Virgin Ears: Karen Dalton, In My Own Time
Her Voice is a Horn
By Jeff Johnson
You can’t make it without ever even trying. They aren’t her words, but we never use our own words. We use those that are given to us, and if we use them well, they sound like our own. Karen Dalton never wrote a song that we know of, but she left us with two albums. She was a reluctant public performer who mostly sang for friends, and some of those friends decided to make sure other people could hear evidence of her immense interpretive talent.
A couple years ago I visited Seattle for the first time, taking care to hit every record store I could find. In one of them, I heard this amazing voice over the stereo, all aspirant h’s, voice like a horn. Who is this? I asked the record-store dude behind the counter. He pointed to a vinyl copy of Dalton’s In My Own Time on the wall behind him. Can I buy that? I asked, and he chuckled and said it was his copy and that I’d pay about a hundred dollars for a used copy of the long-out-of-print vinyl. How could something so wonderful be out of print, I wondered, then realized it made sense that something so otherworldly was no longer of this world. I jotted down Dalton’s name and started looking for her music.
Last year, Dalton’s albums were reissued on CD, and recently, in a Los Angeles record store, I discovered that In My Own Time had been reissued on vinyl. I’d downloaded her albums online, so I was by that time familiar with her work, but now, listening to the vinyl, I’ve been reintroduced to her. As we wrap up the final issue of Kitchen Sink, a magazine that has meant so much to me for the past five years, this music is exactly what I need, as both a salve for my heart and a way to remind me that the songs I love are in my heart, as are the people who sing them, and the people with whom I sing my life.