BEST OF 2007 – Michael Simmons
I’ve never much believed in the artificial man-made time blocks called ‘years’. As the late Skip Spence used to say, “I do not worship the Time God.” I’ve always been comfortable living in the past, present, and future simultaneously, killing time with the earthly as well as the departed. Karen Dalton, my favorite singer of 2007, has been dead for almost 15 years. This past year saw the first release of early live sets of Karen’s called Cotton Eyed Joe: The Loop Tapes/Live in Boulder 1962 (Delmore Recordings). Two CDs and a short DVD from 1969-70 shot by a French film crew. Sweet Mother K.D., as her friend Freddy Neil dubbed her, was too real for the shopping mauled world of 20th Century America. She must’ve seen the 21st Century coming, cuz she checked out in time to miss it completely. (You ain’t missin’ nothin’, baby.) Her voice was an exposed nerve wrapped in a fragile rose. Reminiscent of Billie Holliday, another fragile flower, Karen sings eternal standards some call folk music on Cotton Eyed Joe. From Woody (“Pastures of Plenty”) to Bascom Lamar Lunsford (“Mole In The Ground”), from Freddy Neil (“Blues On The Ceiling”) to many songs written by Public Domain (the greatest songwriter ever!), she exudes more soul than a white person can rightfully claim. Soul is a lost value in 21st Century America, primarily because it ain’t for sale. One either has it or doesn’t. No singer with soul shows their pussy to the paparazzi. But the sexiest singers show their soul through song. So it is with Karen.
I owned her first two albums on vinyl back in the day: It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best and In My Own Time. The first was released in 1969, the second in 1971. Both have been re-issued on CD. Out of the blue in aught-seven comes these new/old recordings. Her voice doesn’t have the more urbane edge of the later records and that’s partly the charm. She is simply one of the greatest blues singers ever without belonging to any category. In the 1970s I had a band with Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders called The Wipe-Out Gang. Peter invited his friends to come sit in with us at gigs. I got to jam and record with Bill Barth and Luke Faust of the wonderful Insect Trust. I begged Peter to get his friend Karen to join us. He would ask her and she said she’d come down, but never did. “Missed it by that much!” as secret agent Maxwell Smart used to say. It’s now 35 years later. I’ve been having a lousy century thus far, but I’ve got these recordings by Karen Dalton and she keeps me company in a cold, cold world.
Michael Simmons blogs on the Huffington Post and is on the Arthur Council of Advisors. A lifelong musician, he will begin playing live again in 2008.