I’m currently snacking on Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’, a mesmerizing autobiographical account of how he got his start in the business. He talks about the coffee houses on the Lower East Side in NYC and details playing the daytime room at the Café Wha? that "featured anybody and anything— a comedian, a ventriloquist, a steel drum group, a poet, a female impersonator, a duo who sang Broadway stuff, a rabbit-in-the-hat magician, a guy wearing a turban who hypnotized people in the audience, somebody whose entire act was facial acrobatics—just anybody who wanted to break into show business.”
It was here that he first encountered Karen Dalton who quickly became his favourite singer in the joint. As he tells it she was a "tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky and sultry.” Karen Dalton was born in Texas and arrived in New York in the early sixties after moving from Oklahoma, leaving a husband and family behind.
While she was in the right place at the right time, her refusal to write and record original songs (she was painfully shy) and her self-destructive tendencies (she leaned on drugs and the drink to soothe herself) left her out of favour with a radically-shifting industry. As the music critic Lara James tells it: "Her debut album, It’s So Hard To Tell You Who’s Going To Love You The Best, was only recorded because Fred Neil tricked her into thinking that there was no tape rolling and that it was simply a rehearsal.”
I discovered Karen Dalton in my early twenties after coming across her first album. Her sultry voice touched a nerve, the pain and longing that seeped through every line cutting me to the core. Listening to it again many years later takes none of that away. If anything her 'strange and bewitching’ pain is all the more understandable, relatable.
For those adventurous spirits, check out the album Green Rocky Road. It’s a magical trip down some long lost memory lane.