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“I’ll never get out of these blues alive”, Dalton sang. She, unfortunately, was right.
Karen Dalton may have been a folk singer but, as the title of her debut album suggests, her music resides in the world of blues, a world of pain and longing, of uncertainty and regret.
Dalton came on to the Greenwich Folk Scene in 1961. Bob Dylan likened her voice and guitar playing to Billie Holiday and Jimmy Reed, respectively. She played in small coffee houses and living rooms for eight years, and due to a combination of stage fright and problems with drug and alcohol, had to essentially be tricked into cutting a proper studio album. The first of only two of those efforts came in 1969, entitled It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best, after the traditional song of which she covers on the album.
Dalton was purely a singer and guitar playing, lending her hand on a 12-string Gibson as well as the banjo on the album. The songs, therefore, are comprised of traditionals and ballads, from folk and blues songwriters such as Fred Neil, Booker T. Jones, Tim Hardin, and LeadBelly. Despite the background of the song, or the fact that Dalton is solely associated with the 60’s folk scene, her music is blues from head to toe. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to say that Dalton, herself, was the blues personified.
Her voice was otherworldly; reedy and frail, raw and unpolished, it evokes a sense of hardship and emptiness, of a woman who, for too long, has remained plaintive and sorrowful. On the album, her vocals are sparse and laconic, with direct and abrasive lyrics. Nothing is sugarcoated here, Dalton is hurting, and she can’t even try to hide it. She sings about what she knows; failed and unrequited love, alienation and loneliness, her songs seem to be perpetually spiraling down to a sort of rock bottom, never rising up from it.
“Blues on the ceiling/Over my head, Running down the walls/Across the floor, Under my bed”, Dalton sings on ‘Blues on the Ceiling’. “I’ll never get out of these blues”, she resigns, “Never get out of these blues alive.”
Images of beds permeate throughout the album, either empty, or occupied only by Dalton, longing for her companion. On the title track she sings, “Last night I was laying, sleeping, darling, all by myself/And the one I really, really love, he was laying somewhere else.”
Dalton seems to be lying down all throughout this album, in the sense of that kind of hopeless lying, lost in pain-ridden thought.
Occasionally Dalton does not sleep alone, but her feelings never seem to be shared. She knows this, however, and evokes a sense of irony in the more folk-leaning “How Did The Feeling Feel To You”. The only song played in major, it resonates a feeling of hopefulness and perhaps nascent love, but the lyrics reveal the hard truth: “You’ve got me feeling again, the feeling you gave me before/But to you those nights are like any other night, tonight is just one more.” Dalton seemed to have rekindled a special romance, but the love went unrequited.
The highlight of the album is its opener, “Little Bit of Rain”. Led in by a thumping bass line, Dalton sets the stage for the next thirty-one minutes. Backed by a light tapping on the snare drum, this song perfectly blends the ease and grace of Dalton with her wistful quaver and her blunt pain. “If I should leave you”, she sings, “Try to remember all the good times/Warm days filled with sunshine, and just a little bit of rain”. The blues are there, pervading everywhere Dalton could think to go, but she seems resigned in this truth, comfortable in her despair.
Dalton was eerily prophetic when she sang, "I'll never get out of these blues alive." For the latter part of her life she retreated to isolation in upstate New York, struggling with drug and alcohol addiction up until her death in 1993. She went on to record only one more proper album, 1971’s In My Own Time, after which she vanished as quietly as she arrived; a passing wind in an otherwise still air that, for a moment, made us stop and reflect.
As Reviewed by Chad Depasquale