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The June 10 release of Green Rocky Road fills in the lacunae in the rightly romanticized mythos of the late folk music legend Karen Dalton and goes a long way in clarifying her crucial role in the evolution of modern acoustic music from “folk” source materials. The only formal studio recordings she made during her lifetime — released in 1969 and 1971 respectively — were thoroughly dissected upon their recent re-release. As wonderful as these albums were, they captured Karen in relatively awkward circumstances. Green Rocky Road, along with last year’s Cotton Eyed Joe, provide a rare glimpse of Karen Dalton circa 1962 and 1963 at her most pure, most powerful, and at ease and document far better her unique artistry that profoundly influenced the likes of Fred Neil, Tim Hardin and Bob Dylan.
Green Rocky Road is as close as we’ll ever get to hearing the record Karen Dalton would have made in 1963. Discovered on the same reel-to-reel tapes that yielded the live performances comprising the Cotton Eyed Joe release, were nine home recordings of Dalton left alone, with no one watching, no audience to please. Accompanied solely by her own sturdy banjo picking and 12 string strumming, her deep blue, smoky-throated singing evokes the voices and faces of past lives lived – the broken-backed pioneer, the coalminer black with shadow, the stained fingers of the slave, the prostitute…the dead and forgotten. Karen was perhaps the last true folk singer and that’s the bases of the potent appeal of her enigmatic art and of her commercial failure during her too-brief lifetime.
In recent years, the critical community has begun to recognize the difference between “folk singers” and the folk revivalists. The latter were mainly middle class fans of the former and were inspired by their styles and traditional repertoires and consciously attempted to preserve and promulgate all that. During the transitional period of the early 1960’s when folk singers and revivalists shared stages and came into regular contact with each other the myth of “cultural purity” began to develop. There was a romantic notion that the rural folk singers had largely created their styles, their material and audience base working in total isolation from mainstream culture. Thereby they had maintained an integrity and puissance unsullied by commercialism, cultural relativism and so on. The conceit is that they were “noble savages.” The truth of the matter is now being acknowledged. Performers like Leadbelly, Jimmie Rodgers, Mississippi John Hurt, the Carter Family and so on were in fact sophisticated music aficionados with catholic tastes who did not disdain the mainstream and cosmopolitan at all and were influenced by it. To meet the expectations of their new found audiences however, many of these performers consciously narrowed their set lists down to the most antique and down-home numbers they knew.
Enter Karen Dalton who was an exemplar of this tradition but whose youth and fashion-model beauty led her to be viewed by New York’s revivalists as a peer. Whereas most of the folk singers the revivalists experienced in the 60’s were either wizened oldsters or seemed like exotic anachronisms, Karen appeared to be one of their own. She managed to exist outside their preconceptions of the museum-piece folk they were familiar with.
Karen took the opportunity to play music just as she pleased, very much part of the authentic “folk” process of transmission and translation that had operated in this country for centuries. Like her predecessors in this tradition she drew on whatever material caught her fancy whether it was a farm laborer’s song she’d learned as a child or a Ray Charles’ tune she’d heard on the radio the day before and every style. While the foundation was rural home-brewed music that base was informed by jazz, pop, big band blues - the music that Leadbelly and his generation of folk singers did not perform for the revivalist audience. The synthesis she produced was perplexing, mysterious and excitingly innovative to the folks involved in New York’s revivalist scene who were primarily playing traditional songs as faithful to the version they’d first heard on Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music collection or in some hushed coffee house as possible. Or were just in the early stages of recasting some of the lyrics to those sorts of songs. Within a few years the likes of Tim Hardin, Fred Neil and Bob Dylan would have evolved radically new styles starting from the folk base and gone on to varying degrees of fortune and fame.
Meanwhile Karen continued to exercise her artistry via her interpretation and revision of pre-existing material rather than writing “original material” – that’s not what folk singers did. As folk revivalism moved towards more mainstream incarnations and folk rock and found greater and greater commercial acceptance folk singers per se were largely left behind or marginalized, playing coffee houses and college campuses and re-recording songs from their youth. And Dalton was left behind with them, her case seeming just a bit stranger in that she had seemed like an integral part of the revivalists’ circles that evolving artistically and commercially at an ever-hastening pace.
By the time Karen recorded her first two studio albums in the late 60’s and early 70’s the musical world had changed radically and her own oeuvre was an anomalous anachronism. She and her more successful friends in the music business made valiant attempts to build bridges to the new rock audience that’d arisen trying to put her amazing voice and playing in a contemporary context on It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best and In My Own Time. Both records are entirely enchanting and dazzlingly original. But they couldn’t present Karen on her own terms like Green Rocky Road does.