Karen Dalton

Karen Dalton
It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best

Koch CD -7918 (Reissue of the 1969 Capitol LP)

By David Wilson
August 2013

At the suggestion of Georgetown Fats, foreman of this particular chain gang, I have gone to my collection and dusted off one of my earliest treasures to bring to your attention.

Back in the early ‘60s while the battle was raging over whether young non-Afro Amercian performers could bring any legitimacy to singing the blues, or justify wanting to, a teen-aged mother on the run from Texas authorities, with kidnapped daughter in tow, arrived on the Greenwich Village scene, adopted a stage name, and started busking on the street and in the “pass the hat” clubs.

That stage name was Karen Dalton (nee Cariker). Dylan said she was the best singer he ever heard. Fred Neill said she sang the shit out of the blues. Self-destructive behavior and substance abuse constantly got in the way of her ever building the kind of career that would have made her successful or allowed her even to create a stable living situation for any length of time. While several musicians who treasured her talent tried a number of times to help her get it together, it was not to be. She died, according to some, on the New York streets in 1993 of a drug overdose or maybe just excess fatigue, though one magazine reports she died in a hospital in upstate NY, cared for by guitarist Peter Walker.

It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best was the first recording of hers to be made public and it happened only because Fred Neill hid the fact that tape was rolling. Playing 12 string and banjo, Dalton weaves a tapestry of sadness, dismay, despair and grief that is so truthful and so heartfelt that it is cathartic. She seldom raises her voice and indeed has no need to. She commands us to lean closer to the speakers, or with headphones on, to close our eyes and listen with our hearts and guts.

Whether the song was written as a blues tune or not, when Karen sang, it came out blues. Compared to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald as she often was, truth is she sounds like Karen Dalton and no-one else. Nothing I have ever read about her, and certainly nothing I have said here truly conveys the effect of her performance. Fortunately, these days, you do not have to rely on our words. You can listen and judge for yourself.

No one who ever heard Karen had any doubts about blues and race dependency thereafter.

I understand that this CD has just been reissued on Megaphone, but I cannot find a link for it and prices run pretty high, as it is considered a collector’s item, although occasionally a bargain comes along. You can download it as mp3s on Amazon for $7.99.

For a rare archival video of her performing use the following link.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0ZlWK-b_KY

www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ysZwFGO8xA

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