In the spirit of Women’s History Month, I would like to share with all my readers two of my favorite female artists. It’s a shame that not many people know about these two artists, because their music is astounding. The two artists are Judee Sill and Karen Dalton.
I have a soft spot for Americana/bluegrass/folk. While I will probably forever maintain my aversion to pop country music, Dalton’s style will never be disappointing for me. Dalton was born in Texas and raised in Oklahoma’s very own Enid! She moved to New York when she was 21, and became a part of the Greenwich Village scene, which included famous artists such as Bob Dylan. In 2004, Dylan said of Dalton “My favorite singer was Karen Dalton. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed…”
She did not like the spotlight and preferred smaller intimate shows as opposed to large performances, which kept her mostly obscure even in her own day. During her time she produced only two studio albums, all of which were folk songs arranged by her. In other words, she did not write much, but the way she put the arrangements together revealed her artistic inclination. The commercial failure of her album, In My Own Time, along with other family factors led to substance abuse, and Dalton slipped away from public eye and ended up dying on March 19th, 1993 at the age of 55.
In the In My Own Time album liner notes, a guy named Lenny Kaye says this: “She had the Beat spirit as well, the existential angst which felt life was dark, perpetually in pain, and that was how you became your art, if you were a real artist.”
This is her essence, and it is one that resonates with me constantly.
Her most famous song, “Something on Your Mind,” captures the notion of a haunting feeling that cannot quite be pinned down or explained. The feeling that says: there’s something going on that needs to be boxed and dissected, but it is elusive and difficult to find. Her crooning voice emphasizes the longing and ineffability of such a feeling.
“Maybe another day you’ll want to feel another way, you can’t stop crying
You haven’t got a thing to say, you feel you want to run away
There’s no use trying, anyway
I’ve seen the writing on the wall
Who cannot maintain will always fall
Well, you know, you can’t make it without ever even trying.”
Whoa. Judee Sill. I discovered her through the Hollies, who covered her song “Jesus Was a Crossmaker.” I loved the tune of “Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” but the somewhat enigmatic lyrics captured my attention, leading me to peruse the rest of her namesake album, Judee Sill.
Sill had a difficult life. Growing up, she got into a lot of trouble. According to the all-knowing source of Wikipedia, in high school she robbed liquor stores and gas stations with some random dude she met, which led to her spending 9 months in a reformatory school where she learned gospel songs. Her father, mother and brother all passed away rather early and Sill’s lyrics carry the weight of these losses and the conflicting nature of a rebellious soul who sees something beautiful in religious expression, which is why I absolutely love her music. She worked with Graham Nash and David Crosby in producing her first album in 1971, and then her second album released in 1973. After that, she faded into obscurity, and ended up passing away from a heroin addiction.
As a prime example of religious images permeating her songs, “The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown” reveals a conflicted artist struggling with the nature of grace, or perhaps the elusiveness and unfairness of religious promises. I’m not really sure. But I think the song is very beautiful and carries the tension inherent within intense religious experiences.
“Once a demon lived in my brow
I screamed and wailed and I cursed out loud
And I sailed through the clouds on ten crested cardinals
To guard my battleground
But I laughed so hard I cried
And the lamb ran away with the crown…”
These two artists both rambled through life and sought the intangible and the beautiful, despite rather inconvenient life circumstances. There’s something in each of these singers that captures a yearning for the uncontainable. Dalton’s voice and arrangements, Sill’s lyrics – the word I keep coming to is ineffable. Dalton’s unconventional voice sometimes breaks as it scrapes the limit of its own reach, but then something happens just after that (for me) – she keeps going. She’s not bothered at all by this, and it’s just really really beautiful. Sill uses these highly descriptive religious images to process and explore what I believe was her addiction and her difficult life. The sweeping orchestral arrangements, inspired in part by Bach, are quite moving.
I don’t know if Dalton and Sill are for everyone, but I know there are individuals out there who have ears to hear what it is that they are reaching for. I love these two artists, and I hope that their music continues to find a home in people’s hearts and minds, like it certainly has in mine.