Folk singer Karen Dalton released only two studio albums in her time before descending into lifelong addiction and dying homeless in New York City, but those recordings proved enough to nurture an obsessive fan base and bowl over a generation of interpreters.
“Real beauty rarely glitters, so I find,” Patty Griffin sings on “All That Shines Is Not Truth,” with words written by Dalton and presented on the new collection “Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton.”
The same could be said of Dalton herself.
Her voice, which had a raspy, jazz-inspired tone that she harnessed to interpret traditional and modern folk songs, sounded perfectly imperfect, filled with Billie Holiday swing, Bessie Smith body and Marlboro Man grit. In his autobiography “Chronicles,” Bob Dylan recalled Dalton in the early ‘60s New York scene as his favorite singer. “Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed,” he wrote.
Unlike her Greenwich Village folkie peers, though, Dalton never moved into songwriting herself. She filled the albums, “It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You Best” in 1969 and “In My Own Time” two years later, with work by a host of composers, including Jelly Roll Morton, Richard Manuel (of the Band) and George Jones. In doing so, Dalton conveyed so much raw emotion that she virtually owned anything she sang.
“Remembering Mountains” features new recordings drawn from lyrics and poems Dalton wrote before her death in 1993, culled from the files of her longtime advocate, folk guitarist Peter Walker. The 11-song collection was commissioned by the adventurous folk label Tompkins Square, which asked female artists including Lucinda Williams, Tara Jane O’Neil, Sharon Van Etten, Julia Holter and Laurel Halo to turn them into songs.
In that way, the project is kin to a similar one that turned unrecorded lyrics by Woody Guthrie into Wilco and Billy Bragg’s “Mermaid Avenue,” but that’s where the similarities end. This is grim stuff — dark blues brought into the present and made heartbreaking by the untapped potential.
“Mountains” features none of the joyous buoyancy of “Mermaid Avenue” and heads in many stylistic directions. From the first track, the remarkable “Remembering Mountains” by Van Etten, words reveal an artist not only infiltrated but also debilitated by the blues. Using a few spare piano chords, Van Etten channels her evocative voice into Dalton’s words, which are both lovely and heartbreaking: “Sun will fall across the canyon wall / my prayer on every stone and tree / let the last be beauty,” sings Van Etten, then repeating, “all in beauty” like a Zen koan.
The sentiment then collapses under the weight of regret: “So you sit by the window watching the days go,” sings Van Etten. “Alone in your room, remembering mountains / Do you think of all the ways you didn’t follow?”
Dalton was born in Oklahoma to a Cherokee mother, and she had two children before she relocated to New York as a young woman. Dalton didn’t enter a studio to record her debut for nearly a decade, but her interpretations are captured on a series of essential casual recordings from her Colorado home, where she lived for much of her post-Greenwich Village life, and illustrate the depth of her interpretive talent. They also reveal the stubbornness of her muse.
That talent seems to have carried across the threshold, because nearly to a track, “Remembering Mountains” finds artists filled with Dalton’s spirit. During Griffin’s “All That Shines ...,” the veteran country singer explores “broken diamonds the floor / fractured beauties and true violence.” Williams drawls her way through “Met an Old Friend,” a rough biographical song that opens with hardened defiance: “Saw a friend the other day / He was sorry I’d gone astray / He asked me if I needed help / I told him to go help himself.”
Scottish singer Isobel Campbell turns “Don’t Make It Easy” into a Delta blues suggestive moan based around a simple guitar line. “Things that you said don’t leave my head,” she sings. “I may take my time forgetting you.”
The same could be said of the album in total. Some of these lines are so well-crafted that they’re tough to bear. Think of all the unwritten work laid waste by booze and heroin, all the unsung music devastated by cartons of cigarettes.
The hope, if there is any, lies in the truth that voices like Dalton’s are so enduring that they’re not as easily extinguished as the smokes. They can, in fact, survive even the harshest death wishes — even if that’s small comfort.
“Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton”
Three and a half stars out of four