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.
Silenced too soon
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.”
Like Guthrie, Dalton boasted a rootsy, authentic voice that folk revivalists appreciated. Born around 1937 in either Oklahoma or Texas and brought up in Enid, she migrated from the Sooner State to New York City in the early '60s. Legend has it that she left her husband behind in Oklahoma but had her banjo and 12-string guitar in tow when she arrived on Greenwich Village's burgeoning folk scene. While it was a time and place dominated by singer-songwriters, Dalton didn't pen her own material, instead covering traditionals like “Cotton Eyed Joe” and “Green Rocky Road” as well as tunes from her folky pals Tim Hardin and Fred Neil.
She may not have been a writer, but Dalton was a natural master of interpretation; she croons the folk song “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.
Dylan isn't the only one to compare Dalton to the legendary jazz singer: Both singers boasted strangely mesmerizing voices, with distinctive gifts for unusual phrasing and wounded-dove deliveries that hinted at their tragic lives.
Both struggled mightily with dysfunctional relationships, drug abuse and alcoholism, circumstances that plagued their lives and ultimately cut them short. Holiday died practically destitute of heart and liver disease in 1959 at the age of 44; Dalton is said to have been virtually homeless when she passed in 1993, reportedly of AIDS.
For such an exceptional singer, Dalton was ill at ease in a recording studio and uncomfortable performing in front of strangers. She only made two albums in her lifetime: 1969's “It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best” and 1971's “In My Own Time.” Since Dylan penned his glowing 2004 endorsement, both albums have been reissued and more recordings have been unearthed and released.
Perhaps it's fitting given Dalton's penchant for wandering, but her music has a tendency to crop up in odd places, from the 1970 clip a French film crew recorded of her crooning “Blues Jumped the Rabbit” that you can find on YouTube to her twangy rendition of “Something on Your Mind” that appeared in the trailer for the indie film “Natural Selection.”
Delmore Recordings earlier this year issued “1966,” a collection of impromptu, previously unheard tracks of Dalton and her then-husband, guitarist Richard Tucker, rehearsing for a gig at their remote, primitive cabin near Summerville, Colo. Listen to her warbling Neil's “Other Side to This Life,” and it becomes clear that Dalton's legacy deserves to be preserved decades after she has passed from this life.
Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday's and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed.”