TSketches of singer Karen Dalton’s life tell a heartbreaking story. It was marked by constant poverty, intermittent homelessness, bouts of depression and growing addiction to alcohol and drugs, culminating in his death from AIDS at age 55. However, for Robert Yapkowitz, who co-directed a new documentary with Richard Peete titled Karen Dalton: In My Own Time, “there is an inspiring element to her story. Karen was a noncommittal artist. She made music that she was proud of with the people she loved. And that was the focus of his life. “
Dalton’s fierce commitment to that music, combined with the razor’s edge in which he lived, resulted in recordings of rare richness, rarity, and sadness. Unfortunately, the depth of pain in his songs and the eccentricity of his delivery made Dalton’s music hard to sell in its day. She performed for three decades, but only managed to produce two albums during her lifetime, both released in the early 1970s, neither of which rewarded her with more than a glimpse of fame. Mainly it was his fellow artists who recognized his rare talent at the time. When she began her career on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, she was a respected companion of artists such as Fred Neil, Ramblin ‘Jack Elliott, and Bob Dylan. In Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles Volume 1, he wrote about the first time he heard it at a local club. “My favorite singer at the venue was Karen Dalton,” he wrote. “She was a tall white blues singer and guitarist, funky, lanky and sensual. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed, and it went all the way. “
While Dalton’s work may not have connected with general listeners back then, in the past two decades he has been hyped up by a new generation, as have other previously overlooked artists such as Vashti Bunyan and Rodríguez. Several collections of lost demos and live performances have appeared, backed by a tribute album in which stars such as Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffith perform poetry from the Dalton archives to their own music. The directors of In My Own Time, both in their 30s, were also late to the artist’s music, fueled by their mutual love for outside artists. The first thing that caught their attention was the sheer sound of her singing. “She used her voice as an instrument,” Yapkowitz said. “It has been compared to a horn.”
Equally surprising was his phrasing. Dalton often let his voice crack like static, leaving gaps that gave the songs an elliptical feel, in tune with whatever pain or possibility he might find in the lyrics. The uneven quality of his phrasing gave his performances a sense of surprise, enhanced by his ability to sing along to a melody. “When she sings, it seems like she just comes out of it that way,” said the film’s co-director Peete. “But she was constantly perfecting a voice by recording herself, then listening to the tapes so she could get the voice she wanted.”
The result gave his performances of folk, country, and blues a stamp of his own, an important characteristic given that he hardly ever wrote his own pieces. Yet even when she covered God Bless the Child, a song co-written by the singer whose voice most closely resembled her, Billie Holiday, Dalton had her speak of her own soul. “Fred Neil once said that he saw Karen perform one of her songs so well that if she had told him she wrote it, he would have believed her,” Yapkowitz said.
Dalton accompanied herself on a 12-string guitar instead of the more common six-string. “Karen loved Leadbelly, and I think that inspired her to choose to play a 12-string,” Yapkowitz said. “She played pretty much the same model that he did for a while.”
While her kind of bone-dry folk dovetailed with the Greenwich Village scene’s quest for authenticity, she was perhaps the only one in that milieu who had a true folk undertone. She was raised by strict Southern Baptist parents in Enid, Oklahoma, during the days of the dust bowl. At 16 she was pregnant and married. Three years later, she gave birth again. But she was irritated by the conventional life of a homemaker, and at age 21, she left her husband and two young children to pursue a career in music in New York. “She was one of the first feminists,” said Abbe Baird, Dalton’s daughter, in a separate interview for The Guardian. “She went her own way.”
At the same time, directors said Dalton felt guilty about leaving his children behind. “There was a great conflict in his life between being a musician and having to travel and leave his children behind,” Peete said. “She struggled with it her entire life.”
When his daughter was five years old, Dalton took her to live with her in New York. But it was difficult for them, as she lived in a dingy apartment that didn’t have a working bathroom. Because she was just a child at the time, Baird said she took it easy, though the tensions stemmed from her mother’s mood swings. “She was a lot like her own mother,” he said. “They were both very volatile people: happy and excited for a minute, then very depressed and negative.”
Former lovers and fellow musicians in the documentary echo that observation, adding heartbreaking 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, bringing her daughter with her for a rural life that they both loved. “He bought me a pony!” Baird remembered.
Eventually Dalton returned to New York alone, determined to give his career another shot. However, gaining traction became difficult, given her unwillingness to understand her flint sound, intensified by her complete lack of interest in playing the role of a cheerleader. At one point, she spoke to John Phillips about forming a folk group, but his need for control, as well as his purist take on folk, led him to seek out the singers he formed with, friendly with Mamas and the Papas. the pop. Dalton finally took a hiatus in 1969 when he signed to Capitol Records, which released his unfiltered debut, It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best. One Village Voice writer called it “the antithesis of Joan Baez’s dull clarity. It’s pitiful, earthy, suggestive, real. The album makes me want to cry. “
But it didn’t sell, so they ditched Dalton. A second break came through Michael Lang, who, fresh off his success in helping create the Woodstock festival, was given a tag to run. Dalton became one of their earliest signings, resulting in a 1971 album, 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, specifically for Dalton. It is a masterful creation whose melody rises without ever finding a resolution, establishing an enthralling dynamic that is repeated in a Dalton voice that cascades like smoke. The lyrics that Valenti wrote for her nail the singer’s resistance to the machinations of fame (“you can’t do it without even trying”), as well as her mental problems and addictions (“I saw how you turn your days into nights”). To promote the album, Lang signed on this introspective folkie as the opening act of a tour headlined by one of the liveliest live bands of all time, Santana. “It was a strange choice,” Yapkowitz said. “Obviously it didn’t work out, partly because of the audience and partly because Karen couldn’t perform at that level of the arena.”
According to her friends, the failure of the tour personally broke her and ended any opportunity for a broader career. From there, his periods of depression increased and his drug use skyrocketed. Her friend, musician Lacy J. Dalton, took her to rehab, but she eloped after two days. Her daughter, who saw little of her mother in her later years, assumes that she contracted AIDS from sharing needles. He died in 1993 in Woodstock, where he had been living for some time in a mobile home.
Unfortunately, that was not the end of the sadness in her story. Dalton left hundreds of cassettes of his rehearsals and performances in a shed that one day caught fire, burning them to ashes. Later, a second fire consumed the diaries he had kept over the years that were filled with poetic journal entries and possible song lyrics. Fortunately, the filmmakers managed to shoot most of the magazine content for their documentary during the seven years of filming. Key passages from his diaries appear in the film that capture both his peaks and pain. One of the most heartbreaking says: “My heart is a jackhammer that pierces, destroys the pavement of people’s lives. Muscle contraction trying to contain the pieces. Behind my eyes notice the beat. “
In the years since Dalton’s death, several filmmakers have approached Baird about a possible documentary. But none of them found the large number of old images that appear in the new film. Plus, Baird said, “everyone wanted to put their own spin on things.”
Many fantastic stories about his mother have circulated during that time. “There were rumors that she was a Cherokee Indian princess,” Baird laughed. (Dalton’s father had some Native American heritage.)
Although Baird considers the film to be a fair and accurate depiction of her mother, she and the directors admit that there are gaps in the story. “It’s like trying to make a Lord of the Rings movie,” he laughed. “You can’t fit everything in.”
Also missing from the film is a word from Dalton’s son, who contacted the directors but did not appear on camera. They said that he has had addiction problems and is “off the grid”. Baird hasn’t heard from him in years.
Ultimately, the full details of Dalton’s life interested the directors less than they consider his essence. “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 told in the film by her friends, you can see that there was a lot more substance to her than people realize.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism