Remembering Karen Dalton: A Musician On Her Own Terms
Thirty years ago, on March 19, 1993, the folk guitarist, banjo player, and singer Karen Dalton died in Woodstock, New York at the age of fifty-five. She left behind two studio albums, dozens of poems and unfinished songs, and two children, but very few recorded performances or interviews.
Details about Karen Dalton’s life are difficult to come by, and like many enigmatic musicians, mythology has risen up around her in their place. So long after her life and death, we still struggle to fully understand her. But what’s unquestionable is Dalton’s impact on the musical landscape, even as she rejected the trappings of the industry and the pressure to conform to an accessible image.
Karen Dalton was born on July 19, 1937, and raised in Enid, Oklahoma. She grew up in a musical community, and took to playing twelve-string guitar and banjo — possibly drawn to the first by a love for the work of Lead Belly. She also began to scrupulously gather and transcribe music she liked in order to perform it.
“She was collecting...lyrics and songs from an early age,” says her longtime friend Peter F. Walker in the foreword to Songs, Poems, and Writings, his collection of Dalton’s manuscripts and journals. “Music was the focus of her life.”
By the age of 21, Dalton had been married and divorced twice, and given birth to two children: a son named Johnny Lee Murray and a daughter named Abralyn Baird. She eventually took Abralyn with her when she moved to Greenwich Village, hoping to relay her talents into a musical career.
Dalton’s curation lent her an impressive repertoire of folk songs, blues music, and jazz standards, and she referred to herself as a “song stylist.” She was often compared to Billie Holiday for her distinctive, bluesy voice, which her friend and country singer Lacy J. Dalton describes as “cornmeal mush” with a hornlike sound. Dalton cited Bessie Smith as a bigger influence on her work — though she did cut a recording of Holiday’s composition “God Bless The Child” for an early recording session in 1966.
While involved in the scene at Greenwich Village, Dalton was a regular at the legendary folk venue Cafe Wha?, and performed at benefit concerts for civil rights groups. She played regularly with Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, and Bob Dylan, often covering their work in performance. Dylan occasionally backed her on the harmonica, and remembers her as his “favorite singer in the place” in his memoir Chronicles: Volume One. Some even speculate that Dalton is the subject of “Katie’s Been Gone” from Dylan and The Band’s 1967 recording The Basement Tapes.
Her time in The Village was also inspiring for Dalton’s own writing. Though she refused to perform them, she wrote dozens of original songs and poems, including “April 1961 New York Star Song.” “While the sky is full of stars, I’m dreaming about you,” she writes in the lyrics. “My song making it do to pass the time along.”
In Greenwich Village, she married for the third time, to fellow folk musician Richard Tucker. The two had a tumultuous relationship that lasted around five years, and the 2021 documentary In My Own Time: A Portrait of Karen Dalton suggests that their arguments were worsened by the conditions of poverty that followed Dalton throughout her life. Their search for domestic peace and less expensive cost of living ultimately resulted in the pair’s relocation from New York to Boulder, Colorado.
It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You The Best and In My Own Time
In the late 1960s, Dalton signed to Just Sunshine Records, a new Paramount imprint operated by Woodstock Festival co-creator Michael Lang. She set out to record what would ultimately become her first full-length studio album: 1969’s It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You The Best. With stripped-down interpretations of songs by Lead Belly, Jelly Roll Morton, and Fred Neil, the album is a showcase of Dalton’s musical talent as well as her passions.
Dalton chafed against the demands of recording her music, getting frustrated when her vision was compromised by changes, and bassist and producer Harvey Brooks remembers her as “not interested in playing the music industry's games in an era when musicians had little other choice.” The process was exacerbated by Dalton’s worsening addictions to drugs and alcohol, and ultimately, they were only able to cut the album after Fred Neil convinced Dalton they weren’t recording. She then performed most of the album’s songs in one take, over the course of a single evening.
For the 1971 follow-up In My Own Time, Dalton traveled to Woodstock, New York, to a session in Bearsville Studios organized by Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. With folk-pop production and a large cast of backing musicians that included Brooks, former Janis Joplin pianist Richard Bell, and the influential pedal steel guitarist Bill Keith, In My Own Time is a more polished and more adventurous record than It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You The Best.
Dalton shines with the extra resources, but some of the album’s most stirring moments occur when the others fall away. On “Katie Cruel,” a ballad that she insisted stay in the album’s final cut, Dalton and her banjo are almost entirely unaccompanied. With a piercing voice, she tells the story of a woman who is first loved and then abandoned by the community she seeks.
Later Life and Death
In My Own Time didn’t perform as well as expected upon release, and after a misfired attempt to tour with Santana, Dalton ultimately fell away from the music industry. Estranged from her children, she allegedly spent time unhoused in New York City and attempted a rehab stint in Texas before making her way back to Woodstock, where she stayed in a cabin belonging to Peter F. Walker. Years of addiction took their toll on her health, and by the 1980s, Dalton was HIV positive. In 1993, she died of AIDS complications.
“Although sick physically, she was fully functional mentally,” Walker remembers of the period before her death in Songs, Poems, and Writings. She continued to write poems, journal entries, and songs throughout her life, though she also continued to refuse to perform her own work. In “Poem for a Strung-Out Poet,” she writes: “not dead yet, not dead, and love not dead...Love, you are so beautiful, sleeping through the first April storm.”
“Life was not all tragedy and suffering for Karen,” Walker is quick to point out. In addition to an intimate perspective on her relationships and hardships, her writing reveals a profound belief in the transformative possibilities of art. “Creation to satisfy spiritual needs is added to creation to satisfy body’s need,” she muses. “Is all art religious?”
Of her experiences with addiction, she notes that "it's not like most often depicted: get hurt by lover, get high to ease the pain. Maybe it’s so subtly hooking because it’s so easy to be devoted — to thrust all that misplaced love.”
Despite the lack of attention she got for her music during her life, Karen Dalton has left a lasting impact on the generations of artists that have followed her, and in recent years the folk music revival has given her a dedicated cult fanbase. Contemporary musicians such as Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, Courtney Barnett, and Nick Cave have all cited her as an influence, and she is remembered for both for her stunning work and her insistence on creative agency and autonomy. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ “When I First Came To Town” from the 1992 album Henry’s Dream is even directly inspired by “Katie Cruel.”
“It’s not background music,” Cave says of Dalton’s work in In My Own Time: A Portrait of Karen Dalton. “You have to enter her world.”
The 2021 documentary also features voiceovers of Dalton’s poetry and writings by Angel Olsen. “It was an extreme honor to perform the voice of Karen Dalton,” Olsen said of her involvement, noting the film’s reflection on Dalton’s life and legacy as well as “the thoughts and experiences we have of her gathered in between.”
Those thoughts and experiences surrounding Karen Dalton — her tragic story, the mysteries of her life — may be inextricable from our enjoyment of her work, even though she insisted upon not being defined. But through the decades and the stories we tell about her, Karen Dalton’s voice continues to pierce, arresting and inviting at the same time.