The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local news

March 16, 2013

The ballad of Karen Dalton

Bob Dylan admired this obscure Enid folk singer’s vocals

Even before she rose from the dead, Karen Dalton always sounded like a ghost.

Her voice was an unearthly coo, a mournful banshee wail, baying the blues with a clutching patience. The only urgency was in the timbre of her voice — fairly high, very round, all soft palette and just shy of shrill. On first listen, everyone starts in with the comparisons to Billie Holiday. Eventually, though, you feel the need to get beyond that blurb, to go deeper, lured by her slow, slow siren call.

“No one sang the blues slower than she did,” said Richard Tucker, a fellow folk singer and Dalton’s ex-husband. “It was her sound, her tone. To me, that’s the big thing in her music. Her voice is so distinctive, nobody sounds like that. Madeleine Peyroux a little bit, but she’s more ‘up,’ not so bluesy. (Karen) sounds a fair amount like Billie Holiday, and of course you hear that a lot about her. They could’ve said ‘the new Billie Holiday’ or ‘the country Billie Holiday,’ and she might have made a bigger impact, sold more records. I told her that back then, but she didn’t want to think about it.”

He chuckles. “You couldn’t tell her anything.” Then he really laughs at the thought. “Nobody had a clear picture of how to come out of it commercially and make her a known person. Only certain underground people hear her and say, ‘Wow.’ Nine out of 10 don’t get it, but people who get it think she’s the greatest thing in the world.”

Twenty years after her death, and 40 years after her last commercial recording, Dalton is just now gaining ground as a “known person.” She had everything going for her — a signature and authentic sound, moving from Oklahoma to Greenwich Village at exactly the right moment, the vocal admiration of that scene’s rising star, Bob Dylan — but none of it panned out, nothing translated into commercial success.

In the 21st century, though, all music is current and available. The temporality of tunes has been abolished. A teenager jumping into the pop music pool today need not dive, because everything’s on the surface — the Rolling Stones floating right alongside the Stone Temple Pilots, the Beatles with the English Beat, the Flamin’ Groovies and the Flaming Lips — all of it reachable within a smattering of keystrokes and hyperlinked by relativity and shared adoration. Degree of fame is irrelevant, or at least recast and often upended by the number of page views.

So someone like Dalton sounds at once old and new. Hipsters of each succeeding generation have reveled in her rediscovery — boomers embracing a new shoot from old roots, millennials donning another badge of indie identity. She’s the embodiment of the surrealistic, out-of-time ambassador in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.”

“My daughter’s been at parties and people say, ‘I heard this on YouTube the other day,’ and they’re talking about her grandmother,” said Dalton’s daughter, Abbe Baird. “She says, ‘The other day I was watching this movie, and they were playing Grandma.’ Like she was still alive, like she just recorded the song.”

Online, in footage filmed in her time, Dalton sounds and seems ghostly, utterly haunting of any decade. A black-and-white clip from a French documentary shot in 1969 (available on YouTube and as part of the new “Cotton Eyed Joe” CD collection) shows Dalton singing Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too.” She’s at a microphone, sitting stock-still. Her straight, dark hair hangs slightly lower than her empty gaze. She plucks a tinny 12-string guitar with silver picks on her fingertips, which glisten just outside of her antediluvian (or merely “retro”) lace cuffs. Only occasionally, and barely, does she let a grin slide across her pale, pretty face. It’s a flash of humanity — the only sign that she may be more than merely an earthly amplifier for that otherworldly voice.

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