Wednesday, January 25, 2023


Up the alley of “a folk singer unlike anyone else you’ve ever heard before” we arrive (inevitably) at the complicated, complex figure of Karen Dalton. Virtually all her singing can pierce you, yet her most distinctive work, the traditional folk song “Katie Cruel,” will carve deep into your being. If you’re brave enough to give a damn, the tune will absolutely shatter your invulnerability. No small part of that reaction will owe to the song’s elusive, riddling chorus. Ascertaining its meaning may resemble the impossible feat of trying to catch echoes with your hands, yet may be crucial to comprehending the entireties of Dalton’s tragic demise.

an all-too-brief bio

After leaving Oklahoma in the early 1960s, the part-Cherokee, part-Irish Dalton became a fixture in the Greenwich Village folk scene. Bob Dylan famously referred to her as his favorite singer. Perhaps the most nourishing thing about Karen Dalton’s career is that she cut a reluctant pose when it came to “success” — unwilling or unable to clamber aboard the “ladder of fame.” Handfuls of tragedies (such as heartbreaking stories involving her two estranged children) contrast with the irresistible virtuosity of her music, though ultimately, she drifted into obscurity. Dalton passed away in 1993 near Woodstock, New York. A heroin addict, she had likely acquired AIDS through sharing needles. Some of her recordings and live performances from the 1960s and 1970s have been reissued, underscoring their persistent vitality. Over the last several years, at least three documentaries (film and audio) have accompanied a resurgence of interest in her music.

more on “katie cruel”

The traditional American folk song “Katie Cruel” (sometimes titled “Katy Cruel”) may date back to the eighteenth century. A 1939 work, Folk Songs of Old New England, as presented by folklorist Eloise Hubbard Linscott, situates the tune among the region’s historical “ballads, folk songs, and ditties.” Linscott further describes “Katie Cruel” as a marching song favored during the Revolutionary War. She offers notated music alongside an array of lyrics.

Dalton recorded the song at least five or six times, often accompanying herself on banjo. In some of these versions, she whistles. The most famous rendition of “Katie Cruel,” however, pairs Dalton’s vocals and banjo with the violin of Bobby Notkoff. This recording, captured on the 1971 album In My Own Time, ought to puncture the thickest, most world-weary veneers. Where Dalton may have whistled on solo renditions, Notkoff instead enters on violin, just bursting with reverence for the song’s elegiac carpentry. It could be argued that both he and Dalton understood the song equitably.

A few critics have approached Dalton’s performances of the song. One writer, Rick Moody, correctly characterized “Katie Cruel” as Dalton’s “signature tune,” yet misapprehended Notkoff’s role in the song. He deems the effort “an intrusive fiddle.” Another writer, Barney Hoskyns, offers a welcome improvement. In designating Dalton’s recording of “Katie Cruel” as being both “darkly chilling” and “terrifying[ly] beautiful,” Hoskyns acknowledges the accompaniment of Notkoff’s “spooky electric violin.” And by “electric” he may suggest “plugged in,” or reminiscent of high voltage, or both.

dalton’s lyrics

Here are Dalton’s lyrics for your consideration as you absorb the song. We suggest you especially meditate on the two iterations of the chorus.

     When I first came to town
     They called me the roving jewel
     Now they’ve changed their tune
     (And) call me Katie Cruel

     Through the woods I am going
     Through the boggy mire
     (And) straightway down the road
     Till I come to my heart’s desire

     If I was where I would be
     Then I’d be where I am not
     Here I am where I must be
     Where I would be, I cannot

     When I first came to town
     They bought me drinks aplenty
     Now they’ve changed their tune
     (And) hand me the bottles empty

     If I was where I would be
     Then I’d be where I am not
     Here I am where I must be
     Where I would be, I cannot

At first appearing in town as an attractive drifter, namely, “the roving jewel,” the speaker subsequently traverses the woods and bogs as an outsider. No longer receiving free “drinks aplenty” at the tavern, the speaker has been callously nicknamed “Katie Cruel.” In an equally damaging turnabout, she is the recipient of empty bottles, a gutting twist of mockery. “Katie Cruel” traffics in both estrangement and the tides of isolation. The potent mystery of the song revolves around whatever led to the “changed tune” of the townspeople. What had the speaker done, to deserve the withdrawal of their kindliness? She’s not being stoned to death, as in Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery,” but she is being shunned to death. 

and the chorus?

The oppositional values of the lyrics may correlate with Dalton’s own clashing presences. She was Dylan’s favorite singer, on the one hand, yet didn’t succeed as a popular musician. As “the roving jewel,” Dalton arrived in Greenwich Village and became a fixture during the American folk revival, but years later, by then largely forgotten by her community, she grappled with the vagaries of addiction and terminal illness. Her physical appearance, though marred by missing teeth, was undeniably beautiful. Dalton therefore resembles the character she sings about, in “Katie Cruel.” That she listed too deeply into the fictional world of the song and began to resemble (or embrace) its outcome, cannot be conclusively thrown aside. The lyrics are mournful without specifically mentioning death, yet the tune obviously conjures the acids of loss through the devastating grief of the music.

Dalton, of course, did not invent “Katie Cruel.” She adapted the lyrics from the tune’s traditional form. It may be helpful to compare the 1939 anthologized chorus (from New England) with the chorus that Dalton frequently recorded, as there are minor differences:

      Oh, that I was where I would be
     Then should I be where I am not
     Here I am where I must be
     Where I would be, I cannot
     —Linscott, 1939

     If I was where I would be
     Then I’d be where I am not
     Here I am where I must be
     Where I would be, I cannot
     —Dalton, 1971 (among other times)

The most important word in both renditions — given its repetition — might be the indistinct locator, “where.” The speaker, accordingly, searches for footing. “If I was where I would be” relies heavily upon the conditional word, “would.” It imagines an impossible alternative journey, or era, and in doing so, confers a gloomy sense of irony on the ensuing line: “Then I’d be where I am not.” Dalton alleges a certain inescapability when she sings “Here I am where I must be,” that is, in the world of being dubbed Katie Cruel and trudging the desolate landscape as an outcast. “Where I would be, I cannot” trails off, cementing the singer’s demise. Since Dalton “cannot” situate herself in the place “where [she] would be,” the listener, of a sudden, apprehends the doom, the blow the singer cannot overcome.


“Katie Cruel” drifted towards Karen Dalton perhaps from the distant days of the Revolutionary War. She embraced the tune and made it the “jewel” of her repertoire. She may have even resembled the “roving jewel” she sang about, enduring multiple tragedies akin to those revealed in the lyrics. The chorus itself doesn’t merely reinforce these tragedies, but deals in multiple presences. It may conjure the way Dalton’s song hovers about us now, preparing each of us for that solitary “going,” the way we would be and the way we must be, as the late-day sunshine glances off our fingertips and the love, like a fierce echo, escapes our grasp.

sources of information:

BBC audio documentary Sweet Mother KD (2016).
The Guardian article on the 2021 Karen Dalton documentary film.
Barney Hoskyns. Small Town Talk. Da Capo Press, 2016.
Eloise Hubbard Linscott. Folk Songs of Old New England. The MacMillan Co., 1939.
“Rick Moody on Karen Dalton.” icon. Amy Scholder, editor. Feminist Press, 2014.
Washington Post article on Dalton’s mysterious life (and 2021 documentary).
Wikipedia page for Karen Dalton.

Discographic information for “Katie Cruel.” Karen Dalton, In My Own Time, fourth track. Traditional lyrics, arranged by Karen Dalton. Recorded in New York, 1970-1971. Released 1971 on Paramount Records. Dalton: banjo, vocals; Bobby Notkoff: violin. Dalton recorded other versions of the song at other times and performed it often during live appearances.

Karen Dalton was also featured in our “Unassailable Vocalists” post from 2017.


Anonymous said...

this one really got me at the end. you did something there with the language that made me stop and a wave of grief passed over me. you made me feel for the singer but just in general, you made me feel. thanks for the post. babsy


hi babsy, first and foremost -- thanks for taking time to read this post. we appreciate it. admittedly, it's another "somber" meditation, so once again, i'll skip the usual babsy speculation (who is babsy? is babsy an anagram? where resideth babsy? etc.) and hope that this reply finds you in good health, listening to karen dalton. --ba

Anonymous said...

Love this song - great take - thanks Dan! Ken


Hi Ken,

Thanks for taking a look and for the kind words. Cheers, BA

Ted Zook said...

A fascinating account of an amazing soul. Thanks, Dan, for bringing her and her music to my notice!

I hope all's well with you; myself, I'm still (grrrr) in seclusion . . .

tpw said...

Thanks, Dan, for reminding us of her. Her voice cuts right into you.


Hi Ted,

Thanks for visiting the post and for your kind words. I couldn't agree more about Karen Dalton. Having studied this song for five years, it nevertheless keeps opening up to me, every time I summon the courage to play it.

As for you, my friend, hang in there. We shall meet again soon. In the meantime, rest up and I hope this note finds you and your family doing well.

Cheers, BA


tpw, good sir. thanks for weighing in. i think we'd all like to create a work such as karen dalton's "katie cruel" -- or if not, be there when it happened. this is maybe third best, but i agree, it cuts right into you, mercilessly. as it should. all best, ba

hthr said...

You likely already know: Nick Cave's "When I First Came to Town" is redolent w/ Katie Cruel allusion. I can see him mesmerized by Dalton. They are dark travelers like that, sharing a history of loss and creating their lives' work from despair. Poet empaths, troubadours.

The enigmatic refrain of the song embodies poetry's perpetuity. Our peer poets still try to do the same thing - distill a common sorrow in a riddle.

Did KC cross paths with LLJ at some point btwn the Revolution & this post? What a tale they wd have to tell.

Thank you for this stunner. Your work is a visionary act of cultural salvage.


hy hthr,

yes, i do know the nick cave homage / allusion to sweet mother kd. the story of karen dalton is unruly and full of nourishing (and precipitous) offshoots for mortals like us. (a) she's still kind of "undiscovered" which is always tempting; (b) and then we can recognize her influence in the works of more famous people. the way we can recognize lead belly in nirvana's "in the pines" and so forth -- that's maybe a slippery slope, but above all, recognizing the appearance of this homage is important, and gratifying.

if the song does continue from the eighteenth century colonies / usa / scotland, etc., then the chorus really is kind of surprisingly aloof. shockingly aloof. it doesn't have an ounce of preciousness. it requires some delving-into and constantly opens up into dusty attics and antechambers. kd is here; she is there. the singer is in her own mind, most importantly. she could be a town over, or she could be five years over / earlier / elsewhere. the present day is the issue. inescapable. tragic.

great question about poetry. experimental / avant garde poetry and how the chorus corresponds to same. i think the riddling of the chorus in this case feels very effortless and very genuine. not always so -- among the poets. this is a song that many poets ought to -- be required to -- listen to.

i'm sure that sweet mother kd knew a "liza jane" song because every folk musician did & does. she may have known the play party versions of the tune -- the "goodbye liza jane" songs that cowboy bob wills cut his teeth on, but that's just speculation. too bad there's no recording (and i've checked -- believe me!)

above all, thanks for the kind words, they mean more than you know.
xoxo ba