The contours of the life of singer Karen Dalton tell a heartbreaking story. It was an episode marked by constant poverty, intermittent homelessness, bouts of depression, escalating alcohol and drug addiction, culminating in his death from AIDS at age 55. Yet to Robert Yapkowitz, who has co-directed a new documentary with Richard Peete titled Karen Dalton: In My Own Time, “there is an inspiring element to its story. Karen was an artist who made no compromises. She made music that she was proud of with the people she loved. And that was the center of his life.
Dalton’s fierce commitment to this music, combined with the razor edge on which she lived, resulted in recordings of extraordinary richness, rarity and sadness. Unfortunately, the depth of sadness in his songs and the eccentricity of his performance made Dalton’s music a tough sell in his day. She performed for three decades but only managed to produce two albums in her lifetime, both released in the early 1970s, neither of which rewarded her with more than a glance at fame. . It was mainly fellow artists who recognized his extraordinary talent at the time. When her career began on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, she was a respected peer of artists like Fred Neil, Ramblin ‘Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan. In Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles Volume 1, he wrote that he first heard it at a local club. “My favorite singer there was Karen Dalton,” he wrote. “She was a great white blues singer and guitarist – funky, gangly and sultry. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed, and went all the way.
While Dalton’s work may not have reached the general public at the time, over the past two decades it has been embraced by a new generation, much like other once-overlooked artists. like Vashti Bunyan and Rodriguez. Several collections of demos and live performances appeared, backed up by a tribute album on which stars like Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffith put poetry from Dalton’s archives on their own music. The directors of In My Own Time, both in their 30s, also arrived late to the artist’s music, driven by their mutual love for foreign artists. What struck them first was the pure sound of his singing. “She used her voice as an instrument,” Yapkowitz said. “It has been compared to a horn.”
His phrasing was equally striking. Often times, Dalton let her voice crackle like a static noise, leaving spaces that gave the songs an elliptical feel, suitable for any pain or possibility she could find in the lyrics. The jerky quality of his phrasing gives his performances a sense of surprise, reinforced by his ability to sing around a melody. “When she sings, it looks like it comes out of her like that,” said co-director of the film Peete. “But she was constantly perfecting a voice by recording herself, then listening to tapes so that she could get exactly the voice she wanted.”
The result gave her interpretations of folk, country and blues songs their own unique mark, an important characteristic given that she hardly ever wrote her own tracks. Yet even when she covered God Bless the Child, a song co-written by singer whose voice most closely resembled hers, Billie Holiday, Dalton made her own soul speak. “Fred Neil once said that he saw Karen perform one of his songs so well that if she had told him she wrote it, he would have believed her,” Yapkowitz said.
Dalton accompanied himself with a 12-string guitar rather than the more common six-string. “Karen loved Leadbelly, and I think that inspired her to choose to play on a 12-string,” said Yapkowitz. “She played almost the same model as him for a while.”
While her brand of dry folk matched the Greenwich Village scene’s quest for authenticity, she was perhaps the only one in the industry to have a true folklore past. She was raised by strictly Southern Baptist parents in Enid, Oklahoma, during the days of the Dust Bowl. At 16, she was pregnant and married. Three years later, she gives birth again. But she grew angry with the conventional life of a housewife and, at age 21, left her husband and two young children to pursue a musical career in New York City. “She was a feminist very early on,” Dalton’s daughter Abbe Baird said in a separate interview with The Guardian. “She went her own way.”
At the same time, the directors said Dalton felt guilty for leaving her children behind. “There was a huge conflict in her life between being a musician and having to travel and leave her kids,” Peete said. “She’s struggled with it her whole life.”
When her daughter was five, Dalton brought her to live with her in New York. But it was a difficult task for them, as she lived in a shabby building that did not have a working toilet. Because she was just a child at the time, Baird said she took it without hesitation, although tensions arose due to her mother’s mood swings. “She looked a lot like her own mother,” she said. “They were both very volatile people – happy and excited for a minute, then very depressed and negative.”
The documentary’s former lovers and fellow musicians echo this observation, adding poignant anecdotes about how Dalton’s mood swings could lead to violence, amplified by his growing addictions. “Most of the conflicts she got into were when she was high,” Peete said.
Dalton found more peace when she moved to Colorado, taking her daughter with her to a rural life they both loved. “She bought me a pony! Baird called back.
Eventually, Dalton returned to New York on her own, determined to give her career another shot. Gaining ground became difficult, however, given his reluctance to understand his flinty sound, heightened by his complete lack of interest in playing the role of an artist. At one point, she spoke with John Phillips about forming a folk group, but his need for control, along with his purist take on folk, led him to seek out the singers with whom he formed the pop group. -friendly Mamas and the Papas. Dalton finally took a break in 1969 when she signed with Capitol Records who released their unfiltered debut album, It’s So Hard to Say Who Loves You Best. A writer for the Village Voice called it “the antithesis of the boring clarity of Joan Baez.” It’s plaintive, earthy, insinuating, real. The record makes me want to cry.
But he didn’t sell, so Dalton was ditched. A second hiatus came via Michael Lang who, fresh from his success in helping to create the Woodstock Festival, was given a label to run. Dalton became one of his first signings, resulting in an album in 1971, In My Own Time, which featured fuller instrumentation and a more accessible sound. Folk-rock mainstay Dino Valenti, who had written classics like Get Together for the Youngbloods and, later, Fresh Air for Quicksilver Messenger Service, wrote the album’s opening song, Something’s on Your Mind, specially for Dalton. It is a masterful creation whose melody rises without ever finding a resolution, establishing a striking dynamic which is taken up by a voice of Dalton which cascades like smoke. The lyrics Valenti wrote for her nail the singer’s resistance to the celebrity’s machinations (“you can’t do it without even trying”), as well as her mental issues and addictions (“seeing how you turn your days into nights ”). To promote the album, Lang booked this introverted folkie as the opening act for a tour led by one of the most lively live bands of all time, Santana. “It was a weird choice,” Yapkowitz said. “It obviously didn’t work, partly because of the audience and partly because Karen wasn’t able to perform at that arena level.”
According to her friends, the failure of the tour broke her personally and ended any chance for a wider career. From there, his periods of depression increased and drug use skyrocketed. Her friend, musician Lacy J Dalton, put her in rehab, but she ran away after two days. Her daughter, who saw little of her mother in her later years, assumes she contracted AIDS from sharing needles. She died in 1993 in Woodstock, where she had been living for some time in a mobile home.
Unfortunately, that was not the end of sadness in his story. Dalton left hundreds of tapes of his rehearsals and performances in a shed that one day caught fire, burning them all to ashes. Later, a second fire consumed the journals she had kept over the years, which were filled with poetic journal entries and potential song lyrics. Fortunately, the filmmakers managed to shoot most of the newspaper content for their documentary during the seven years of filming. Key passages from her diaries appear in the film, and they capture both her peaks and her pain. One of the most heartbreaking reads: “My heart is a jackhammer drill, tearing the pavement of people’s lives. The muscle contracts as it tries to contain the pieces. Behind my eyes, the throbbing warns.
In the years following Dalton’s death, several filmmakers approached Baird about a possible documentary. But none of them found the richness of the period footage featured in the new film. Plus, said Baird, “They all wanted to put their own spin on things. “
Many fanciful stories circulated about his mother during this time. “There were rumors that she was a Cherokee Indian princess,” Baird said with a laugh. (Dalton’s father had some Native American heritage).
While Baird finds the film to be a fair and accurate portrayal of his mother, she and the directors admit that there are gaps in the story. “It’s like trying to make a movie out of Lord of the Rings,” she said with a laugh. “We can’t put everything in there. “
The film is also missing a note from Dalton’s son, who contacted the directors but would not appear on camera. They said he had drug addiction issues and was “off the grid”. Baird hasn’t heard from him in years.
Ultimately, the full details of Dalton’s life were of less interest to the directors than what they see as the essence of it. “What I want people to understand is that Karen was a person, not just a one-dimensional, self-destructive character,” Yapkowitz said. “Through her diaries and her music, and the stories her friends told in the movie, you can see that there was a lot more substance in her than people realize.”