‘Oklahoma in her voice’
“You can hear Oklahoma in her voice in a different way when she sings,” Tucker said. “It’s that, I dunno, that lonesome sound. It’s not a hillbilly sound, it’s something else.”
“The phrasing, the gospel sound, the haunting minor key,” Baird adds. “It’s a backwoods thing. Her mother was a staunch Baptist, but they don’t believe in dancing, so Mom became a Methodist so she could dress to the nines and go to a church where they were singing all the old songs. ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ all those. Plus, that farm of her grandparents’ — there was a dividing line in Enid between where the black people lived and the white people, just two blocks north of it. I know she interacted with the whole black community in ways most people — most white people — didn’t get to.”
Dalton left Enid around 1961. She wasn’t clamoring to escape; she just wanted a new adventure. She’d taught herself guitar and was ready to find an audience. At least, at first.
“Enid was a small Midwestern town, and it was the mid-’50s,” Baird said. “The only thing to do at night was drive up and down the main drag and try to get a date. Think about what was expected of women then. Most of them weren’t even expected to go to college. You got married and had babies as soon as you could. You stayed home and kept house. Karen did not want to do that. She liked to paint and play music. … She went to New York to do that. First, she went to Colorado, then to New York.
“One of my favorite stories about her getting to New York was her discovery of spaghetti. There were no Italians in Enid, no Italian restaurants. She was very excited about it.”
Eventually landing in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Dalton found herself among the folk music revival of the early 1960s. She started making the rounds of pass-the-hat clubs, singing and playing her 27-fret banjo or a 12-string guitar. Tucker was a folk singer, too, and this is where they met and married.
This is also when Dalton met Jill Byrem, who would become Lacy J. Dalton. She, too, remembers Karen’s impact, specifically in a piece of advice she was given. “Why do you think you have to sing so loud?” Lacy, in an interview with London’s Guardian newspaper, recalled Karen telling her. “If you want to be heard, you have to sing softer.”
Dylan was coming up through the same scene and often backed Dalton on harmonica. She had an effect on him, too, one he still remembered years later. Early in the first volume of his memoirs, “Chronicles” (published in 2004), page 12, Dylan writes, “My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. She was a tall, white, blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky and sultry. … Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it. I sang with her a couple of times.”
“Katie’s Been Gone” by Dylan & The Band allegedly is about Dalton. A generation later, she also inspired Nick Cave’s “When I First Came to Town.” Like Dylan, Cave has referred to Dalton as his “favourite female blues