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Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs By Karen Dalton Amanda Farah , May 26th, 2015 11:45

Karen Dalton was a classic tragic figure. A Midwestern transplant to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 60s, she was beloved of her more famous friends (Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Peter Stempfel), but largely unknown outside of their circle. She played banjo and 12-string guitar and sang with the sort of textured, croaky voice that there is only room for one of in a generation. In her generation, it seemingly went to Janis Joplin.

Dalton recorded two albums, but neither featured any of the songs she had written herself. She was shy in the studio, and had drug and alcohol demons sucking away at her will to persevere. The 2006 reissues of her only two albums, It's So Hard To Know Who's Going To Love You Best and In My Time, have done something to help rescue her memory from languishing in obscurity, but she is still less of a cult figure than a musician's musician.

How Remembering Mountains: The Unheard Songs Of Karen Dalton came about, is a fitting next chapter in her tragedy. Dalton's lyrics, kept by friend and contemporary folkie Peter Walker, were given to a selection of female artists curated by Tompkins Square's Josh Rosenthal. The artists, in turn, have written music to accompany these lyrics. It's a dream roster in itself, with experienced singer-songwriters like Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin, more off-kilter indie artists like Sharon van Etten and Julia Holter, and creative choices like Laurel Halo.

What they each have been tasked with, however, is interpreting the lyrics of a woman who only ever interpreted others' music. Do we then evaluate each song as a representation of Dalton's work, of her imagined intentions, or as stand alone tracks by the individual artists?

The title track, performed by Sharon van Etten, is the one Dalton came closest to completing, in that it actually had chords to accompany it - the only evidence that Dalton ever intended any of her work to be lyrics rather than poems. The melody, the structure, are all van Etten's own creation, but the stripped-back folk is not representative of her work. Julia Holter similarly tones down her otherworldly orchestral arrangements so that a soft vocal can be the center, more in keeping with Dalton's style than her own.

As 12-string player with whispered vocals, Marissa Nadler might be the closest embodiment to Dalton, though her delivery is anything but folksy. She borrows a line from "Remembering Mountains:" "So you sit by the window/Watching the days go/Alone in your room/Remembering mountains." When sung by van Etten, it sounds wistful; when Nadler sings the same line, it is full of regret.

Dalton famously believed that a singer shouldn't have to raise her voice to be heard. These minimalist arrangements, whether it's Isobel Campbell affecting a slight twang to match her guitar or Larkin Grimm legitimate twang (and the album's only banjo), are a fitting tribute in themselves. Even Laurel Halo, who as an electronic artist is destined to be the compilation's outlier, exhibits the same soft-spoken reserve.

It leaves room for broader interpretations from someone like Lucinda Williams who comes closer in timbre to Dalton's voice but maintains more of her personal style. Williams contributes one of two versions of 'Met A Friend'. The second version, by Josephine Foster, is the closing track, an a cappella rendition that sounds suitably ghostly, like her voice is coming from another plain. And when she sings "When I'm old and ready to die/I won't scream and I won't cry," it's so devoid of sadness that it's wholly believable.

And that is a fitting ending to this chapter, because for a tragedy to be a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, there has to be catharsis. Dalton gained little recognition in her lifetime and her posthumous reputation has been hard won, but more importantly, there are still those who believe that her work is worth sharing. That it's worth unearthing basement recordings, that it's worth salvaging and reinterpreting lyrics or poems or whatever they were meant to be. That one way or another, new listeners will come to Dalton and her music, that she will get her due.

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