Back before a recording artist had the twittersphere to contend with, there were ambitious producers concerned about the bottom line, a tendency to compare a new artist to another artist to make the new artist more palatable to listeners, and many other hassles long — and still — associated with making music. In an interview on CBC Radio a few days ago, Lorde, the 16-year-old electronic pop star from New Zealand, said that what’s greatest about being number one on the Billboard Hot 100 is that she can now work with the people that she’d like to work with. Her newfound fame has opened up doors. It’s an admirable thing to say. You wonder whether she is at all worried that everyone now wants to work with her, and what it might mean for her musical direction if just a few of them get their way.
These are the kinds of fears that eclipsed any contentment or pride on the part of Karen Dalton, the late, half-Cherokee folk singer-songwriter from Enid, Oklahoma, who had her share of attention and would have had much more, had she not vehemently pushed it away, choosing instead a life under the radar, and not necessarily a happy one. If someone were to ask Karen Dalton the same question the CBC radio host asked, she might have responded with an expletive and stormed out of the studio. But she never got famous enough to have the question put to her.
There are glimmers of mainstream hope on her studio albums, 1969’s It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You Best and 1971’s In My Own Time, which were re-released by Megaphone and Light In the Attic Records, respectively, in 2008. Upon learning more about her, you realize that the extra tracks heard on some of her songs, luxurious layers of sound — drums, bass, violin — on top of her 12-string guitar and voice, were put there by a big music label; she didn’t want them there.
And if CBC were to ask Dalton’s direct contemporary, Sixto Rodriguez, the folk singer-songwriter from Detroit, the same question they asked Lorde, he would probably shrug and say something wise about the ineluctability and emptiness of fame, and we’d find out later that he’d given all his royalties to a homeless organization in his beloved hometown. Rodriguez is actually enjoying newfound fame after decades in self-imposed obscurity, thanks to last year’s Oscar-winning documentary about his life, Searching for Sugar Man. And you can be sure he’s not keeping much of the money he’s earned on his recent world tour and album sales. But Rodriguez is probably letting himself enjoy this late-breaking time in the sun, a reward for years of pledging allegiance to his troubled city and experiencing it from a working-class vantage point (he was a family man and worked in construction for a vast portion of his life).
For Dalton, who was a blues and folk singer haunting the same New York City circuit as Bob Dylan in the 1960s, life out of the spotlight was not nearly as peaceful as she might have planned. She didn’t just choose a quiet life; she chose an addict’s life, or rather, an addict’s life chose her. She died before her time, in 1993, at the age of 55. Reports differ on how exactly she died, but she’d had AIDS and had battled addiction to both drugs and alcohol for years.
Dalton certainly had the blues. The blues were embedded in her, the natural shade of everything. Married and divorced twice before the age of 21, it was said that Dalton’s bottom front teeth were missing because one of her boyfriends had knocked them out when he found her in their bed with another man — husband number three, as it would turn out. In “Katie Cruel,” perhaps her best, or at least most haunting, song, she says, “When I first came to town / they called me the roving jewel / now they’ve changed their tune / and call me Katie Cruel.” According to her daughter, Dalton was “the type of person who’d scream at bank tellers.”
So perhaps the natural shade of her life was not blue, but red. But songwriting seemed to afford her some peace, and contrition, too — the calm following the storm. It allowed her, as songwriting so magically does, to romanticize things, to dream, to fiddle with how things had really gone. On “Little Bit Of Rain” she asks a lover, “If I should leave you / please try to remember the good times / warm days filled with sunshine / and just a little bit of rain.” Her voice in this song is so expressive, so seductive, that you can feel its addressee become convinced of her lyrics, that maybe things hadn’t been so bad after all. But the opening line is “If I should leave you,” so immediately we know the situation is fraught. Like so many of her songs, it is a bittersweet one.
Dalton also had a bit of Bo Diddley’s candor and sauciness, something not many songwriters are bold enough to exhibit, or at least weren’t then. On “Sweet Substitute” she sings about a rebound, about quickly and easily replacing an old lover with a new one and feeling no guilt about it. The guitar melody is playful and simple. She says, “My man went away / my man went away / I said I’d miss him every night and day / and I began to look around / wish I could show you what I found.” She’s found a “sweet substitute.” “My new recruit is mighty sweet and cute / I’m crazy ’bout my substitute.” There aren’t many females who wrote this openly, in the 1960s, about getting what they wanted. Dalton would continue to get what she wanted. The tragedy is not that she didn’t become a star, but that there wasn’t some middle ground available for her at the time: artistic license and freedom from the pressures to self-promote, something that of course few artists escape from, then as now.