There are artists—such as Geechie Wiley, Emmitt Miller, the musicians who recorded what later became know as the Cambodian Rocks tapes—who exist in the cultural plain almost as ghosts, whiffs of smoke that are as much legend as reality.
Wiley, a blues guitarist and singer, recorded just three songs in the 1930s, and today nobody knows a thing about her. Not much more is known about Miller, who nevertheless towers over country music with his influence on Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. The Cambodian Rocks musicians—Ros Sereysothea, Sinn Sisamouth, and many others—led a magnificent rock scene in Cambodia in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but were murdered in Pol Pot’s horrific social experiment.
These artists were later rediscovered and recognized for their brilliance and unique contributions. But it’s hard to listen to them without contemplating the mystery of their lives; it’s also hard to assess their music without making grandiose statements about music, art, and existence.
Such is the case with Karen Dalton, who spent her life mostly in obscurity, an artist admired primarily by other artists. She was a darling of the Greenwich Village folk revival of the early ’60s. Bob Dylan wrote that she was his favorite singer in the scene, comparing her voice to Billie Holiday’s—to this day, it’s rare not to see her compared to Holiday. Dalton herself was inclined toward mystery and self-destruction. She hated being recorded and friends allegedly had to trick her into doing so.
The Band wrote “Katie’s Been Gone” about her, tapping into her tragic mystery: “Katie’s been gone and now her face is slowly fading from my mind/She’s gone to find some newer places and left the old life far behind.”
She suffered from years of alcohol and drug abuse, and died in 1993 after a battle with AIDS. Even in death, her mystery endured: For years it was believed she died homeless on the streets of New York, when in fact a friend had taken her in.
Dalton released only two albums during her life, 1969’s It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best and, two years later, In My Own Time. A live recording, Cotton Eyed Joe, was released in 2007, and an earlier demo, Green Rocky Road, in 2008.
It’s a thrill that 1966 (Delmore), a “new” album of Karen Dalton’s, has been unearthed. Reportedly recorded in 1966 in a Colorado cabin (with electricity but no running water), the recordings were warm-ups for a gig, and thus never intended to be released as an official album. As such, they have a charming lo-fi quality to them, Dalton playing for friends who pass around a bottle—which was, reportedly, her favorite way to play music.
In her music, Dalton reveled in despair. Her best known song is the traditional “Katie Cruel,” with the lines “When I first came to town they bought me drinks aplenty/Now they’ve changed their tune, hand me the bottles empty.” On In My Own Time, the song is accompanied by a mournful violin; on 1966 it’s just Dalton plucking on a banjo in meandering tempo. She whistles the violin parts. Both versions are captivating and yet make for indulgent listening, like watching someone fall to pieces and enjoying the show.
Dalton covered happier (or less bleak) material. But she was most at home playing the blues. On 1966, she sings Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” and it’s obvious why the Holiday comparison has been so persistent. Dalton had a powerful voice that quavered with tenderness and fragility. Like Holiday, pain and sorrow sounded genuine in her voice. Dalton’s banjo picking had a breezy quality to it that is technically flawed and yet sounds perfect.
Despite her remarkable gifts, Dalton will remain a pop-culture footnote. She left too little material to properly assess her work and she’ll always be a cult figure, though one whose small contributions are nevertheless precious.
Because she left scarce recordings behind and because what she did leave is so remarkable, the temptation to mythologize is hard to resist.
On 1966, Dalton also covers the confounding, mysterious folk tune “Mole in the Ground.” It might be the greatest song ever written, and like life itself makes no sense at all. The protagonist yearns to be a “mole in the ground” so he could “root that mountain down.” He longs for his woman, who may be a prostitute: “Honey, where you been so long?”
Where did Dalton go? Where do any of us go? Like these songs, we’re all just whiffs of smoke.