Debe Dalton: A Songwriter’s Songwriter on a Lifetime Journey of Music
Debe Dalton has been a passionate maker of music since childhood and has traveled a long journey through New York’s landscape of sonic self-expression. Along the way she was an active participant in the folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s and became a serious student of claw hammer banjo. Yet it wasn’t until she entered the musical mecca of Sidewalk Cafe in 2004 that she began to find her voice as a songwriter. Debe became a fixture of the rich musical community headquartered in the East Village venue and has created a body of vivid, captivating, deeply moving songs that gained her a substantial core of followers and a reputation as the songwriter’s songwriter. In the same back room that is ground zero for the Antifolk scene that helped launch the careers of artists like Regina Spektor, Nellie McKay, and Jeffrey Lewis, Debe became a guiding presence.
Dalton’s first album, Live at Sidewalk, was created as an unusual birthday gift by a group of friends who captured her performances in secret and presented the finished album as a surprise. Her second album Debe Dalton LIVEs in Brooklyn is the first release from Kale Records a new label run by two of the friends who created Debe’s earlier recording. Dalton will celebrate the new album with a CD release show at Sidewalk on April 27.
Anyone who has heard Debe perform will know that she is heavily influenced by the traditions of American folk. She often reflects on her love of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Richard and Mimi Fariña and turns to Stephen Foster for a select number of covers. But who would have thought that it all began with Elvis?
Can you tell me about your childhood and how you got involved with music in the first place?
I had older brothers and a sister who as teenagers liked music. My mother was from West Virginia so though she said she didn’t like that type of music, she did. There were always lot of records around the house. There was always Harry Belafonte’s Carnegie Hall, The Weaver’s Carnegie Hall, Elvis records, all kinds of rock and roll records. I started playing guitar when I was 10. I wanted to be Elvis I guess first of all. And then I heard Joan Baez in 1960/1961.
Wait. Elvis, you wanted to be Elvis?
Everybody in the late ’50s and on wanted a guitar because of Elvis Presley. I always said if he got a banjo when he was 8 years old nobody would have ever heard of Earl Scruggs. He was that serious a performer and an influence on everyone at that time.
Did you ever sling a guitar over your shoulder in the privacy of you own bedroom and imitate him?
Of course. My mother had a big upright vacuum cleaner that I used to sing into all the time. That was the microphone. Sure. “Don’t be Cruel” was the one I used to sing, and “Old Shep.”
Well, in an odd way what he was doing is coming from the same history as what you play. Do you think hearing that kind of southern-influenced country stuff shaped what you play now, or is that too much of a stretch.
It’s a stretch, but it makes sense, although I never thought of it before. But sure. I’m sure he listened to Carter Family gospel music too. So maybe that’s what made him important to me.
So, what happened next?
I took guitar lessons, and they were just those Mel Bay books, which were horrendous. They didn’t give you any love of music, just lots of scales and notes. And then I was watching the Ed Sullivan show and I saw Johnny Cash playing guitar and the camera went to the neck of the guitar and I saw that he was playing an A chord. I was like ‘I know that chord.’ I was like ‘damn, that’s what they’re doing.’ Those books didn’t really tell you that’s what they were doing. Then I figured it out. I got the Joan Baez song book. Got some Joan records. I had lots of those books with 102 songs from whatever, and if I didn’t have it on record I could figure out what it was. I also got the Alan Lomax books, Folk Songs of North America. Very important book for me. So I started music that way.
Was music the main thing you were interested in when younger? Were you doing anything else?
No, music, just music pretty much. I’d play any stringed instrument that I could find really. I’d go to somebody’s house and they had a mandolin and I’d have to see if I could do something. Somebody had an electric guitar, ‘let me see if I can do something with that.’ I didn’t play the banjo at first. And then in the 80s somewhere, like ’88, a friend of mine found one in the trash, and hung it on her wall, and I was like twelve years old again going to someone’s house trying to get their stringed instrument. I would just stare at it and stare at it and she finally just gave it to me.
It wasn’t really playable but I called this man Roger Sprung and told him that I had it and he said bring it over to the studio and I’ll fix it up or I’ll show you what to do. So I went home and put it back together and tried to play it for a while and couldn’t really do it, but he gave lessons. And so I started taking lessons. I took lessons from him for about five years. But he was such an interesting man. He’s like one of my best friends now.
You said you were always interested in string instruments of any kind. is there any reason the banjo ended up being your primary thing?
I guess when I finally figured out how to play the banjo it was a perfect fit. It was like I finally found my partner. Here we are. With guitar there was something I couldn’t get to..
When you were younger and listening to all this folk music — it seems as if it must have been an exciting time in music. Did it feel that way to you?
It was just my time. Who knows?
How old were you when you started coming into the city to see shows?
About twelve or thirteen. I have this great story where I ran away from home to see Joan Baez when I was 11. I don’t even think my sister knows that I did that. And the show was in Forest Hills and I was in Rockland County. So I had to take the bus to the City, to the big City by myself, and then figure out how to get to Forest Hills from Port Authority and then get back. And I was gone for like 18 hours. I told my mother I was sleeping over at a friend’s house. I was figuring I would get home and get tarred and feathered, but they never found out.
You kept coming in to see shows?
Yeah, I would see shows or you would just go to Washington Square Park on a Sunday afternoon. Now I look back and I remember…oh that was Maria Muldaur or that was so and so… Roger was there. That’s why his name was familiar. There was all that music going on. You didn’t know if they were famous or not. You were just there because you wanted to do music.
Did you have any impulse to write.
A little bit. I wrote a lot of dumb little songs as a teenager. I can remember writing in a steno book. Pretty bad songs. But they were fun.
Did you have friends that were into music and that you did music with?
Not too many, nobody that really wanted to do it. My best friend took accordion lessons and so we would play together, but we really didn’t know how to do it. No one would tell you exactly how to do it. We would play “Little Brown Jug” for days. She knew that on accordion and I knew it on guitar and we would just play that.
Debbie graduated from college in 1974 with a degree in Early Education.
I was a school teacher for a while. I would sing with the kids. That was a big thing to sing with the kids.
When you got out of college, did you ever have any ambition at that point to do music full time?
No. I always just liked making music. I never thought to do it as a career. I worked as a teacher all through the 70s pretty much, and then — I don’t know why exactly — some sort of life crisis — I don’t know exactly which one it was — I just decided to stop teaching. I sort of rambled around a little bit and stopped making music too. I didn’t make any music for a long time, about 10 years. I just thought it was… I might have just been depressed and thought it was a waste of time and so I stopped doing it. At that point somebody that I knew was having a baby and needed someone to take care of their kids, so I started doing that and that’s when I got into the kid thing.
Then I didn’t start making music again until that friend found the banjo for me in 1988. At that point I wasn’t writing. There were so many cover songs and things to learn to do that I didn’t think to write songs. At that point singer songwriters were pretty lame, I must say, but once I came to the Sidewalk I started writing songs again. That was 2004.
What motivated you to write songs then?
It just came up again. I was writing songs all along my teenage years and during my twenties just writing songs for myself. It was an outlet of some sort. I never had any ambition to do anything with them. I would go to Gerde’s Folk City occasionally and play one of my songs and they’d ask if I knew any Joni Mitchell songs or something.
When was that?
When I was teaching. I guess sometimes back then I thought maybe I should write and go out and play more often, but it was taking away from my teaching. I didn’t have the hunger to do it. Like Dylan had a hunger to make music, to do it. I really never wanted it that badly. I didn’t have the hunger to be successful to make the world listen to me. So I decided just not to do it. I would stop altogether, so I did.
But then later, after I got the banjo, I started going to open mics. I had this music partner and she seemed to really want to do it, and I was like, okay, let’s do it, because I wasn’t really doing anything else. But she never wanted to go to the open mics. That’s when the open mic thing was beginning to bloom a bit. Lach was doing it in ’93 and there were a few other places. And whenever I would find some place to do it she would say yes, and then say no.
Then we found [the music venue] DTUT and we played there for a long time. I found this old notebook that had some songs that I’d written in the 70s. Amy [Amy Hills, who ran the open mic at DTUT] was saying she didn’t really like cover songs, so I found this song of mine, “The Blue Backpack Song” and I cleaned it up some and made it a banjo song. So I did “The Blue Backpack Song” and I thought that’s why I shouldn’t write songs,’don’t make me write songs.’ I thought ‘I’ll do this for you and show you that, no, I can’t write songs.’ And it was like, ‘yeah, you can write songs.’ So the seed was planted, and then a couple months after that I went to Sidewalk and then a couple months after that I started writing songs.
Once you turned up at Sidewalk and started getting involved what did you think about it?
Sidewalk was amazing. It was home to me. It is home to me. I’d been looking for something like that forever. If I’d have found it in the ’70s I would have never stopped making music. It was better than Washington Square Park. It felt different. The music was more expressive, You weren’t doing it because you wanted to make it.You were playing because you had to make music. You just had to. At Washington Square it was more like ‘let’s get a record deal.’ Somebody will see us here. At Sidewalk it didn’t feel that way. It was we’re just a community of musicians who want to make music. It felt right.
Aside from that feeling of community at Sidewalk or that it was home, was there anything about the music itself that struck you?
The music was the community, the community was the music. To me there was no difference. People are always saying that Antifolk is not a genre it’s not a real music thing, it’s a community, but to me it’s the same. Talking about it is just semantics, but to me it was one whole thing. People were ripping their hearts out for you pretty much, in song. It was intense.
I’ve met the most important people in my life there. I think it’s because when we are making that music, you’ve already peeled off a couple layers of yourself. So, when you’re ready to talk to someone you don’t have to go out for dinner a couple of times to get to know somebody because you know them already by hearing them sing their song at open mic. So there’s a connection, there, ‘yeah you really moved me,’ so there’s a friendship there right away.
You know, Debe, in person, one on one, you seem somewhat reticent or shy. Yet on stage you express very personal things, very directly, very emotionally.
When I’m performing with my banjo I think I’m the best person I’m supposed to be. That’s how it feels when I’m up there. That’s my quote, unquote higher self coming out there.
But when you’re writing the songs is it that you just have some sort of need to say that stuff – what’s on your mind or in your heart?
The writing process to me is always the music comes first. Then when you find the chord progression and then the melody, you keep on playing. Then it’s sort of like a mantra sort of thing and then -oh, ‘I want to say this’ — and it just comes out. I don’t know if I mean to be that personal when I start out writing the songs. It just happens. And sometimes it’s like ‘do I really want to say this,’ and then you put it away for awhile and then it’s ‘no, yeah, I want to say this — do I have to tell them this too, oh yeah, I guess I do.’
I’ve been listening to your album, and of course I know most of the songs anyway, but some of them are just great. That song “Just Love,” for example, is very beautiful.
That was an experience I had with someone and realized that it didn’t really matter, I just loved them. We had this big disagreement but then I thought ‘well I guess it’s not about agreeing, it’s about loving someone.’ I had that chord progression first and played it for about four hours first before thinking ‘oh, I guess I’m going to say this.’ That’s one of the songs I threw away for awhile for a couple of days — ‘oh, no i can’t tell anybody this,’ but then — yeah, I did it.
You’ve traveled a long road through New York’s music scene, and even with one or two diversions you’ve really been committed to your art for a lifetime. Do you ever reflect on what it is that keeps you involved?
I like the feeling of performing. I like how it feels when I do it right when all the planets align every now and again. It always feels pretty good, but there are times when it feels amazing. I like that feeling. I feel like when I’m up on stage, even if I’ve messed up the song, I still feel like I am the person I’m supposed to be. And that’s why I do it. That’s what we’re here for. To be the person we’re meant to be.
Debe Dalton’s CD release show will be held Friday, April 27 at Sidewalk Cafe where she will share the bill with Emily Einhorn, Barry Bliss, Ivan and the Terribles, Dan and Rachel, and Kung Fu Crimewave.