Since Karen Dalton's death in 1993, her fan base has grown faster than a Colorado mountain town. And folks can thank a retired builder from Indiana named Joe Loop for Cotton Eyed Joe, a batch of previously unheard recordings Dalton made in the early '60s.
Back in 1961, Loop owned the Attic, a tiny club in Boulder that served as a key stop on the folk-music circuit. In an intimate setting that held no more than 50 people, Loop booked many of the scene's top folkies — including a pre-Byrds David Crosby, the Holy Modal Rounders, and John Phillips. But it was Dalton, a young beauty with Irish-Cherokee ancestry, who really caught Loop's attention. He brought a portable reel-to-reel to the Attic soon after her 1962 audition and started recording his new friend's performances. Those songs make up Cotton Eyed Joe.
“The early folk music crowd was a pretty straight bunch and clean-cut,” Loop recalls. “That wasn't Karen at all. She didn't get noticed by that in-crowd scene, although there were a lot of musicians who liked her.”
Indeed. Bob Dylan adored her, as did folk-rock architect Fred Neil, whose deep, phantom croon was informed by Dalton's. And, as rock 'n' roll legend has it, the Band's “Katie's Been Gone,” a classic Basement Tapes track, was written in her honor. Yet Dalton — who split time among Boulder, Woodstock, and New York City — never achieved mainstream recognition. But like many great blues singers, she exuded dark romance, spiritual mystery, and brooding emotion. “It's cliché to say, but she had real soul,” Loop says.
There are several reasons Dalton never became one of folk's poster children. For one, she lacked the necessary business savvy. Also, she made just two studio albums: 1969's It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best and 1971's In My Own Time, a knotted chunk of rural soul that stands alongside such singer-songwriter landmarks as Nick Drake's Pink Moon and Neil Young's Harvest.
“Performing was a weak spot for her,” Loop says. “The Attic was different, because it was a small place, and she was comfortable there. But there was something about a gig.”
Loop and Dalton kept in touch, even when the fragile singer suffered through devastating addictions to hard drugs and alcohol. He constantly tried to turn others on to Dalton's music, but few shared his obsession. Through the decades, he cherished the reels he made at the Attic, which closed in 1963. “I knew it was good stuff, but there wasn't anything to do with those tapes for the longest time,” he says.
Until now. Popular taste has apparently caught up with the enigmatic Dalton. Deluxe CD reissues of her two records have precipitated a deluge of critical gush. Indie hipsters Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom and all their freak-folk followers treat Dalton like a patron saint.
The French imprint Megaphone tracked down Loop for archival photographs while it was preparing to rerelease Dalton's debut last year. He hooked the label up with a wealth of never-before-seen photos and those old Attic recordings, which few Dalton experts even knew existed.
Cotton Eyed Joe is a two-disc set (released in America on Delmore Recordings) that captures a side of Dalton that her original releases never could. Like that of blues maverick John Lee Hooker, Dalton's pained cry follows such a deeply individualized sense of rhythm and melody that it blossoms during solo performances. The songs heave and lunge like ocean waves. Her guitar and banjo picking are downright virtuosic. “On 'Fannin' Street,' her guitar sounds like an orchestra,” Loop says. “It's hard to believe one person is doing all that.” But because Cotton Eyed Joe is such a personal statement, it's a far more challenging listen than It's So Hard to Tell … and In My Own Time. “It's not a very good introductory CD,” he admits. “But on the other hand, people who have already heard Karen will really like it. If people take the time to listen, I don't know how they could not like her.”