Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Unraveling the Mystery of an Elusive Singer in Karen Dalton: In My Own Time

(Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peete, USA, 2020, 85 mins)

Karen Dalton, a singer and guitarist who would inspire Bob Dylan and Nick Cave, had the long hair and slim figure of her female contemporaries in the folk scene, except her look and sound was rougher and edgier--especially after she lost two of her bottom teeth in an altercation. As Cave notes in the film, "There’s a sort of demand placed on the listener. You have to enter her world, and it's a despairing world, a dark world."

She's also an artist who left behind few recorded artifacts, which has contributed to her mystique. 

In their documentary, Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peete explain how that sound developed through interviews with her daughter, her friends, and her collaborators. Julia Holter provides the score and Missouri-born alt-folk artist Angel Olsen reads excerpts from her journals, lyrics, and poems. Interestingly, Olsen's plainspoken alto recalls Chloe Sevigny's work on the Candy Darling documentary Beautiful Darling, another film about a performer who made a mark in NYC before fading from view. 

Abbe Baird, Karen's daughter with her first husband, Don Dalton, remembers that the housewife thing didn't suit her mother in the slightest. She tried twice with two different husbands while still in her teens, and ultimately rejected the whole deal, putting her at odds with the average young Oklahoma mother in the early-1960s. 

Though she had grown up in a musical family, Karen hadn't grown up among professional musicians, but that's the life she sought for herself, even if it meant leaving two children behind and moving to New York (the film only mentions that she left Abbe, but she left her son, Lee, too). As collaborator and Holy Modal Rounder Peter Stampfel puts it, Karen wasn't simply someone who grew up with folk music, "She were a folk."

It may seem selfish, except Karen never stopped thinking about her daughter, and so she found a way to involve Abbe in her life. It's the son she appears to have forgotten about, at least in the course of this narrative, though other sources note that she would see him again.   

Nonetheless, it was a hardscrabble life for mother and child, an echo of the lives lived by her great grandparents who relocated from Mississippi to Oklahoma during the Great Depression. In New York, Karen found friends and admirers, but grew bitter that original songwriters, like Dylan, were getting all the attention, while her interpretations of preexisting material, fine as they were, weren't making the same kind of impact. 

Further, like the reclusive Nick Drake in England, she didn't enjoy performing live at a time when artists needed to play out as often as possible in order to master their craft, reach new listeners, and attract industry attention (as with Drake, she was both a skilled finger-picking guitarist and an expressive vocalist). Her frustrations serve as a reminder that the road to success, both then and now, has always involved some degree of presentation and promotion. Dalton, on the other hand, just wanted to make music. 

Fortunately, she knew better than to keep spinning her wheels in the city, so she moved to the country, and started a new life with a new partner. In Colorado, she found greater satisfaction playing at house parties than music venues. It's no way to make a living, and so she and Richard struggled financially. It's also strongly suggested that a certain well known singer-songwriter introduced her to and/or encouraged her use of hard drugs, the equivalent of a match to a powder keg filled with anger, bitterness, and resentment. 

The story doesn't end there. There were more ups and downs to come. As Peter Walker, a friend and composer, describes Karen's New York sojourns, "She seemed there, but not there--separated from all these people trying to be stars." Every time she came close to making a living at this thing she loved more than life, some kind of setback would erode her progress. 

By the end of her time on Earth, however, she had still managed to record two full albums. Though the filmmakers don't mention it, the resurgence of interest in her work didn't merely develop organically with time, but largely as a result of reissued and repackaged versions of her work by Koch, Megaphone, Delmore Recording Society, and especially Light in the Attic, which released three albums with abundant extras, starting in 2006.

Yapkowitz and Peete don't completely solve the mystery of Karen Dalton, and there's no reason they could or should. She isn't here to tell her story, and even if she were, she might not want to, but she did leave journals behind, allowing the filmmakers to include her voice as part of the narrative. Though friends suggest that depression may have contributed to her dark moods, nobody knows for sure, and the filmmakers wisely avoid any armchair psychoanalyzing.   

As much as they excluded details that might have provided for a fuller, if more complicated portrait, at the very least they've helped to set the record straight regarding her death, which has been misinterpreted elsewhere by those, like country singer Lacy J. Dalton--she liked Karen's surname so much that she took it for her own--who speculated as to what happened, without knowing the full details. I found at least one article that framed Lacy's speculation as fact. 

In the end, the truth about Karen's life is no prettier than the myths and rumors, but she deserves to be remembered for the person she was rather than the person people thought she was--or wanted her to be. 


Karen Dalton: In My Own Time plays Northwest Film Forum Nov 10-14.  

Images: Dalton portrait from the cover of Recording Is the Trip: The Karen Dalton Archives on Megaphone via Light in the Attic, Dalton with Dylan and Fred Neil from Fred W. McDarrah/Greenwich Entertainment, Dalton looking back from Alamy/The Economist, and Dalton in daguerreotype mode from the cover of Green Rocky Road on Gaslight Records.   

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