Some music is performed, some music is managed from a studio. This Karen Dalton home recording is neither - it was probably never even meant to be heard by anyone else. It emerges out of the ether and hangs in the air. It is the sound of someone just being with certain songs; the absence of intended audience allows the music to go almost where it will. As Frank Carney commented, 'It is as if she didn't even know what she was doing' when she sang these songs: something like a visitation.
If you subscribe to the view that songs should be sung with the minimum interference from the singer, and that they should be rendered in their purity, then you won't appreciate these. If good sound quality and production matter much, these are not for you either. But if it's the spirit of things that matters then these may be for you.
The material dates from 1962-3 and so it predates her few other recordings. Described as 'The Loop Tapes' this and the 'Cotton Eyed Joe' live performance have reappeared since Karen Dalton's rediscovery in 2006. There is little of the jazz singer in these tracks and the accompaniment (claw-hammer banjo and, less so, over-dubbed guitar) is played by Dalton,or by guitarists Richard Tucker or Loop himself. It's not really folk music either, at least not in the usual clean way. But it is personal. Very.
Some of the songs are traditional ballads but have never really sounded like this; others were later to appear on her two albums 1969/71 more fully formed. The title track 'could be a field recording from a forgotten Appalachian village. It has none of the polish, but all of the infinite longing of Dalton's later work.' (J. Kelly - Dusted Reviews) The perambulating banjo and full guitar keep the song afloat; the outcome is not necessarily bleak, the lover's musings rotate as a nursery rhyme repeated - now he will, now he won't. It is as strong as it is uncertain. The message is skewed but the images are full of colours.
It is the banjo that is front focus in the cowboy song; the singer seeming to fade in and out of some territory beyond, but come'Ribbon Bow' Dalton's vocal is a commanding presence. 'If I were like city girls' isn't wistful; she is for a moment that dream but it soon fades into the pointless wishful. The slowness of it all makes it a kind of meditation, notes hang in the air. There is time and space to attend to the nuances of the song, time to savour a blue-note or time for your own imaginings. 'Katie Cruel' ups the tempo a bit but the singer is still absorbed in her own thoughts - there is almost a disconnect between the banjo and the voice. 'If I was where I would be, then I'd be where I am now,' - children's rhymes, riddles of the conditional, more pensive and preoccupied than ever. Another fragmentary tale of exclusion; there is nothing to dream about. 'Little Margaret', a lengthy ballad could be about the doorway and the figure (KD) on the front cover. Some lines get lost but you wouldn't want a lyric sheet on an album like this. It all comes to a perfect expression with 'Red Rockin' Chair', a folk song grounded in some, perhaps Oklahoma, poverty blues, it seems to be disembodied. Banjo lines combining in sometimes mad dissonances. The only people who ever sounded like this, at least on records, were perhaps a few raw rural bluesmen. Perhaps too it is the territory in which modern jazz met blues in the early '60s. It is Karen Dalton's innate musicality meeting these forces that sets off the brilliance.
'Nottingham Town' takes it to the limit in terms of singing from the guts, even the banjo stumbling; never did it sound less like the cosy old folk standard. But it remains relentlessly focussed, exceptionally harsh. Then there comes some respite, by contrast a nearly jaunty, 'Skillet Good and Greasy'. Finally, after a word or two with someone in the room about dancing in the street, comes the incomparably lovely 'In the Evening', as slow as it could ever be sung, hanging in the air long after it has been heard. I start to think that all the music you ever really need is in a couple of notes and the silences, all the meaning in a couple of lines.
One wants to slip quietly out of the room after this very private encounter.
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