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.
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)