By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
2012 is the centenary for two seminal figures in American music: folksinger Woody Guthrie and composer John Cage, both born in 1912.
They had a few things in common, believe it or not. Both were bold pioneers of their respective genres. Both dabbled in Eastern mysticism (well, Guthrie dabbled, Cage dove in). Both fell in love with dancers the second time around (Guthrie married Marjorie Greenblatt from the Martha Stewart company, Cage partnered with Merce Cunningham).
They probably never met, but Guthrie is on record as being deeply affected by some of Cage's groundbreaking, boundary-busting classical music. On July 10, 1947 — the day his wife, Marjorie, gave birth to his son Arlo — Guthrie wrote a fan letter to the Disc Co. of America. He'd been listening to Maro Ajemian's recording of the "prepared piano" solos (in which piano strings are augmented with screws, cards and more) from Cage's "Amores," and Guthrie declared that "this sort of piano music was really a keen fresh breeze ... a welcome thing in the way of a healthy change from the old ways."
Guthrie and Cage strived (and sometimes starved) in the service of that goal — to freshen the stale ways of each particular niche in which they found themselves.
As a result, the other and primary commonality between Guthrie and Cage is their different but deep, deep influences on modern pop and rock music. Guthrie's influence is better cataloged and freely bantered about — anyone who's heard, say, Springsteen open his mouth during the last eight months can attest to that — but Cage's imprint is, well, cagier.
Like Guthrie, Cage's legacy is often appreciated more for his ideals than his actual compositions.
"His theory, which was the strongest, utilitarian, American theory of music, was addressing the purity and the [at the time] European expectation of purity in music. He said there is none," John Cale says.
Before joining deeply influential rock band the Velvet Underground in the late '60s, Cale was a classically trained viola player who conducted the debut of Cage's "Concert for Piano and Orchestra."
"He said if you go to a concert intending to concentrate cleanly on what you hear, you can focus all you want but you're going to hear traffic, people coughing, rustling. So forget about purity," Cale tells the Sun-Times. "What he was really talking about is sound design, such as in theater or filmmaking. You can't ever hear the music just purely; you're going to hear it in context. That's where he brought the concert hall out into the street."
That basic idea found its ultimate expression in Cage's "4'33"." Titled for its duration, the 1952 piece calls for any kind and any number of musicians to sit quietly, not playing anything, for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds.
The idea is that the inevitable sounds of the performance space — a humming air system, a footfall, a sneeze or two, the general cacophony of an allegedly silent room — create the "music." As Cage described of the piece's controversial 1952 premiere, "You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out."
Cage was quite serious about that piece — as well as his "prepared piano" compositions, his looped experiments with audio equipment, even when he'd drink a carton of milk on stage with a microphone at his throat.
But his daring and his derring-do often came with a wink.
"John was a really mischievous guy. I liked his sense of humor," Cale says. "It was such a relief for me. I was clinging to the Dadaists and Fluxus, and they were fun, but then the [German composer Karl] Stockhausen school was so intense and serious. ... I read John's Zen koans and his work with silence, and it was a relief. I liked the playful nature of his ideas. I mean, '4'33"?' — you know, they broadcast it on BBC [in 2004]." He chuckles. "One of the guys told me, 'At the Beeb, they don't allow silence on the broadcast waves. They have a system that if something goes off and there's dead air, it automatically puts in an old political speech or music. So when they did '4'33",' they had to shut that system off."
"4'33"" has even been recorded, including versions by Andrew W.K. and Frank Zappa, and appears on online in numerous versions, including a "dubstep remix."
Museum of Contemporary Art curator Lynne Warren's favorite version is a version by a self-professed death metal drummer, filmed and posted on YouTube. He sits behind a drum kits for only slightly more than a minute, later explaining that he played "a little faster than the original tempo."
"A lot of the myth about Cage is that he gave you permission to do anything, and that's absolutely not true," Museum of Contemporary Art curator Lynne Warren says. "He gave permission to go beyond one's presuppositions, habits of mind, rote ways of doing things. He taught people to listen in certain ways, to get rid of one's ego. It's hard to pin down. It's not like you can say this was the first pop musician to put on a costume and prance around doing glam rock. There's no real linear explanation of his influence."
Warren hopes to illuminate that slippery pedigree by opening up the MCA's library for "MCA DNA: John Cage," an exhibit opening Sept. 1 that seeks to show the interdisciplinary nature of Cage's music and its impact. Listening stations will present his music, but visitors also will be able to see, and in some cases handle, Cage scores and other work.
"People have asked, 'Why are you showing Cage materials, like scores, as art?'?" Warren said. "The answer is that he considered them works of art, and he made works of art himself — prints, drawings, some scores are based on a painting he'd done. You absolutely cannot pigeonhole him, even into one art form."
The MCA exhibit spotlights Cage's recurring relationship with Chicago and the museum itself. Cage lived in Chicago briefly (1941-42) and returned throughout the years for performances and festivals.
Warren says one of the museum's most requested images for reproduction is the city map Cage used to compose "A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity" (1978), a sound collage based on recordings made at 427 Chicago locations, determined by Cage's favorite composing method: chance. (Hear it here.)
Another return to Illinois included Cage's 1969 premiere of "HPSCHD" in an Urbana arena. The composition called for seven harpsichords, 52 tape machines, 59 amplifiers, 59 speakers, 64 slide projectors (using 6,400 slides), eight film projectors (showing 40 films), one 340-foot circular screen and 11 rectangular screens. A New York Times review reported, "Some of those present were supine, their eyes closed, grooving on the multiple stereophony."
Thread that image through your memory of various multimedia art, rock and art-rock performances you've seen. Then the visuals of the Talking Heads and MTV, the sound experiments of Brian Eno and the Flaming Lips, the anything-goes-and-should spirit of concerts by Frank Zappa and Sonic Youth — it all has clear roots.
"MCA DNA: John Cage" runs Sept. 1-March 3 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. (312-280-2660; mcachicago.org).
John Cale performs separately as part of the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 21 at the Riverfront Theater, 650 W. Chicago (brilliantcornersofpopularamusements.com).
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The title of the first song on World Party's newest batch of recordings — "Arkeology," a five-disc, closet-cleaning retrospective, just left of a traditional box set — is a massive understatement for the project's central figure, singer-songwriter Karl Wallinger.
"Waiting Such a Long Long Time" finds Wallinger singing, in his world-weary voice over a party-pop guitar jangle, "I don't even know what I want anymore."
Which isn't really true. Not anymore.
"What I've been through, it's made me feel that all the stuff we worry about is not worth worrying about," Wallinger told the Sun-Times in a recent interview. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It's very true. In my case, it's made me fatter. I had to be stronger to carry it all."
What he's been through is a virtual decade-plus absence from music following a brain aneurysm in 2000.
Following a brief stint with the Waterboys, contributing as keyboardist to the albums "A Pagan Place" (1984) and the phenomenal "This Is the Sea" (1985), Wallinger formed World Party — essentially a solo project but frequently featuring guitarist Dave Catlin-Birch, drummer Chris Sharrock and, early on, multi-instrumentalist Guy Chambers — then quickly charted a hit with the song "Ship of Fools" and enjoyed wide acclaim for an album of prescient environmental themes, "Goodbye Jumbo" (1990).
"Bang!" (1993), a superb album seamlessly blending genres from soul to rock to (briefly) opera, charted in Wallinger's native UK. But by the fifth World Party LP, "Dumbing Up" in 2000, many had stopped paying attention. Wallinger was already gone before he was really gone.
In February 2001, Wallinger was cycling with his son, Louis, when things went wrong.
"I just had a headache and said, 'I'm going to go to bed.' I came out half an hour later and said, 'I've got this headache — phone an ambulance,'" he recalled. "I woke up a day or two and two hospitals later. ... I came to feeling I'd just gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali and thinking, 'This is a bit strange.' I seemed fine, but it was a test weeks later when I looked into this periscope thing that we found my vision was wrong."
Wallinger, now 54, has no right-side vision in either eye.
As you might imagine, this poses two separate problems.
"I'm a menace when Christmas shopping. I do a lot of collisions and have to say I'm sorry a lot," he said.
More to the professional point: "Playing instruments is a bit weird now. I used to look at my right hand as I played piano. That's how I learned. Now I can't see my right hand. Same with the guitar — I'm right-handed, but I play upside down like Bob Geldof or Jimi Hendrix. Eventually, I've gotten the hang of both again."
Two months out of the hospital, Wallinger tried his first gig, a benefit show — just to see where his abilities stood. Also on the bill: Edwyn Collins, a contemporary of Wallinger's from the '80s band Orange Juice and his own subsequent solo career ("A Girl Like You") who'd suffered a double aneurysm in 2005. ("We're so competitive. He just had to have the bigger one," Wallinger quipped.)
His skills were largely intact, he found, but the recovery would be long and steep. Fortunately, Wallinger received an unexpected financial windfall.
The aforementioned Guy Chambers heard one of Wallinger's songs, "She's the One," and took it to his new songwriting partner, pop singer Robbie Williams. The 1997 piano ballad, which Wallinger said was knocked out "in 10 minutes and recorded in about half an hour," became a big hit for Williams.
"So we didn't have to sell the kids to chemical experiments or anything," Wallinger said. "I think I'm a bit of a lucky person."
Using his down time constructively, Wallinger began going back through old recordings. He wound up compiling an iTunes playlist with a runtime of 79 days — B-sides, rarities, Beatles covers, interviews and a lot of tour tapes. He whittled it down to five and a half days, and his manager edited that to four CDs, which would become the bulk of "Arkeology." Some extra DAT tapes and one new project, a sweet ballad called "Everybody's Falling in Love," comprised the set's fifth and lead-off disc.
"Like 'Words,' that track's a great one," Wallinger said. "We did it, put it in a box and forgot about it. Great fun, that one. It was good going back and kind of recapping the 25 years, a good thing for me to do at this point in time. I've got stuff that I've done during the last 10 years I'm still going through, but really I'd like to get in and record new stuff. I'd like to get a new 12-song record out next year."
"Arkeology" — 70 tracks, and a bargain at less than $40 — immediately sold out a limited run and is now on its third pressing.
After this string of acoustic dates in America — a half dozen shows featuring violinist David Duffy and guitarist John Turnbull — Wallinger returns home for his first full-fledged British concert in 15 years.
Everything you need to know about how his career has shaken out geographically is in this sentence: He plays the Cubby Bear sports pub in Chicago, but in November he headlines the Royal Albert Hall in London.
"I'm burning the candle at both ends," Wallinger said, "but I'm good, I'm healthy, and I'm up for this. I'm told a few fans might be, too. So we'll give it a go."
• 8 p.m. Aug. 30
• Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison
• Sold out
• (773) 327-1662; cubbybear.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's been a banner year for power pop revivals. We've gotten new discs from Winston-Salem, N.C.'s the dB's (first with the original lineup in 30 years), Hawthorne, Calif.'s Redd Kross (first new material in 15 years) and now Zion, Ill.'s acclaimed Shoes — back with "Ignition," out now [★★★1/2], the first new album since 1994.
"When you go over the years and what we've been through, the delay makes sense. It just looks bad on paper," says founding Shoes member John Murphy with a chuckle. "I just saw No Doubt's together again. They haven't had a record in eight or 10 years. We just get used to the fact that these super-successful bands take forever to deliver a follow-up."
Shoes or any power pop band, really, could never be described as "super-successful." But while the core trio — singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, plus brother John Murphy on bass — has never had a mass following, they always seem to be followed.
When home-recording equipment was more available and affordable in the mid-'70s, Shoes were already there — recording three albums in their living room (the limited-release "Un Dans Versailles," 1975, the shelved "Bazooka," 1976, and the official debut, "Black Vinyl Shoes," later in 1976, which was hailed as "one of the finest home-brewed releases ever" by Trouser Press rock critic Ira Robbins).
When major record labels were flush and throwing money at bands, Shoes were there — getting picked up by Elektra for three albums (starting with "Present Tense" in 1979).
When the money ran dry and bands were being cut loose, many starting their own independent labels — Shoes were there, releasing compilations, live and new albums on their own Black Vinyl label through the '90s.
"Shoes were, quite simply, everywhere in the music industry from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s," says Mary Donnelly, a New York professor and blogger (powerpop.blogspot.com), who's about to publish Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes this fall. "They saw all the trends — the decadence and wild parties, money-is-no-object production and promotion, the crash of the industry in the early '80s, MTV (and the skepticism it engendered), the rise of college rock and indie and alternative, the problems wrought by independent distribution and the rise of digital recording. They were everywhere."
Murphy, ever humble and down-home, chuckles again.
"We've been kind of Forrest Gump-ing through time," he says.
Given how they pop up on the crest of each industry trend, you'd be forgiven for expecting their sound to have changed proportionally as well. Now in their late 50s, Shoes, however, have remained astonishingly consistent in their production of tuneful, harmonized, guitar-driven power-pop. The quality songwriting and, to some extent, the production of "Ignition" could fall anywhere within the band's nearly four-decade career.
"It's about how you absorb these things and how you turn them back out," Murphy says, trying to explain the band's through-line. "If you were to write the same song every year of your life, it would somehow be different each year. You'd attack it differently. It would come out of you differently. But it's still you writing the song."
"They tend to downplay their talents, but they're remarkable, instinctive writers," Donnelly says. "They can't even really explain what they do in a language that makes sense to anyone but themselves. And that hard work and authenticity shines through in everything they do."
Explaining the 18-year gap in new music, Murphy ticks off a litany of business woes that kept the band stymied. The shuttering of their recording studio, Short Order Recorder — a downtown Zion storefront where other revered power poppers, such as Material Issue and fellow Zion natives Local H, cut crucial records — was a "traumatic event," Murphy says. Selling the building took years.
The savior of Shoes, though, would be yet another home studio.
"We were at Gary's house one Sunday night, and we'd been there all night — it's midnight and we're getting ready to leave — and Gary says, 'Come here, I want to show you something,' " Murphy says. "Here it was. He surprised us. He'd moved in 2010 and started building this studio in his basement, buying gear along the way, stockpiling mikes and getting good deals.
"And Jeff happened to have a little song."
The song was "Out of Round," a few melancholy chords Jeff Murphy had cooked up, for which the other two dove into Klebe's basement to add a curious piano riff and some swirling sounds. It's an unusual track in the Shoes canon.
"We got into a groove. We kept going and going," Murphy says.
While much of "Ignition" wound up square within the footsteps of traditional Shoes, "Out of Round" isn't the album's only left-turn track. In our conversation, I had to bring up "Hot Mess," one of two songs credited to all three writers — and one with a surprising, almost AC/DC groove.
"Did you like it?" Murphy asks, nervously. "I ask because we knew it would be a polarizing track, that some people wouldn't dig it. Gary laid those guitars out, and Jeff and I said, 'Mmmm, sounds Stones-y!' He said, 'We could change that,' and I said, 'No, I don't think we should. Let's go down that road.' The thought process as we were building it was: What would Mick and Keith do? Plus, I started coming up with lyrics to make them laugh. I'd come out of the room, and they'd say, 'Did you just say...?!' But we really wanted this to sound like real music, not just a parody or a joke, not sarcastic. We wanted this, like anything we've done, to stand as real music."
Therein lies the struggle of every power pop band in America — striking the difficult balance between being influenced and being a thinly veiled cover band, between being a new voice and an echo.
The influences of Shoes are as obvious as they are alliterative: Beatles, Badfinger, Byrds, Big Star, Raspberries. But a 1979 feature in Trouser Press magazine quoted John Murphy describing the band's genesis as "a reaction to the things we hated. All there was at the time was Bowie, T. Rex and the Deep Purple school."
"We're more glass half-full on that now. That was pretty glass half-empty back then," Murphy says today. "Gary [then in Champaign] and I would write letters back and forth, talking early '70s and how things were about to get worse, saying, 'Ah, what happened to the early Beatles,' and 'Now all these horn bands like Chicago are coming along.' As soon as we found our way, here came disco, which absolutely took over. Now we can look back and see disco as this quaint period of time — aw, the cute little 'shake your booty' lyrics — like looking at 1920s music. But it didn't seem like that then. It was a survival thing for those who liked rock."
Donnelly describes growing up in a household full of brothers constantly playing Beatles records. "And just as I was reaching my music-buying stage, 12 or so, there was Shoes — like and not like at the same time," she says. "They were my first band, my declaration of independence, my own soundtrack. Though I never had the kind of gut-wrenching heartbreak they promised me in junior high school, there was always something about the hard-soft dichotomy, the shifting voices of the three principals that just spoke to me about how beauty and pain and power can travel together."
So here's Shoes in 2012, still shifting voices and songwriting duties — just like kindred, talent-stuffed spirits such as Sloan, Teenage Fanclub, the dB's, etc. — for another finely crafted, homemade, indie-rock record.
They're so behind the times, they're current.
Murphy drops things in conversation like "That YouTube is something else" and "I don't even have an iPod," but it's one of his songs on "Ignition" that updates the time-honored romantic lament to include "rambling emails and bitter tweets" ("I Thought You Knew").
"Power pop always fits," he says. "In today's world, it's more indie or alternative, whatever that word means, but it still has the same direction. It's just that now we're trying to do it more adult — I hate to use that word. Maturity, maybe. People say, 'Oh, you're a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl band.' But not really. It's about relationship songs. That's relevant to any age, any era."
In addition to the new album and the publication of Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, Chicago's lauded Numero Group label is releasing this fall four vinyl Shoes LPs in a series ("One in Versailles," "Black Vinyl Shoes," "Bazooka" and "Pre-Tense Demos: 1978-1979," the demos for the "Present Tense" album). Expect the full Shoes vinyl experience, including lyrics sheets, photos and (yes!) T-shirt iron-ons.
An expanded best-of collection is due this fall, too, but Murphy says no live shows are currently in the works.
Shoes and Zion a matched pair
If you've ever read anything about the band Shoes, it's almost always been "Zion, Ill.'s Shoes."
Given the mythical power of the Chicago exurb's name, it's been attached to the band as a descriptor far more often than is the case with the origins of most other musical acts.
"Zion just has this weird mystery to it," bassist-songwriter Jeff Murphy says. "If you ask people in Chicago, they'll say they know it's dry and that the street names are all biblical."
Mary Donnelly's book on the band, Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, includes a mini-history of the town, founded between Chicago and Milwaukee in 1901 by John Alexander Dowie.
"Zion was founded as a religious haven where spitting and bacon and alcohol and doctors were all illegal," Donnelly says. "But it didn't go to well for Dowie, who had pretty extravagant tastes, and the misfortune to get ill — a real problem if you're a faith healer and say that illness is the sign of Satan.
"By the time Shoes were raised there, it was still kind of weirdly religious, but no longer quite so cult-like. Still, they were raised in a town where bikinis and lottery tickets and beer were all banned by law. It's no wonder they were never a bar band: There were no bars!"
For an aspiring pop band, the association wasn't welcome in the beginning.
"At first, we tried to shake it, like we'd stepped in dog s---," Murphy says. "We thought, 'Are they making fun of us [by citing it all the time]?' Then we gave into it. It's part of our story. It sounds funny, I suppose. Everybody's gotta be from somewhere."
Originally printed in the Aug. 1, 2012, issue of This Land. Anthologized in Mason, M & Wall, H. (Eds.), A Voice Was Sounding: Selected Works from This Land, Vols. 3 & 4. Tulsa, Okla.: This Land Press.
Even before she rose from the dead, Karen Dalton always sounded like a ghost.
Her voice was an unearthly coo, a mournful banshee wail, baying the blues with clutching patience. The only urgency was in the timbre of her voice — fairly high, very round, all soft palette, and just shy of shrill. On first listen, everyone starts in with the comparisons to Billie Holiday. Eventually, though, you feel the need to get beyond that blurb, to go deeper, lured by her slow, slow siren call.
“No one sang the blues slower than she did,” says Richard Tucker, a fellow folk singer and Dalton’s ex-husband. “It was her sound, her tone. To me, that’s the big thing in her music. Her voice is so distinctive, nobody sounds like that. Madeleine Peyroux a little bit, but she’s more ‘up,’ not so bluesy. [Karen] sounds a fair amount like Billie Holiday, and of course, you hear that a lot about her. They could’ve said ‘the new Billie Holiday’ or ‘the country Billie Holiday,’ and she might have made a bigger impact, sold more records. I told her that back then, but she didn’t want to think about it.”
He chuckles. “You couldn’t tell her anything.” Then he really laughs at the thought. “Nobody had a clear picture of how to come out of it commercially and make her a known person. Only certain underground people hear her and say, ‘Wow.’ Nine out of ten don’t get it, but people who get it think she’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Nearly 20 years after her death, and 40 years after her last commercial recording, Dalton is just now gaining ground as a “known person.” She had everything going for her — a signature and authentic sound, moving from Oklahoma to Greenwich Village at exactly the right moment, the vocal admiration of that scene’s rising star, Bob Dylan — but none of it panned out, nothing translated into commercial success.
In the 21st century, though, all music is current and available. The temporality of tunes has been abolished. A teenager jumping into the pop music pool today need not dive, because everything’s on the surface — the Rolling Stones floating right alongside the Stone Temple Pilots, the Beatles with the English Beat, the Flamin’ Groovies and the Flaming Lips — all of it reachable within a smattering of keystrokes and hyperlinked by relativity and shared adoration. Degree of fame is irrelevant, or at least recast and often upended by the number of page views.
So someone like Dalton sounds at once old and new. Hipsters of each succeeding generation have reveled in her rediscovery — boomers embracing a new shoot from old roots, millennials donning another badge of indie identity. She’s the embodiment of the surrealistic, out-of-time ambassador in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.”
“My daughter’s been at parties and people say, ‘I heard this on YouTube the other day,’ and they’re talking about her grandmother,” says Dalton’s daughter, Abbe Baird. “She says, ‘The other day I was watching this movie, and they were playing Grandma.’ Like she was still alive, like she just recorded the song.”
Online, in footage filmed in her time, Dalton sounds and seems ghostly, utterly haunting of any decade. A black-and-white clip from a French documentary shot in 1969 (available on YouTube and as part of the new Cotton Eyed Joe CD collection) shows Dalton singing Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too.” She’s at a microphone, sitting stock-still. Her straight, dark hair hangs slightly lower than her empty gaze. She plucks a tinny 12-string guitar with silver picks on her fingertips, which glisten just outside of her antediluvian (or merely “retro”) lace cuffs. Only occasionally, and barely, does she let a grin slide across her pale, pretty face. It’s a flash of humanity—the only sign that she may be more than merely an earthly amplifier for that otherworldly voice.
Look closely, too, and you’ll notice the missing teeth. Dalton’s story had no classic Behind the Music narrative arc. There was no rise to fame before the trouble started. Her life was tumultuous from the get-go, from her days growing up in Enid. She drank hard, she took drugs, she acted out. She was married and divorced twice before age 21, before leaving Oklahoma. Those two bottom incisors stayed behind.
“She was living with a guy who caught her in bed with my eventual stepfather, and she got punched in the face,” Baird says. “She used to say she was going to get her teeth fixed when she got to be a big star.”
Dalton, however, never got to be a star — and didn’t always seem to really want to be.
Like another Okie transplant in the Big Apple, Woody Guthrie, she sabotaged many chances to move her career forward. She hated recording; her first album, It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best (1969), was only captured because producer Fred Neil fooled her into believing the tape wasn’t rolling. She never wrote her own songs, performing and recording only covers in an era that valued the individual voice of the emerging singer-songwriter. Releasing only two albums, she never toured.
Saddled with drug and alcohol addictions, she roamed the country for years until even her two children and closest friends lost touch. She had one friend to the end, a country singer named Lacy J. Dalton (yes, she adopted the last name as a tribute), who got her into rehab a couple of times. But those missing teeth and the pain they caused were Dalton’s ticket to getting codeine prescriptions. She died in 1993, in Woodstock, New York.
“But she was more than just this junkie person that had a horrible life,” Tucker insists. “People have a tendency to think of musicians that way instead of thinking about the music they made. I don’t see Karen as a tragic figure but more as a misunderstood artist. There’s a lot of good times and inspiring music.”
The good times were rooted in Enid, in Oklahoma’s red dirt (and, eventually, Red Dirt music) heartland.
Dalton, born in 1937, grew up on three acres near the edge of Enid. The land was big enough to have horses. By all accounts, Dalton loved horses.
“She always had horses,” recalls Tucker, now 72 and holed up in Bellingham, Washington. “We had horses [when we lived together] in Colorado. We’d ride all day through the Rockies with the dogs. She really knew horses, too. We went to one big horse sale, were going to buy a couple. This guy had 50 horses in his pasture. She immediately pointed to one horse, which turned out to be the owner’s fastest quarter horse. She bought it. She just knew how its legs were shaped or something. She never lost a race — not on a racetrack or something, just in the hills. She raced a pickup truck once and beat it. Even when Abbe was living with us, she had a pony.”
To counter her aversion to recording, before retreating to upstate New York to record her second album, In My Own Time (1971), Dalton first returned to Enid to fetch her kids and her favorite horse.
“It’s no wonder she loved them so much,” Baird says. “She had the same wild spirit.”
Tucker visited with Dalton once back home in Enid. “Her dad was a welder, her mom was a nurse.”
“They were real Oklahoma people, the whole family having lived there forever,” he says. (Dalton’s mother, Evelyn, was of Cherokee descent.) “I remember on that visit, her mother picked us up at the bus station. In the car on the way home, after just five minutes, Karen started talking like her mother, talking more Okie. It was fascinating.”
“She loved to tease people with that accent,” Baird says. “She’d hear people use bad grammar, and she’d put on that act of an Okie hick to one-up them. But she didn’t have to act too hard.”
“You can hear Oklahoma in her voice in a different way when she sings,” Tucker says. “It’s that, I dunno, that lonesome sound. It’s not a hillbilly sound, it’s something else.”
“The phrasing, the gospel sound, the haunting minor key,” Baird adds. “It’s a backwoods thing. Her mother was a staunch Baptist, but they don’t believe in dancing, so Mom became a Methodist so she could dress to the nines and go to a church where they were singing all the old songs. ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ all those. Plus, that farm of her grandparents’—there was a dividing line in Enid between where the black people lived and the white people, just two blocks north of it. I know she interacted with the whole black community in ways most people — most white people — didn’t get to.”
Dalton left Enid around 1961. She wasn’t clamoring to escape; she just wanted a new adventure. She’d taught herself guitar and was ready to find an audience. At least, at first.
“Enid was a small Midwestern town, and it was the mid-50s,” Baird says. “The only thing to do at night was drive up and down the main drag and try to get a date. Think about what was expected of women then. Most of them weren’t even expected to go to college. You got married and had babies as soon as you could. You stayed home and kept house. Karen did not want to do that. She liked to paint and play music. … She went to New York to do that. First, she went to Colorado, then to New York.
One of my favorite stories about her getting to New York was her discovery of spaghetti. There were no Italians in Enid, no Italian restaurants. She was very excited about it.”
Eventually landing in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Dalton found herself among the folk music revival of the early 1960s. She started making the rounds of pass-the-hat clubs, singing and playing her 27-fret banjo or a 12-string guitar. Tucker was a folksinger, too, and this is where they met and married.
This is also when Dalton met Jill Byrem, who would become Lacy J. Dalton. She, too, remembers Karen’s impact, specifically in a piece of advice she was given. “Why do you think you have to sing so loud?” Lacy, in an interview with London’s Guardian newspaper, recalled Karen telling her. “If you want to be heard you have to sing softer.”
Dylan was coming up through the same scene and often backed Dalton on harmonica. She had an effect on him, too, one he still remembered years later. Early in the first volume of his memoirs, Chronicles (published in 2004), on page 12, Dylan writes, “My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. She was a tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky, and sultry. … Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it. I sang with her a couple of times.”
“Katie’s Been Gone” by Dylan & The Band is allegedly about Dalton. A generation later, she also inspired Nick Cave’s “When I First Came to Town.” Like Dylan, Cave has referred to Dalton as his “favourite female blues singer.” Devendra Banhart has proclaimed, “Without a doubt, she is my favorite singer.” Peter Stampfel, of The Holy Modal Rounders, later wrote of Dalton: “She was the only folk singer I ever met with an authentic ‘folk’ background. She came to the folk music scene under her own steam, as opposed to being ‘discovered’ and introduced to it by people already involved in it.”
The posthumous accolades began appearing within the last several years, as Dalton’s music began resurfacing — in both reissues of her two records as well as three new compilations of unreleased recordings. Cotton Eyed Joe (2007), named after the Bob Wills hit she loved to sing (downshifted into a slow, regretful reading), draws from the tape of a house concert for a small audience of friends from 1962 in Boulder. Green Rocky Road (2008) gathers home recordings from 1963. The most recent is this year’s chronologically titled 1966, featuring songs recorded by visiting pal Carl Baron in a Colorado mountain cabin.
“I sing on a few of those, and play,” Tucker says. “We were living in the hills outside Boulder. Carl was a friend of ours and loved to come up and jam with us. I didn’t even remember it, but apparently, on more than one occasion he had a cheap tape recorder and taped it. The quality is not good. A lot of things are so distorted we couldn’t use them. Like, she was doing this Lead Belly song, and she’d do this ‘Whoop!’ The distortion is so horrible they couldn’t fix it electronically. … See, none of this stuff was ever meant to be put out. If you were seriously trying to make a recording, you would’ve done a better job than most of these tapes. They’re just things that were captured in the moment, for personal mementos or maybe to help one of us remember parts of the songs. Now they’re just these ghosts come back to haunt us all.”
After recording In My Own Time at the turn of the ’70s, Dalton never made another record. She drifted, around the country and deeper into drugs. Lacy J. Dalton claims she had a recording session scheduled for Karen in Texas in 1992, but Karen exited rehab, went back to New York, and disappeared until her obituary the following year.
Tucker last saw Dalton in ’67, two years before she was tricked into recording her proper debut album. The two split up in Denver and Dalton never saw her again. Years later, when he sought to remarry, he says he tracked her down in order to send her divorce papers, which Dalton signed and returned without comment.
Even Baird, now relocated to eastern Illinois, eventually lost touch with her mother. “I was married and having children. I called her and told her I was going to be a mom. There was a long pause,” Baird says. “Then this voice said, ‘You bitch.’ … She never met her grandchildren.”
Baird says she doesn’t mind the revisitations via reissues.
“People keep saying they’ve come up with more stuff, so I guess she’s going to walk the earth a while longer,” she says. “You’re never reallyfamous until you die.”
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.