Karen Dalton – 1966
The selling point and historical significance of Karen Dalton has rested entirely on the uniquely haunting timbre of her voice and the restrained brilliance with which she employed it, bending melody and finding hidden meanings in seemingly straightforward pop and folk songs. To her, the American music canon lay as palimpsest, with something as inescapable as the jaws of a bear trap and as the lure of new and old love, sometimes at the same time, to be transcribed from beneath the apparent banality of it all.
Take, for example, her rendition of “Cotton Eyed Joe”, the first appearance of which was on the earlier set Cotton Eyed Joe. Most are familiar with this song as the Rednex bar mitzvah dance-floor abomination, yet Dalton manages to bring out the regret in the song with lulling banjo picking that matches the insight her voice brings to bear. It appears in both a live rendition on the collection bearing its name and on another recording unearthed for this new set of recordings, 1966. “Where did you come from? Where did you go?” The haziness of a recollection, and the strangely common intersection of regrets and the warm feelings that happen anyway, come through with an aching clarity. Time passes, sweet in its inevitability, yet with the sadness of the missed opportunity that comes with living only one life. The listener is wrecked.
Dalton’s genius as a performer makes her multiple forays almost as much, if not more, of a blessing than new numbers in her song book, since we can see the active process of thought by comparison and she can say many things within one song. The archaeological nature of her discography makes for lots of overlap, but not in the nature of the endless repackaging of The Smiths. It’s more in the spirit of digging through Lenny Bruce bootlegs. There is no struggling toward completeness or a finished product, but simply an eye-level engagement of the material by someone with a depth of insight, a multiplicity of viewpoints depending on the day and the setting. With 1966, we get another lazy afternoon spent in the company of one of the 20th century’s true musical geniuses.
The singularity of Dalton makes 1966 an especially shocking discovery, as much of the set is devoted to duets, something entirely absent from any of her other discs. Her voice isn’t allowed to stretch out as much in these, though the scattered burying of her voice in the mixes brings out the distinctiveness of her banjo and guitar picking. The presence of friends gives 1966 a warmth and lighthearted quality, lacking in Cotton Eyed Joe or Green Rocky Road. What is interesting, though, is that she has a much richer register of despair than of contentment. It makes for oddly inferior renditions of songs already known from other recordings. “A Little Bit of Rain”, in particular, feels oddly disengaged. A lack is felt for, of all things, the robust bass line it was given on It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You Best.
A vibe of good feeling and a thin quality to what admittedly is a 45-year-old home recording makes this set, while still essential, perhaps the least so of the Dalton sets so far unearthed. It’s still a must-have, and the Tupac barrel-scraping is a long long way in the distance. Start with either of the two studio albums and I can almost guarantee you will work yourself to this in almost no time at all.
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