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Karen Dalton - Cotton Eyed Joe

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Artist: Karen Dalton

Album: Cotton Eyed Joe

Label: Delmore

Review date: Oct. 25, 2007

Karen Dalton’s story has been told often enough that you need only type her name into a search engine to get the whole story, so here are the bare outlines. She came to New York City at the onset of the ’60s folk revival, where she wowed the likes of Bob Dylan and Fred Neil. The blues in her voice were as deep and dark as the Mariana Trench, and its pain-wracked crack earned her plenty of comparisons (which she reportedly detested) to Billie Holiday. Unfortunately, she also shared Holiday’s taste for self-obliteration, which in combination with a strong distaste for performing in contrived circumstances (like, you know, on stage or in the studio rather than in a living room) made her career a non-starter and contributed to her early demise in 1993.

This nicely packaged two-CD, one-DVD collection is just the third Dalton release, and the first to capture her on her own in front of an audience. Producer Nik Venet had to literally trick her into making her first LP by inviting her to sing at a Fred Neil session and rolling tape, and her second was an anomalous attempt at slick pop. So Cotton Eyed Joe is as close to undiluted Dalton as you’re likely to get… which makes its flaws worth overlooking.

The album was mostly recorded in concert at the Attic, a 50-seat basement folk club in Boulder, where Dalton earned her crust during a mountain sojourn in 1962; a more few tracks were done on the club owner’s tape machine when the audience wasn’t around. The recording quality is a bit dodgy despite an Abbey Road mastering job; a voice as big as Dalton’s needs a better microphone than whatever was on hand, and there’s a bit of tape hiss, although it’s not too overbearing.

But audiophile concerns aside, this is a pretty important document. It captures the Dalton that knocked out Greenwich Village with her musical conception already complete. She accompanies herself quite ably on a 12-string guitar (whose tone was as big, and occasionally as distorted, as her voice) and stark, sadly under-featured banjo. The material is partly Folk 101 stuff — “Mole in the Ground,” Leadbelly’s “Good Morning Blues.” But her version of the chestnut “Darlin’ Corey” has a wide-open, anthemic quality that is miles away from bluegrass’s head-down, throttle-open performance conventions.

Other tunes clue you to Dalton’s broader interests, which strayed well outside the folk canon. The set opens with a desolate cover of Ray Charles’ “It’s Alright” that defies you to say its name without crying. There are also a couple songs by the still-unknown Neil. His anti-nuke lament “Red Are The Flowers” is so earnest that in the wrong hands it could induce Bluto Blutarsky-like guitar demolition, but Dalton nails it by underplaying its pathos. That same quality makes the traditional tune “No More Taters” believable; by not trying too hard with her voice but strumming her guitar good and hard, she conveyed the impression that she grew up around people who really said ‘taters’ (which the Oklahoma-born half-Cherokee probably did) and that she knew the song’s sexual frustration first-hand (which this writer could not confirm). Unlike the sweater-clad dudes that took “Tom Dooley” up the charts, Dalton made music that still feels lived, not learned, and unconfined by received notions of what folk music was or should be.

Note: A word about the DVD - it’s only available in the US, and it is an NTSC version of one already sold with a French reissue of Dalton’s first album.

By Bill Meyer

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