “I think there were a small group of
people looking for anything else out there for recordings, because it was such
a short mysterious story about her,” he explains.

 

Through contacts made during
his other releases, Linn found Baron and his tape from 1966. On this, Dalton performs traditional folk-blues material along with
Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” Tucker shares
vocals on several songs. But of particular note, she covers several newly
written compositions by her friend Hardin (“Reason to Believe,” “Don’t Make
Promises,” “While You’re on Your Way”). For a while in the mid-1960s, Hardin
rented a home in the mountains outside Boulder,
himself.

 

“What I remember is Karen and
Richard were having some big gig they were going to do and wanted to check out
how they sounded,” says Baron, who had come from Brooklyn for graduate study in
biochemistry, but had a 12-string guitar and loved folk. “I had a reel-to-reel
tape recorder and set it up. It was a practice session. I did start and stop
the tape quite a lot. At the end, I had to go to a slow speed because I didn’t
have enough tape left. It was recorded in mono with a single microphone on an
old Wollensak I used to have.”

 

                                                      
                            

It is most definitely a home
recording. But while the quality isn’t professional, the tape is bursting with
feeling. And it has an ethereal quality – you feel like you’re listening in on
a fragile dispatch from some utopian, countercultural Land of the Lost.

 

Tucker, who now lives in Bellingham, Wash.,
said he’s talked-out on the subject and referred this writer to a statement he
wrote for 1966’s packaging, but was
not used. Here is an edited excerpt:        

 

“I think often of the life Karen and
I had in Colorado
– it was certainly the best period of our
relationship and particularly of living in
Summerville… (It) was an old gold mining
town and all the old cabins were owned and rented out by an old mountain
couple. They lived and looked just like in
a western movie. Henry taught me everything there was to know about splitting wood. The house had cold running water, a gas cook stove, a
wood and coal stove for heat, and an
outhouse. Sitting in the outhouse you had a great view right to the top of Bighorn Mountain.
One night I burned the outhouse down. There
was a hot coal in the ashes I dumped in the outhouse to “sweeten” it.

 

“We bought two horses and a pony and
fenced in an area to keep them in.
Karen really knew horses and one of the ones she picked to buy turned out to be the fastest quarter horse in those
parts…”

 

They were close enough to Boulder for Tucker to work as a groundskeeper at the University of Colorado;
Dalton also had
occasional restaurant jobs.

 

It should be pointed out there is a
dissenting opinion about how wonderful a time it was. Abralyn, Dalton’s daughter from a previous marriage
(she also had a son), lived there for several middle-school years, and didn’t
like it. She eventually left to be with her father, an Illinois university professor.

 

“I wanted to live in a normal house, have my own
bedroom and have lunch everyday,” she says now. “It was no more comfortable
then than it is now. They were doing their own thing, even though everyone else
thought they were being weird and strange – those hippies up in the mountains.”

 

 

To say it is a time that won’t come
again is more than a writer’s device. The cabin burned down in a 2009 forest
fire.

 

***

 

Meanwhile, the search goes on
for more music by Dalton.
Mike Davis, owner of New York’s Academy
Records in the East Village and Williamsburg,
is hoping for a summer release of some 1968 tapes on his small reissue label.
His project started when her former manager brought in some records to sell and
mentioned that he had some old tapes of her.

 

 “We told him there had been a real resurgence
of interest in her,” Davis
explains. “He gave us the tapes, and I had them transferred professionally.”
The tapes, which Davis thinks were made in
preparation for her first album, include songs recorded with Hankin in a Colorado cabin, but also New York
studio tracks of Dalton
accompanying herself on 12-string guitar. There are also two New York tracks of her with a blues-rock
trio, featuring Blues Project’s Danny Kalb on guitar.

 

Linn meanwhile is considering
another release of her previously unknown early-1970s material, when Dalton was back in New
York City. Linn says that during this period Dalton
and Antonia Stampfel- who wrote songs for partner Peter Stampfel’s Holy Modal
Rounders – would spend time with Peter and a blind jazz pianist named Chris
Anderson in an apartment that previously had been the famous Jazz Loft, where
in the mid-1960s W. Eugene Smith had photographed and tape-recorded musicians
like Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk as they played after-hours gigs.

 

It was still miked when Dalton and her coterie
started to hang out later. After Smith died, the place was rented to a drummer.
“The tapes tend to have drums overloading everything else,” Linn says. “They’re
multi-tracked tapes and he sort of knew what he was doing, but probably
shouldn’t have also been playing drums. So there are lots and lots of tapes,
and probably there’s an hour’s worth of Karen.”

 

And he follows reports of Dalton tape sightings like a tornado chaser – an
early-1960s house concert by Dalton and Tucker
in Bloomington, Ind., reportedly was recorded and is
supposed to sound great.

 

Tucker may find himself
benefiting in other ways from the renewed interest in her. After he returned to
New York City, he formed a folk-oriented trio
called Richard, Cam and Bert that played local clubs and in Central
Park for tips. Warren Schatz, before he became a successful
1970s-era disco producer (Vicki Sue Robinson, Evelyn “Champagne”
King), took a liking to them and recorded a limited-edition album that they
struggled to self-distribute. It contains a version of “Are You Leaving for the
Country.”

 

“It’s a really nice record,
with pretty songs and beautiful harmonies that’s almost as if the Jayhawks were
around in 1969 and crossed with the Grateful Dead,” Linn says.

 

Tucker, willing to comment on
this, says: “I sure hope he does release it. He came over to my house and had
never heard of it and I played it for him. And he now has some other tapes of
songs not on that album that are very good.”

 

***

 

If there’s a lesson to all
this, it’s that nowadays there’s always a second chance – even posthumously –
for an earlier-overlooked musician to find her or his audience. Especially if
they, or someone they knew, saved their tapes and out-of-print recordings.

 

“It’s the golden age of
reissues in terms of the material being discovered out there and the number of
people who know how to produce it correctly,” says Academy Music’s Davis.

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