During this pandemic winter, I have been time-traveling. Thanks to Spotify and YouTube, I am filling holes in an era I thought I knew well, the late 1960s and early 1970s. I made my youthful musical discoveries then, but only now, half a century later, do I realize how much I missed.
The narrative of that lost time of love and flowers is dominated by big names: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, etc. But it was a seething creative time in America and Britain, with so many talented singer-songwriters who flashed brilliantly and disappeared from view. Here are some who tragically fell, some who faded, some who have even returned.
Sometimes in the early 1960s Bob Dylan backed her on harmonica, but when she died in 1993 Karen Dalton was a heroin-addicted, AIDS-infected New York street person. She had been a pioneer in the Greenwich Village folk scene, her jaded, blues-inflected voice piercing to the core of whatever she covered. She was haunted by two divorces by the time she was 21, by estrangement from her kids, by her fear of performing live and recording, by drugs.
Folk icon Fred Neil tricked her into recording her first album in 1969, It’s So Hard To Tell You Who’s Going To Love You the Best, pretending the tape wasn’t rolling. Most of it was recorded in one night. Her second and final album came two years later, In My Own Time, arranged by Bob Dylan’s manager. When it failed commercially, she started her full-on downward slide. The singer Lacy J. Dalton, who took her last name in tribute, tried and failed to get her into rehab. “It’s going to annoy the hell out of you, but you’ll probably only get recognized after your death,” she told her, presciently.
The recognition started indeed after her death, with reissues of both albums and three new releases of discovered tapes: Cotton-Eyed Joe is a live recording in an intimate Boulder, Colorado club from 1962, while Green Rocky Road and 1966 capture her at home, in the latter in her Colorado cabin. Neil and Tim Hardin were her close friends, and the setlist brims with their recently penned classics. If you’ve only heard Rod Stewart’s banging version of Hardin’s “Reason To Believe,” check out what critic Lindsay Zoladz called Dalton’s transformation of the song into “something of a koan … an acceptance of love’s co-existing light and shadow.” Joanna Newsom, Devandra Banhart, Nick Cave and others cite her influence, and a 2015 tribute album featured covers by many contemporary performers including Julia Holter, Josephine Foster, and Lucinda Williams.
Dalton only did covers, but what covers! “To hear Karen Dalton sing ‘How Sweet It Is’ or ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ is to hear the song completely transformed,” wrote critic Stephen Deusner. “[She] sustains what were previously just grace notes, moves the accents around, inverts the rhythms, and plays hide-and-seek with the meter.”
Two songs on In My Own Time entrance me especially: “Something On Your Mind”, simultaneously gentle and jaded, and the raffish “Katie Cruel”. But maybe her perfect phrasing on the opening of “Little Bit of Rain”, which starts her first album, sums up Karen Dalton best: “If I should leave you, try to remember all the good times/Warm days filled with sunshine, and just a little bit of rain.”
The brief title cut of Just Another Diamond Day, Vashti Bunyan’s 1970 album, hops happily across daffodil fields of the mind, as I might have written if I had heard of her back then. She first arrived on swinging London’s music scene in 1965 as just “Vashti” on Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label, with the catchy Jagger/Richards-penned single “Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind.” Her own B-Side “I Want To Be Alone” better suggests her pensive style. After that record and the follow-up 1966 “Train Song” flopped – other British “birds” like Marianne Faithful and Petula Clark got far more play – she departed London, in the spirit of the times, by horse and cart with her boyfriend for the Outer Hebrides, to join a commune established by the singer Donovan. The trip took two years, by which time the commune had disbanded.
The songs she wrote along the way, however, became Just Another Diamond Day. What gentle beauty abounds here: from the ruminative “Rose Hip November” to the lilting “Come Wind Come Rain”, from the searching “Hebridean Sun” to the simply gorgeous “Rainbow River Song”, all made for an audience of domestic animals and children, and for anyone who needs to heal or even just survive – anyone right now, in other words.
That album fell flat upon release, though, and a disillusioned Bunyan disappeared from music for 30 years, focusing on raising her children and making crafts. She did not know that Just Another Diamond Day had become a prized collector’s rarity and was surprised by the reaction to its 2000 re-release among a new generation of folk-experimental musicians like Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and Adem. Besides performing with some of these, she has released two more albums, 2005’s Lookaftering and 2014’s Heartleap.
It feels like she never left. The new albums are less bouncy, with more complex vocal and instrumental layering helped by her many contemporary musical offspring and a couple of old-time friends, but the theme of living harmoniously in nature persists. Now, however, she gazes back on her life’s accomplishments, rather than forward to its hopes. In Lookaftering’s “Wayward” she sings: “Didn’t want to be the one, the one who’s left behind/While the other one goes out to life and comes back home to find me…. I wanted to be the one with road dust on my boots/And a single silver earring and a suitcase full of notes/And a band of wayward children with their fathers left behind.” Her gaze extends even farther and deeper even in Heartleap, as she enters her eighth decade: “My mother would dance sometimes/Believing herself alone/But through a slightly open door/I would watch her as she turned/Turned round, round/Briefly unbound.”
Though she is now called “the godmother of freak folk,” Bunyan claims she was never a folk musician. Whatever we call her, she makes me smile and realize how badly we need a musical hippie godmother now.
The great late singer-songwriter-guitarist John Martyn and legendary underground radio host John Peel discovered Bridget St. John, whose husky voice and exceptional guitar playing inspired Peel to record her first on his commercially unsuccessful but now highly regarded Dandelion label. If Vashti Bunyan skips through meadows and Karen Dalton moans in mountain canyons, St. John meanders and mulls through a misty British landscape.
Critic Richie Unterberger faults a sameness to her melodies in the first album, Ask Me No Questions (1969), which he rates not as good as those of her equally contemplative rediscovered British contemporary Nick Drake, but he also calls them “unsurpassed, really, in their extraordinary level of containment.” He adds that her voice suggests Nico, but more in tune and minus the bizarre edge. Everywhere her guitar mastery is apparent, especially when she duets with Martyn on “Curl Your Toes” and the album’s title song, though the ‘60s-cynical may find the latter’s concluding seacoast sound effects overdone.
Her second album, Songs for the Gentle Man (1971) continues in that serene vein but with the overlay of fascinating string arrangements by producer and experimental musician Ron Geesin, who also orchestrated Pink Floyd. “Seagull-Sunday” suggests Joni Mitchell, though her restrained contemplations on love and loss in songs like “If You’d Been There” and “Back To Stay” are uniquely her own. St. John’s third album, Thank You For… (1972) displays her full range. A video from this period of her performing that album’s “Nice” on the iconic show The Old Grey Whistle Test shows what a guitar virtuoso she was, matching the talent of her mentor Martyn.
All three albums sold poorly, like everything on Dandelion, which folded. St. John moved to Chrysalis Records for one more album, Jumblequeen (1974). Here she even more ambitiously expanded toward jazzier and bluesier excursions, with the delightfully sexy “Curious and Wooly” its best accomplishment. It sold just 363 copies (Mike Oldfield’s 1974 debut album Tubular Bells, pitched to Chrysalis the same day Jumblequeen was being pitched, sold 15 million). She moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, played locally a bit, but essentially disappeared.
“My heart belongs here,” she told a newspaper reporter who found her in the Village in 1978. “|The better you feel about yourself, the better you love everything around you, and you produce better things.” Though she has recorded no more new albums, ever since she re-emerged in the late 1990s Bridget St. John has collaborated with old colleagues like Oldfield, Kevin Ayers and Michael Chapman. She remains living proof that the music business is among the worst judges of musical talent.
You can purchase Andrew Giarelli’s travel book “American Romanista” here: https://www.amazon.com/American-Romanista-Andrew-Giarelli-ebook/dp/B00AH1HUNW