Thursday, July 17, 2008

Thinking about Karen Dalton

My review of the newly rediscovered Green Rocky Road materials, recorded by Karen Dalton in Colorada between 1962 and 1963, runs today in Dusted.

Karen Dalton
Green Rocky Road

Recorded "on two tracks" (as Dalton plainly states) in 1962 and 1963, the material for Green Rocky Road came from the same trove of reel-to-reel tapes that gave birth to Cotton Eyed Joe last year. The main difference is that Cotton Eyed Joe was played for an audience in a tiny Colorado coffee house, while Green Rocky Road was laid down at home and mostly alone. So, while Cotton Eyed Joe was interspersed with the evidence of other people – applause, conversation, a certain communicativeness in the playing – this one seems almost wholly internal.

Dalton is still in her mid-20s here, not yet smoothed or styled by contact with Bleecker Street contemporaries like Fred Neil, not yet plagued by the addictions of her later years. She has not yet learned the sophisticated jazz-like phrasing of So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You Best, and her approach is plain-spoken, strong and solitary. You have only to contrast Green Rocky Road's "Ribbon Bow" with the one she recorded for Capitol half a decade later to hear the difference. Here, "Ribbon Bow" is all her, the extraordinarily emotive voice, the steady thrum of 12-string. You feel, almost, as if you're eavesdropping, so private and meditative is the song. By the time she comes back to "Ribbon Bow" in 1969, her voice has modulated, landing lightly on the notes, curving around them in blues-tinged flourishes. She no longer sounds like she is thinking aloud, but rather performing. It is as if, in the interim, she has gone from dreaming about "if I were like city girls" to becoming one.

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