Karen Dalton


Cotton Eyed Joe

"Cotton Eyed Joe" frequently soundtracks events both celebratory and soused, be it at Yankee Stadium (in its Rednex techno incarnation) or at a boot-scooting wedding in rural Texas (see Urban Cowboy's spoke-line dance). The song's a folk standard that predates the American Civil War, and it's easy to miss its lyrical core of heartbreak and abandonment amid the dancing frenzy it now evokes. As rendered by star-crossed Greenwich Village folk goddess Karen Dalton, one is hard-pressed to even imagine such bacchanal. Instead, Dalton deploys a devastating stratagem that Cat Power would use nearly 40 years later on 2000's The Covers Record: Take the overly familiar and sing it lonesome.

That Dalton made but two studio albums makes this archival find all the more bittersweet. Subtitled The Loop Tapes/Live in Boulder 1962, this weighty two-CD/one-DVD package captures Dalton early on, before her hard-living lifestyle mummified her. Young and sober, she still sounds ancient, her voice evoking both the human pain of Billie Holiday and the natural ruggedness of a billy goat. Fingerpicking both 12-string and banjo, she has a tone that's deliberate yet chiming. She works her way through two sets of blues standards and tunes from Greenwich neighbor (and similarly troubled folk demi-god) Fred Neil. On work songs like "Everytime I Think of Freedom" or "Run Tell That Major," her rhythm mimics that of a pick or shovel, sharp and flinty. One can easily picture Dalton coming in from the cotton fields—rather than strumming in a teeny folk club—hands calloused, singing when the sun goes down.