Though well known during the Greenwich Village folk revival of the 1960s, Karen Daltonâ€™s slim catalog of studio albums (1969â€™s Itâ€™s Hard to Tell Whoâ€™s Going to Love You Best and 1970â€™s In My Own Time) failed to create wider, long-lasting renown, even in reissue. Her weary, lived-in vocals are often likened to Billie Holiday, but her talents as a folk-blues singer, guitarist and banjo player were in many ways eclipsed by her talent as a musical folklorist. Dalton was a rabid collector of songs, a hobby (or habit) that dated back to her childhood, and her albums mixed songs drawn from the public domain, the blues and a wide range of contemporaneous material from Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, Richard Manuel, Eddie Floyd, Booker T. Jones and Motownâ€™s Dozier-Holland-Dozier.
What few knew at the time is that Dalton was also a songwriter; one who eschewed her own material at a time that singer-songwriters were ascendant. With her 1993 death, a collection of notebooks passed to her longtime friend and her estateâ€™s administrator, guitarist Peter Walker. Contained within these journals were writings, poems, drawings (some of which are reproduced in this setâ€™s booklet) and, most importantly, song lyrics. Walker first pieced together the legacy of Daltonâ€™s writing in the book Karen Dalton: Songs, Poems, and Writings. He now expands her legacy as a songwriter with musical versions of eleven titles, given melody and voice by a few of Daltonâ€™s many artist-fans. Though not sung in Daltonâ€™s voice, her words cast a spell on the melodies and performances. Her immortal presence turns out to be as strong as was her mortal being.
Sharon Van Etten opens the set with a somber, piano-based composition of the title song. She adds a Dalton-like waver to a few held notes, but itâ€™s the harmony singing with Hamilton Leithauser that creates the performanceâ€™s most indelible moments. Patty Griffin leans more fully into the sort of blues wail that Dalton herself employed, with David Boyleâ€™s organ swells accentuating a lyrical meditation on truth and beauty. Dalton often wrote about emotional illusion, seeking to peel away obscuring surfaces, and though she was a collector of songs, she was also a collector of experiences that fed the autobiographical tone of her songs, such as the Lucinda Williams-sung â€œMet an Old Friendâ€ and Larkin Grimmâ€™s â€œFor the Love Iâ€™m In.â€
Dalton laced her songs with religious allusions and seemed to always be searching for a stable perch. Much has been written of her troubled life, but Walkerâ€™s highly personal liner notes paint a more sympathetic portrait than the common rundown. The artists in this collection are each touched by Daltonâ€™s legacy in a unique way, and the arrangements – ranging from rustic folk to Julia Holterâ€™s a cappella â€œMy Love, My Loveâ€ to the modern studio production of Laurel Haloâ€™s â€œBlue Nationâ€ – reflect the many ways Daltonâ€™s influence is still felt. Her two albums form the foundation of her legacy, but their interpretations of other peopleâ€™s songs were in some sense collaborative statements. This animation of Daltonâ€™s songs by those she influenced offers up the flip side. [Â©2015 Hyperbolium]