The classic Oklahoma-born folksinger Karen Dalton released just two albums in her lifetime, but her estate recently emerged with a stack of song lyrics that she never got around to recording. These words were distributed to a handful of contemporary singers like Sharon Van Etten, Julia Holter, Marissa Nadler, and Laurel Halo, who put them to music.
Karen Dalton is one of the tragic ciphers, an Oklahoma-born folksinger who played a long-neck banjo and a 12-string guitar and sang weary, welling songs about bad and broken loves. For decades, late-arriving fans were told she died of AIDS, penniless and displaced, curled up on a New York City street corner. That particular bit of apocrypha has since been debunked (she was in the care of her friend, the guitarist Peter Walker, when she passed away in 1993), but it pervades her memory anyhow: Karen Dalton, lost soul. The saddest, sorriest voice of the '60s.
Dalton only recorded two LPs in her lifetime, 1969’s Its So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best and 1971’s In My Own Time, both of which have since been reissued and lionized as lost folk classics—held up, decades later, as examples of how, sometimes, the culture falters, fails, picks the wrong heroes. Dalton wasn’t known as a songwriter—neither record contains a single original composition—but Walker, who oversees her estate, emerged recently with a stack of song lyrics (verses, snippets, poems) that she never got around to recording, or, maybe, never intended to.
Dalton’s words were distributed to a handful of contemporary singers, and Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton sees them put to new music, much like Billy Bragg and Wilco did with a pile of unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics on 1998’s Mermaid Avenue and again on its companion piece, 2000’s Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II.
Bob Dylan said Dalton had a voice like Billie Holiday’s (lots of people thought so), but Holiday sublimated her suffering—there are the tiniest suggestions of it in her control, in the way she judiciously deployed vibrato, the way she pulled back, raised her chin—whereas Dalton let it bubble up, get ugly. There’s a comparable shrillness to vocals from Kurt Cobain, Axl Rose, all the great American sufferers; it’s there when Skip James sings, viciously, "I'm so tired, and I am tired; I am tired." It’s there when Dalton sings "You haven't got a thing to say, you feel you want to run away," in "Something’s on Your Mind", and it reaches an apotheosis in that song’s devastating coda: "Well, you know, you can’t make it without ever even trying." That quality is what allowed her to take other people’s material and make it feel personal—in her voice, everything seems singular, a site-specific wound. The best tracks on Remembering Mountains do the same.
Sharon Van Etten opens the record with the title track, the only song for which Dalton receives a non-lyrical credit ("words and chords by Karen Dalton"). Van Etten, joined by the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, has a particular knack for writing big, sweeping laments—the kinds of aching melodies that make your breath catch—and she manages to match or at least meet the deep melancholy that haunts so much of Dalton’s output. Van Etten sings here, as Dalton often did, of wanting her lover to be better, stronger: "I’m believing/ You’ll find tomorrow."
Marissa Nadler’s take on "So Long Ago and Far Away" is brutal in its ghostliness, like a memory you can’t quite access, a memory that registers only as a loss. "Friends and lovers all become/ So long ago and far away," Nadler intones, her voice breathy, bare.
Elsewhere, songwriters build structures around Dalton’s words that feel more anachronistic (Diane Cluck’s beguiling "This Is Our Love" could be the lone ballad on any number of million-selling pop records), but few find anything particularly joyful in her lyrics; folks hungry for an alternate narrative about Dalton—something sweeter, more balanced—will have to look elsewhere. Lucinda Williams comes closest to at least finding some toughness in Dalton’s found language: "He asked me if I needed help/ I told him to go help himself," she sings on "Met an Old Friend". A few peals of blues guitar act as a kind of confirmation—the look you give after you tell someone to back off.
Remembering Mountains is maybe the closest we’ll ever get to hearing Dalton’s own articulations of heartache, although plenty was communicated on her first two records, regardless of whether the words there were her own. Still, there’s a palpable narrative here, a sense of loss and stillness, and it reanimates Dalton, if only for a moment. It’s good to have her back.