Extract from the January / February 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Blair Jackson
One of the most compelling and enigmatic figures to emerge in the Greenwich Village folk era, Karen Dalton (1937-1993), as noted by Bob Dylan in his book Chronicles, “sang like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed.” This is not an exaggeration, although I would say her good guitar playing was also informed by folk sources – she played mostly a 12-string Gibson, as well as a six-string and a banjo. She was primarily a performer of blues and folk tunes (old and new), but her recorded output was low: just two albums – the whimsical and stripped down folk-blues masterpiece. It’s so hard to tell who’s gonna love you the best in 1969 and the most ambitious musically (and to my ears, overproduced) In my own time in 1971. Neither was commercially successful. When she died in 1993 of complications from AIDS at the age of 55, after years of drug addiction and unsuccessful stints in rehab, she was almost forgotten.
However, just as the brilliant but doomed Nick Drake was rediscovered in the decades since his death, Karen Dalton has also been adopted by new generations of musicians and admiring fans. The culmination of this modern fascination with Dalton is a beautifully made and quite moving documentary titled Karen Dalton: At my pace, directed by Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitz. Using a combination of rare footage of Dalton playing, archival photographs, enlightening interviews with other musicians, friends and lovers, as well as excerpts from his poetry, letters and songs. Other writings (read by Angel Olsen), the filmmakers retrace the Dalton saga, his days growing up poor in rural Oklahoma, getting married and having his first child in his mid teens; head to New York and stumble upon the widely acclaimed Greenwich Village folk scene; his itinerant nature and uneasiness with some of the demands of the music industry, which has led to occasional acts of what appears to be career self-sabotage; and its long and sad decline.
But it’s not superficial, over-dramatized Behind the music story. Rather, it is a deep, moving and revealing exploration of a talented but fragile soul who rarely seemed completely at ease in their own skin or in the world of music. Along the way we are treated to his heartfelt renditions of songs written or popularized by Billie Holiday, Fred Neil, Elmore James, Tim Hardin, Dino Valenti and others, most of them featuring the sure and nuanced work of 12-string Dalton. . I highly recommend you check it out!