Remembering Karen Dalton: The late cult favorite Oklahoma folk singer would have turned 75 next week
From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Remembering Karen Dalton
BAM column: After music fans celebrate the legacy of Oklahoma icon Woody Guthrie Saturday on his 100th birthday, they should pay tribute to Oklahoma enigma Dalton, a fellow folk singer who would have turned 75 Thursday.
On Saturday, the folk music world will commemorate what would have been the 100th birthday of one of its legendary forefathers, Woody Guthrie. And the celebration will arguably be at its most festive and tuneful in the troubadour’s hometown of Okemah.
Now in its 15th year, the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival is planned annually around Guthrie’s July 14 birthday in the Okfuskee County town where he was born. The music legend, who died of Huntington’s disease on Oct. 3, 1967, at age 55, would have been a centenarian this year.
Once the last slice of well-deserved commemorative birthday cake has been consumed in honor of the famed Dust Bowl balladeer, I’m hoping folkies and Okies will take the time to celebrate the milestone birthday of another Sooner State voice that was silenced too soon: Karen Dalton.
According to most biographies — there aren’t many and they vary quite a bit on the details — Dalton would have turned 75 on Thursday, July 19. Like Guthrie, she died at the relatively young age of 55 in New York after spending much of her troubled life rambling and making music.
While Guthrie has become an Oklahoma icon, Dalton is more of an Oklahoma enigma. If you’ve never heard of her, you’re hardly alone.
But if you’ve ever heard her goose-bump-inducing voice, you’re unlikely to forget it.
Just as Bob Dylan idolized Guthrie and helped introduce a new generation to the Okemah native’s protest anthems, children’s songs and sweeping ballads, Bobby the Bard also helped perpetuate Dalton’s legacy, such as it is. In his 2004 autobiography “Chronicles: Volume One,” Dylan called Dalton his favorite singer on the 1960s Greenwich Village folk revival.
“Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed,” Dylan wrote.
Other acclaimed musicians who have cited her as an influential favorite include Nick Cave, Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart. Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson are said to have written the song “Katie’s Been Gone” about her; the ballad was featured on The Band’s 1975 album with Dylan, “The Basement Tapes.”
She may not have been a writer, but Dalton was a natural master of interpretation; she croons the folksong “Katie Cruel,” widely considered her signature, with a cold resignation that causes every lyric to ring true. Her quietly wrenching cover of Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” makes Rod Stewart’s commercially successful version sound like so much pop-rock bombast. And her cover of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” is probably the only one that can hold a candle to Lady Day’s original.
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