Various Artist: Remembering Mountains – Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton

VariousArtists_RememberingMountainsReanimation of a 1960s folk hero

Though well known during the Greenwich Village folk revival of the 1960s, Karen Dalton’s slim catalog of studio albums (1969’s It’s Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You Best and 1970’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 Motown’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 estate’s administrator, guitarist Peter Walker. Contained within these journals were writings, poems, drawings (some of which are reproduced in this set’s booklet) and, most importantly, song lyrics. Walker first pieced together the legacy of Dalton’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 Dalton’s many artist-fans. Though not sung in Dalton’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 it’s the harmony singing with Hamilton Leithauser that creates the performance’s most indelible moments. Patty Griffin leans more fully into the sort of blues wail that Dalton herself employed, with David Boyle’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 “Met an Old Friend” and Larkin Grimm’s “For the Love I’m In.”

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 Walker’s highly personal liner notes paint a more sympathetic portrait than the common rundown. The artists in this collection are each touched by Dalton’s legacy in a unique way, and the arrangements – ranging from rustic folk to Julia Holter’s a cappella “My Love, My Love” to the modern studio production of Laurel Halo’s “Blue Nation” – reflect the many ways Dalton’s influence is still felt. Her two albums form the foundation of her legacy, but their interpretations of other people’s songs were in some sense collaborative statements. This animation of Dalton’s songs by those she influenced offers up the flip side. [©2015 Hyperbolium]