Despite being overshadowed by her Greenwich Village associate Bob Dylan, American folk singer Karen Dalton was one of the most gifted singers of her time. A guitarist, banjoist and vocalist, Dalton didn’t achieve the critical success so many of her contemporaries did. And yet, today, her influence can be heard in artists such as Devendra Banhart and Aldous Harding, instigating a reappraisal of her impact on popular music.
So it is a joy to find rare footage of one of Dalton’s live performances, which has recently resurfaced. In revisiting the footage, it is clear that she was a unique talent. It captures, amongst other things, Dalton performing a rendition of Billie Holiday’s song ‘God Bless The Child’ live in New York in 1969. The clip provides a stunning insight into the way Dalton was able to hold her audiences in the very palm of her hand, captivating them with her vibrato-laden voice and unique delivery.
With two divorces behind her by the age of 21, Karen Dalton left her home in Oklahoma and quickly entrenched herself in the New York folk scene of the 1960s. Becoming a well-known personality amongst the musicians of Greenwich Village, Dalton played alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Fred Neil, becoming a fixture at the famous Cafe Wha? folk club, and it is there that she would put on benefit concerts for local civil rights groups. Dylan would later call Dalton his favourite singer of all time: “Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday,” he said, “And played guitar like Jimmy Reed…I sang with her a couple of times.”
In this footage, it’s clear to see that Dalton was a woman to whom life had not been kind. With her world-weary voice, she was able to convey the struggles she faced at almost every turn. The most notable of these was her battle with alcohol and heroin addiction, habits that made recording and touring her music particularly difficult. She was also very averse to performing original songs, and in this footage, we see how she loses herself in the lyrics of Billie Holiday’s song, finding solace in her escape.
However, the video also contains some stunning footage taken outside the cabin to which she moved with her husband Richard Tucker and daughter Abralyn during the 1960s. Tucked away in a small mining cabin in Summervill, Dalton would record a good deal of material in the cabin, some of which was released posthumously in the recent album 1966. The footage is absolutely beautiful. Dalton sits in the tall grass outside her home and, with her guitar on her knee, plays through songs like ‘Little Bit Of Rain’ with a quivering intensity. She seems more like a candle flame than a human being, always on the cusp of dissolving into thin air.
We’re also given a chance to see inside the cabin itself. Despite the fact that it had no running water or electricity, Dalton felt much more comfortable there than she did in New York. Watching Dalton walk through the landscape around her home, one wonders whether, if she had just stayed in Summervill instead of returning to New York, she would have had a happier life. Dalton was consistently shunned by the folk community there, but in this footage, she seems entirely at peace.
Dalton would eventually succumb to her heroin addiction, dying of an AIDS-related illness in 1993 at the age of 55. But in her wake, she left a quiet legacy. And today, her popularity is undergoing a renewal, with artists like Adele and Nick Cave citing her as an important influence.
You can watch the full video, below.