Old Folks: Katie Cruel

The first time I heard “Katie Cruel” was about two years ago, when I bought 1966, a release of a found tape that Karen Dalton recorded in a Colorado cabin forty-plus years ago. The song haunted me for weeks. I remember listening to it in my bedroom, on the subway, in my parents’ empty house where I found myself alone one weekend and therefore able sing it over and over again at full volume with only our family dog to hear me.

“Katie Cruel” is the lament of a woman who was once desired and has discovered that that is no longer true. (The first verse: “When I first came to town, they called me the roving jewel / Now they’ve changed their tune, call me Katie Cruel”). I, like many others who have been captured by Karen Dalton’s music, was taken by how much the song mirrored Dalton’s life. A fixture on the 1960s Greenwich Village folk circuit, she recorded two albums, released in 1969 and 1971. (“Katie Cruel” was released on her first album, In My Own Time.) Battling addiction issues for much of her life, she disappeared from the scene and died in 1993 under still murky circumstances.



Though I’ll always think of “Katie Cruel” as Karen Dalton’s song, it’s much older, possibly dating back to the time of the American Revolution. I’ve read a lot of conflicting accounts of the source material, but it seems to have been developed from a Scottish song called “The Lichtbob’s Lassie,” about a camp follower. (The best roundup I’ve found of recordings and sources is here.) Unlike many of the American folk songs we still remember, “Katie Cruel” never really became a standard. But it has been recorded widely, especially as more people have become acquainted with Dalton’s version more recently.

I’ve searched for recordings of the song and other versions pretty extensively and I always end up liking the ones influenced by Dalton the most.

Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes has covered the song quite a bit. I like this live version in particular.



I also like this cover by Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel.



Further reading:

Laura Barton, “The Best Singer You’ve Never Heard Of” (The Guardian)
Mairead Case, “Karen Dalton, Roving Jewel” (Bookslut)
Joel Rose, “Karen Dalton: A Reluctant Voice, A Voice Rediscovered” (NPR)


As some of you may have gleaned from my social media presence over the last week, I have become a blonde. My decision to bleach my hair was, I’ll admit, kind of random. But also pretty thoughtful. I’ve seen other people do it and thought it was cool. I just never thought I could “go through with” or “pull off” something like this. But a few weeks ago I said, “Why not?” and I scheduled a consultation with a hair stylist at a local salon.

I went to Mousey Brown Salon two weeks ago for my consultation. After I told her the color I was going for – peroxide blonde or as blonde as possible – my stylist, Erin, talked me through the rest of the process. She suggested that we chop my hair off at the shoulder to get rid of all of my damaged hair. Then she explained the “double process,” in which my hair would be beached and then toned.

When I showed up at the salon last Saturday, I was definitely nervous but determined not to chicken out. Erin was super cool and made me feel very comfortable before we got started so the whole 3.5 hour process actually seemed painless. First, she chopped my hair off to shoulder length, which was a big enough change. Then she started the bleaching process. This took a very long time. She bleached all of my hair, except for my roots, and then after about half an hour applied more bleach to my scalp. I expected this to hurt, but it was actually rather painless because I hadn’t washed my hair in two days and the oil on my scalp protected me. It certainly didn’t feel great; it just wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

The only photo I took while in the salon, while all of my hair was getting bleached.

The only photo I took while in the salon, while all of my hair was getting bleached.

After this, we began the long process of rinsing my hair out, putting more bleach on it to get ALL of my hair as light as possible, shampooing it, and then doing all of that over and over again until Erin was happy with the results. Then she used toner to get out the brassiness and shampooed and conditioned my hair. Finally, she finished cutting my hair and blew it dry!

I have to say, I was pretty excited when I saw my new hair. I didn’t really think I would regret my decision, but I was nervous that I might. I didn’t…at all. And I still like it just as much a week later as I did last Saturday. It has taken me a little bit to recognize myself in the mirror, but that’s becoming less and less of a problem every day. Overall, I feel extremely proud of myself for deciding to make such a big change and then actually going through with it. I am excited to embark on this new era of Blonde Haley, who is bolder, more confident, and able to get drinks really, really quickly at the bar.

Photo I took to show my mom and all of the friends who wanted to see my hair immediately after I got home. Mom's response (via text): "did i birth u?"

Photo I took to show my mom and all of the friends who wanted to see my hair immediately after I got home. Mom’s response (via text): “did i birth u?”

And in honor of my new hair color, I performed Blondie’s “Hangin On The Telephone” at karaoke that night, which was way more fun as a blonde.

Anyway, that’s it. At some point, I will probably (I hope) make a list of all of the notable comments/reactions/comparisons I’ve gotten. I think I should be back on schedule in terms of posting this week. Life has been a little hectic as I’ve been trying to juggle still-ongoing jury duty, new job stuff and social stuff, so please be patient with me while I’m going through this bizarrely extended transitional period.

Five Things I Liked This Week

1. Shake Shack’s Smoke Shack Burger, my lunch on Tuesday and the last meaty thing I’ll  eat until the end of Lent

2. ‘Ben’s My Friend’ – Sun Kil Moon

I heard this song a while ago, but started listening to the whole album, Benjithis week.

3. This interview with former Quiverfull members and advocates for homeschooling policy reform on The Hairpin.

4. ‘Barbara Allen’ – Jean Ritchie

I rediscovered this one while thinking about future folk songs to write about.

5. Martha Stewart’s Reddit AMA

I also really liked the whole John Travolta/Adele Dazeem thing but uhhhh so did everyone so I’m not counting it as one of the five things. For the record, my ‘Travoltified’ name is ‘Harley Fitzgerald,’ which I think is fantastic.

Emphasis On: Hyperbole and a Half

Since starting Emphatic Hands, I have tried to find a way to write about things I like in brief. That rarely works out. “Emphasis On” – shut up, I needed a title – is short reviews of books, music, films or television. Last time, I talked about Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The Enchanted April. This time, I’m talking about Allie Brosh’s book Hyperbole and a Half.

As I’ve surely mentioned previously, I’m currently serving as a trial juror. If you’ve ever done this, I’m sure you know that there’s a lot – A LOT – of downtime. And of course it’s exceedingly difficult to connect to the internet anywhere in the court house, so I’m using most of my time in the jury room to read. It’s kind of hard to concentrate with a bunch of other people sitting in the room with you, anxiously waiting for someone to give you directions, so I’ve been reading comics and graphic novels. They don’t take as long to read and when I finish them, I feel I’ve accomplished something.

I spent last Friday reading Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, which is based on her blog of the same name. I have been a fan of hers for a few years now. (I’m sure many of you will recognize her art and words even if you don’t know who she is.) She writes and illustrates (in the style of MS Paint) stories and personal essays on a variety of subjects, including her dogs, her childhood, and depression. The book includes a few previously published pieces, but there is a bunch of original stuff in there as well. Her stories – even the two about depression – are hilarious. Like, I couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud in a very, very quiet room several times. I guess the only people I would tell not to read this book are people who are very serious/hate funny things and people who don’t like dogs. I am not a dog-hater, but I would say I like her stuff about her dogs the least. I dunno what that says about me. I mean, I still liked the stuff about dogs, it’s just like…dogs do not factor into my adult life in any way, except for when I go to my parents house and see our family dog, who is awesome and is the only dog I actively like.

Anyway, I recommend this book. Go out and buy it! Or at least catch up on the blog if you’ve never read it.

Old Folks: Henry Lee

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a cycle of stories based on a number of the Child Ballads. This isn’t the most original idea as the Child Ballads, which are hundreds of English and Scottish traditional folk songs collected and published by Francis James Child in the mid-nineteenth century, have inspired storytellers for ages. However, I wanted to focus on tales of women scorned or misled by lovers and to set the stories in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

I was first drawn to the Child Ballads after discovering Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music when I was in college. Released in 1952, the Anthology is seen as highly influential in the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the songs included in the first, aptly titled volume, “Ballads,” were based on Child Ballads. A few of them just really stuck in my mind, so much that I wanted to know more about how they came to be.

The first song that captured my attention and imagination was “Henry Lee.” Conveniently, it’s the first song in the first volume of the Anthology of American Folk Music. “Henry Lee” is performed by Dick Justice. (All of the recordings in the Anthology were recorded between 1926 and 1933.)

The song is the story of a woman who murders her lover, Henry Lee, after he reveals that he’s in love with another woman. She enlists the help of the women of her town to hide his body in a well and afterward, is threatens to capture and keep a bird, who in turn threatens to reveal her secret.  “Henry Lee” is based on Child Ballad number 68, known as “Young Hunting.” (If you want, you can read the text of the ballad here.) The ballad itself is a bit more gruesome than the song, though the general stories are the same. In “Young Hunting,” after the woman kills “Young Hunting,” she denies that she has seen him when questioned. She later admits that she murdered him and is burned at the stake.

In “Henry Lee,” as far as the listener knows, the woman gets away with it. In “Young Hunting,” she’s punished with death. Perhaps the listener of “Henry Lee” is to assume that the woman will be punished eventually, whether or not the truth comes to light in her lifetime. As an amateur but enthusiastic music-listener and American cultural historian, that seems appropriate in light of where and when the song would have developed. (Appalachia and the nineteenth century, respectively.)

Justice’s “Henry Lee” is probably the most famous modern variant of “Young Hunting.” It’s also by far my favorite, though there are more versions out there than I’ve ever had the patience to wade through. I thought I’d highlight a few more.

Nick Cave recorded a version of “Henry Lee” with PJ Harvey for the 1996 Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album, Murder Ballads. The song was an album single. The duet is more melodramatic and sinister than the Justice version.

There’s also this version called “Love Henry” by 1960s folk singer Judy Henske. I’m not sure if I like this one or am just really intrigued by the Jefferson Airplane vibe.

And then there’s this much more recent version of “Love Henry” by Jolie Holland, which I like a lot. I’m particularly glad she kept the line “Til the flesh falls off your bones,” because again, I like that this story is sad and terrible and gruesome.

There are many, many more versions of this song. Bob Dylan even did one, though I’m not sure this should surprise you. The related English and Scottish ballads are titled “Earl Richard” and “The Proud Girl,” neither of which I’ve researched very much, though I do know there are many twentieth century recordings of both. (I found a pretty good overview on this English Folk Music site, Mainly Norfolk, which has an overwhelming amount of information.)

Though I’m still working on my own version of this story, I’m very happy to geek out about its evolution for now. If you’ve never heard any of this before, I hope you enjoy it. I’m looking forward to writing some more things like this, so let me know if you have any suggestions.