Heart-breaking and enjoyable.
"If it hadnt been for Cotton Eye Joe
I'd have been married a long time ago
Where did you come from?
Where did you go?
Where did you come from Cotton Eye Joe?"
And as the title of this CD registered in my mind, the nightmares came flooding back, the repressed memories of idiots and wasters in the common-room at school and the brainless repetitive Euro-pop they would like to play. One of the worst culprits was an act called Rednex whose hit 'Cotton Eye Joe' must have been the most mind-numbingly stupid of all.
Therefore, there was some nervousness at playing Karen Dalton's 'Cotton Eyed Joe' but it couldn't be more opposite, so breathe a sigh of relief and get ready to listen up.
It takes a few listens to get truly into, the sound quality is scratchy and at times the vocals boom out of nowhere but its these same vocals that start to turn things around. The fragility and beauty contained within them is immense, its been said that Dalton was a blues-singer who played folk music and this shines through on every track here. And theres a lot of tracks, the live songs dating back 45 years are contained over 2 cds and traditional takes and cover versions make this a record that is as relevant to todays musical scene as it should have been back then.
The second CD washes over the listener even more, it took about 3 songs in a row to realise that the backing had changed to a banjo that was delicately (or as delicately as a banjo can muster) playing underneath Daltons continual flow of lyrics and story telling. A lot might be made that none of the tracks were written by her but people still worship Elvis and in the same vein, once heard, these songs seem to fit the output of Dalton just right. Be it screaming, softly cooing or whistling, the quality of delivery remains high, certainly higher than the recorded quality. The sound of (rather restrained) hand-claps that greet the end of every song shows the limitations of the recordings but also highlight a warmth and pleasure in them, much in the way that vinyl still holds a special place in a lot of peoples hearts for the crackling comfort it brings.
Much in the same way that Eva Cassidy found acceptance after her death, its likely the work of Dalton will spread and hopefully more people will be aware of her. Unlike Cassidy, theres no sense of mass-market appeal here, theres raw talent and a quality that's hard to define. Eva Cassidy would sit squarely with the bland and insipid singer-songwriters that middle-aged folk like, Dalton wouldn't.
At times heart-breaking (particularly when you read the story of how the rest of Karen Daltons life panned out), at others life-affirming, it's a record that bristles with life and energy and if you have any remote liking for the modern artist who proclaims to be some sort of folk-musician, this record should be hitting your turntable as soon as possible.