Year in Music: Grievous angel

Possessions, obsessions made visible

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An archival recording can assume many forms, contexts, meanings. This year saw the reissue of an album unappreciated in its time (Jim Ford's The Sounds of Our Time [Bear Family]), the compilation of genre-bound obscurities (Numero Group's Eccentric Soul series), the live performance (Gram Parsons Archive, Vol. 1 [Amoeba]), the stripped acoustic set (Neil Young's Live at Massey Hall 1971 [Reprise]), the radio sessions (Judee Sill's Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972–1973 [Water]), the reconstructed unfinished work (John Phillips's Jack of Diamonds [Varese Sarabande]), the singles collection (Vashti Bunyan's Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind: Singles and Demos 1964–1967 [FatCat/Dicristina]), and, perhaps closest to the bone, the fabled home recording.

Of course, some vocalists bend these categories by the nature of their performance style. This is certainly the case with Cotton Eyed Joe (Delmore), a double CD documenting a lovely set by Karen Dalton at a Colorado coffeehouse in 1962. It might as well be a home recording for the intimacy of the performance space — owner Joe Loop explains in the liner notes that his club held only 50 — and the entrancing, private nature of Dalton's folk arrangements. Such a record is notable for a performer as studio-phobic as Dalton: she only recorded two albums in her lifetime (1969's It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best [Koch] and 1971's In My Own Time [Light in the Attic]), and rumor has it the takes for her debut were captured on the sly, when she didn't know the tape was rolling.

All of this would be mere intrigue if it weren't for the fact that Dalton was one of the major talents of the first folk revival, though mostly unappreciated in her own time. She died in 1993 after a bitter struggle with drugs and alcohol. Cotton Eyed Joe is educational in contextualizing this mystery voice in terms of the coffeehouse circuit, but any such historiography quickly fades when faced with her strange, time-stopping interpretations of traditionals and tunes by the likes of Ray Charles, Woody Guthrie, and Fred Neil. The voice shakes with unresolve, surrounding you and then disappearing before you can pin it down, buckling with some unknowable duress, slipping into untold dimensions.

It only takes a few bars of Dalton's possession of Charles's "It's Alright" to cast the spell. Her minimal 12-string guitar work drags on the tune, her voice searching the depths of the verse for a smoldering, emotional core. Elsewhere Dalton runs through the songs she would record for her studio albums, and it's bracing to think how long she lived with these ballads. Forty-five years later, we hear a unique act of disembodiment, a self-eulogizing worthy of critic Greil Marcus's illustrious "Invisible Republic."

Each glimpse deepens the appeal of so many other performers from that era, and it's tempting to see these collections as filling a specific niche in today's music market: a hunger for mystery, substance, and story in the face of a downloader's paradise. As more music is rendered instantly accessible, many of us wish to burrow further into the secret histories of rock, folk, and soul. We sift for treasure, perhaps wondering if the Internet isn't inherently anathematic to the idea of discovering forgotten greatness. Such recoveries can and will proliferate online, but ground must first be broken elsewhere — in a magazine or a basement, among audio tapes or old notebooks. Performers and promoters are becoming increasingly canny in using the Web to deliver icons and bylines, but it takes a set like Cotton Eyed Joe to make the singer a saint. *

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