How many albums full of songs sung by Karen Dalton exist? Not many, technically, yet relics and stories from the folk singer’s short life keep emerging. For instance, they say Dalton hated being recorded and the existence of her 1969 album It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best was the result of trickery. That and 1971’s In My Own Time are the only two albums she ever officially released.
For years it seemed no other Dalton recordings existed, until Nashville-based label Delmore released the double-disc Cotton Eyed Joe, a collection of her live recordings at the Attic, a tiny venue in Boulder, Colorado. Then, Green Rocky Road appeared via reissue in 2008, a collection of songs that Dalton had recorded herself, somewhat dismissing the idea that she feared or disliked the process of recording. Finally, Delmore released another collection of unearthed recordings by Dalton and her husband Richard Tucker entitled 1966 in 2012, and that was where her story rested until now. Even when the album tally made its way up to five, none of these records included original material from Dalton. It’s also been claimed that she never wrote her own songs, but like many things about her, we don’t really know that. We don’t really know anything about the enigmatic, rebellious singer except what comes to us in trickles through friends and lost remnants of her meager estate.
There has to be someone who picks up those threads and stitches them together, and in this case it was Josh Rosenthal of the label Tompkins Square. Rosenthal struck up a working relationship and a friendship with American Primitivism guitarist Peter Walker, a fellow folk musician and close friend of Dalton during her life. One day, Walker showed Rosenthal a file of Dalton’s personal papers he had kept: it contained everything from handwritten lyrics and poems, to notes about appointments and transcribed folk songs. Some of the lyrics she had written even had chords set to them. Walker ended up collecting these papers and self-publishing a book called Songs, Poems & Writings via Ark Press.
(Courtesy of Tompkins Records)
Rosenthal explains how the book spurred him to renewed interest in the project, eventually enlisting some of his favorite female artists to cover and rework the lyrics into song:
The publication of the book rekindled my interest, and I sent a file of Karen’s original lyrics to some of my favorite artists. I decided that the material should be covered by female artists, as the feelings and expressions in the lyrics seem to come from a decidedly feminine perspective, at least in my view.
Today, we’re premiering the first song off the resulting record, a cover of the title track by Sharon Van Etten. No one can give voice to these songs like Dalton herself, of course, but if anyone in our modern oeuvre can come close to capturing her wisdom and unassuming grace, it’s Van Etten. “Remembering Mountains” is the work of a woman on the cusp of herself, sifting seasons, relationships, doubts and memories through the crucible of her heart. Even regret becomes a memory here, and if the song is anchored in a hope, it’s an unsteady one. Van Etten’s delicate wavering captures this uncertainty beautifully: “Do you think the seasons change without your heart?” and later, “Do you think of all the ways you didn’t follow?” While the writer of the song seems to find some sense of closure in the final lines, I’m not sure we ever will. Listen below.
We posted the full tracklist for the project when it was announced, but it’s worth including again to reveal the depth of talent Walker and the label have enlisted to breathe new life into these songs:
01 “Remembering Mountains” – Sharon Van Etten
02 “All That Shines Is Not Truth” – Patty Griffin
03 “This Is Our Love” – Diane Cluck
04 “My Love, My Love” – Julia Holter
05 “Met An Old Friend” – Lucinda Williams
06 “So Long Ago And Far Away” – Marissa Nadler
7 “Blue Notion” – Laurel Halo
8 “For The Love I’m In” – Larkin Grimm
9 “Don’t Make It Easy” – Isobel Campbell
10 “At Last The Night Has Ended” – Tara Jane O’Neil
11 “Met An Old Friend” – Josephine Foster
Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs By Karen Dalton is out 5/26 via Tompkins Square.