Album Review

Bob Dylan: "My favorite singer... was Karen Dalton"

Karen Dalton

Green Rocky Road

Delmore Recording Society

Release Date: January 1st, 1963

Words by: Roland Ellis
June 16th, 2015

9.0

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Since her death in 1993, Karen Dalton has become a bit of a mythological figure in the music world. And like most other myths in music (or art in general), she wasn’t alive to see herself gain recognition. It's for people like her, Van Gogh, Mozart etc etc., that I hope there’s an afterworld from where they can look back down and see that people actually gave a damn, in the end.

But how and why do we give a damn about Dalton? Well, first let me answer the 'how' part of that question by saying that powerful words from a powerful man can do powerful things. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan wrote, "My favorite singer…was Karen Dalton. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed…I sang with her a couple of times."

Bob Dylan: "My favorite singer... was Karen Dalton"

Had Dylan not been so emphatic in his praise for Dalton it’s likely her name would’ve drifted into total obscurity, if it wasn’t there already. Some have called it a "mystery of revival" that Karen Dalton’s music re-emerged in the mid 2000s. But there's very little mystery to it, really. Let me quickly explain. Bob Dylan fans are surely to be counted amongst the most obsessive, persnickety people on the planet. Meaning that if Dylan himself was to be so uncharacteristically full of praise for some little-known singer, you can bet that that person would overnight become a source of intense inquiry for Dylan hunters, of whom there are many.

And the puzzle falls into place from there: in 2006, both of Dalton’s official studio albums—It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best (1969); In My Own Time (1971)--were re-released by French Megaphone Music and Light In the Attic Records, respectively.

"My favorite singer…was Karen Dalton. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed…I sang with her a couple of times." Bob Dylan

Now to the 'why' part of the question above. Good press, even if it comes from the pen of Bob Dylan, can only get you so far. In Karen Dalton's case it succeeded in tossing her name and music back into the proverbial ring, thus rescuing her from musical oblivion, at least, momentarily. But once you have a captive audience in the room it’s up to you to keep them there. All the buzz in the world is not going to compensate for a crappy product. And, crucially, Dalton’s Green Rocky Road is far from crappy; in fact, it’s pretty amazing, as well as being contemporary in its own way.

Dalton was effectively shunned by the folk music establishment in the 1960s. Stories vary as to why, but the main thread seems to go something like this: she was a wild-child in an industry that, particularly before Dylan, was looking for straight, tidy Ozzie and Harriet types like Joan Baez or the Weavers. Dalton was notoriously stormy and controlling in the studio. She wanted things her way, and, seemingly, all suggestions of compromise or collaboration were turfed out as a result. Subsequently, Dalton herself was turfed out by the industry.

Bob Dylan: "My favorite singer... was Karen Dalton" Left to right: Karen Dalton, Suze Rotolo, Teri Thal, Bob Dylan & Dave Van Ronk in New York City.

Such behavior makes it easier to understand the Karen Dalton resurgence of late. From the mid 70s up until today, the music industry has overseen a rise of the DIY ethos, whereby bands/artists effectively set their own agendas in the studio. Dalton was ahead of the curve in this respect--she was grunge before grunge, punk before punk. So it makes sense, then, that her 60s output be appreciated retrospectively.

That rough-edged punk quality is abundant on Dalton’s Green Rocky Road. Recorded in a Colorado cabin circa 1963, Rocky Road makes some things clear about Karen Dalton: she did things her way, her voice was indeed comparable to Billie Holiday, and that she is deserving of every folk music fan’s attention.

It’s a rough and tumble album. The songs frequently drop the loose time signature altogether, and the pitch of Dalton’s voice misses the mark on more than one occasion. But so what? Isn't folk music about living, about toughness, about the dirt between your toes, and about having no food in your stomach or viable prospects on the horizon? Folk music is what people turn to when they’ve got nothing else.

Karen Dalton’s life was rough, without question; she was reportedly kicked around, shrugged off and neglected at every turn. But if Green Rocky Road is testament to anything, it’s that the brightest sparks among us carry a fire inside that no matter the obstacle, of which there will be many, will remain mysteriously aflame.

Below are two versions of Green, Green Rocky Road performed by Oscar Issac & Dave Van Ronk.

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