FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Karen Dalton

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Karen Dalton’s mystique, largely a product of her personal misfortunate, makes her an easy candidate for legend: it’s fun to imagine her, half Irish, half Cherokee, in a wooly, bohemian large-pocketed coat, Dalton had thick dark bangs and two missing bottom teeth knocked out when she got between two fighting boyfriends, and spent the sixties wandering Greenwich Village, palling around with Bob Dylan and enchanting tiny apartments full of literati with her banjo and her incomparable voice.

Most often liked to a folksy Billy Holday, Dalton’s voice is bluesy and husky, perfectly timed, but especially haunting for the sadness behind it. Dalton was criminally overlooked during her lifetime, and barely recorded, both because of her inconsistencies with the kind of pop music that got signed at the time and because of her own stubbornness and famous refusal to perform. The story of how her debut album, It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best, was made has become a legend unto itself:a friend tricked her into playing the songs, and secretly recorded the performance. Dalton released that album and one other, In My Own Time, and then disappeared off the scene. She struggled with drug use until her death from AIDS in 1993.

In My Own Time, released initially in 1971 and then again in 2006, epitomizes something of the intimacy and romance that had haunted her voice on It’s So Hard. The record was undoubtedly more comfortable, and Dalton’s experiments into the bluesier aspects of her voice (“When A Man Loves A Woman”), which even switches some of the lyrics of that song around to fit a female protagonist, feel natural alongside the beautifully archaic banjo-based tune “Katie Cruel.” Then there’s “Take Me,” a simple, heart-shattering song built around fermatas and soul, that hits a new peak of earnestness in Dalton’s career. However, the most memorable track on this album, for me, is the first one, “Something On Your Mind.”

The mythologizing of Karen Dalton, as much as it skews the life it imagines, lets you take the music for your own, and so it is with this song. “Something On Your Mind,” honest and comforting, utilizes a set of lyrics just vague enough to apply to anything—Yesterday, anyway you made it was just fine/So you turned your days into nighttime/Didn’t you know you can’t make it without ever even trying? And something’s on your mind, isn’t it—and cutting enough to feel like a conversation. More than thirty years after the song was recorded, “Something On Your Mind” is balm for the wounds of the lonely two thirty AM subway rider, the recently dumped or the recently unemployed, the weary traveler, or the woolen-jacketed wanderer through a snowy Greenwich village. Her voice, an acute blend of lonely weariness and deep strength, sounds like nothing to come out before or since.

Take a listen to “Something On Your Mind,” off In My Own Time, below:

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