“Karen Dalton: In My Own Time,” directed by Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peete, doesn’t have all the answers, but it provides a more vivid and complete picture of Dalton’s life than was previously known. “There are some great articles about Karen, but there are a lot that don’t offer much depth,” Peete said in an interview. “They portray her as this solemn character, and we felt there was likely a lot more to her than that. We wanted to show her emotional range.”
Raised in Enid, Okla., in a working-class musical family, Dalton’s father experienced discrimination due to his Cherokee lineage, which presented in Dalton’s straight black hair and carved features. Growing up, she was a free spirit with a sailor’s mouth and a love of horses. By age 21, she had given birth to two children, and ended as many marriages. Her daughter Abralyn Baird — named after a character in John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” — recalls her mother ditching bras and other standards of female beauty early on. Then, in 1960, Dalton left behind her Dust Bowl origins and headed to New York to live the life of an artist.
In the Greenwich Village folk music clubs, Dalton stood out for her distinct point of view, matchless voice and hardscrabble spirit. Armed with a 12-string guitar and banjo, she sang bold and brokenhearted renditions of blues, pop and traditional folk songs she’d learned as a child, transporting them to an untidy and irreplicable emotional plane. Unlike her female peers in the ’60s scene, such as Joan Baez, Dalton’s music was imperfect, plucky and haunting, her spare instrumentation and world-weary voice antithetical to glossy perfection. She was an anti-puritan who dismissed the unrealistic standards applied to women of the era. “She was not showbiz oriented,” Baird said in an interview. “She would have loved to have the money, but she was really particular about not doing it for the bank, not having the full orchestra behind her.”
She never released original songs, or had a hit record, but over time became known as one of America’s great interpreters. Dalton’s impassioned singing style — as if Billie Holiday took up residence in an impecunious Southern misfit — has made fans out a range of contemporaries, from the art-rock auteur Nick Cave to the harpist Joanna Newsom. Her 1969 solo debut, “It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best,” and its 1971 follow-up, “In My Own Time,” elicit the devotion of more famous Greenwich scene musicians like Bob Dylan, Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. “My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton,” Dylan famously wrote in his memoir “Chronicles: Volume One.”
“What I love most is the spell she casts, the world she creates,” said the musician Vanessa Carlton in an interview. In 2018, Carlton released a cover of the Fred Neil song “Little Bit of Rain,” inspired by Dalton’s version. “I wish I had discovered her when I was younger because her sense of self is so clear,” she said. “She’s such a powerful influence for other women to just be themselves and hold on to their point of view.”
The new film spotlights a fascinating tale of a singularly talented and complex woman, guiding viewers through the places essential to Dalton’s story — Oklahoma, New York, Colorado — and introducing Dalton’s friends and partners, who jammed, partied and fell in love with the singer. Musician Dick Weissman, who met Dalton in the summer of 1960, and co-founded the Journeymen with John Phillips (who went on to form the Mamas & the Papas), explains in the film that he invited Dalton to the band’s earliest rehearsals, but Dalton and Phillips butted heads, making the situation impossible. “Karen liked to control things and John had to control things,” Weissman says.
It’s small moments like these that show just how close Dalton was to stardom, how the fame and success of her peers just barely eluded her. The film’s illustration of these connections also helps position the mythical Dalton squarely in the physical realm, replacing the ghostly figure with a woman of flesh and bone.
“We wanted to let you know the artist, rather than trying to tell you how to feel about the artist,” Yapkowitz said. “A lot of music docs end up being stuffed with celebrity talking heads; they play 10 songs in three minutes with people talking over the music. We wanted to stray away from that.” Inspired by music documentaries like “Be Here to Love Me,” about the late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and “Watch Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell,” the film weaves historical footage, photos and music with intimate interviews with those who knew the late singer best.
Dalton died of an AIDS-related illness in 1993. To give her voice throughout the film, the directors tapped the musician Angel Olsen to read from Dalton’s journals as corresponding text is animated on screen. Olsen’s sober voice-overs don’t attempt to imitate Dalton, but instead skillfully hint at her presence. When paired with her daughter Baird’s interviews — whose voice and speaking style evoke Dalton’s — and a previously unknown Dalton interview with Bob Fass of Radio Unnameable, the singer feels rightfully animated, her presence unobscured by her friends and admirers.
Throughout her life, Dalton was plagued by drug addiction and mental illness, and the film deals with this in a straightforward manner, detailing a failed attempt at rehab, a disastrous tour with Santana and Dalton’s tragic death, alone in a single-wide trailer near Woodstock, N.Y.
Over seven years, Peete and Yapkowitz pieced together disparate scraps for a compelling narrative that reads as a tightly stitched quilt, visually engaging and chock full of informative historical traces. As it happened, the pair also saved a large portion of the Dalton archive from total oblivion: They scanned all of the physical materials held by Dalton’s friend Peter Walker, a musician and her neighbor in Upstate New York, just months before a devastating fire swept through his property in 2018.
The hour-and-a-half documentary covers a lot of ground, but it excludes details such as Dalton’s close friendship with Fred Neil, and her brief time living in Los Angeles. And a crucial question remains unanswered: “Everyone knew she wrote poetry and wondered why she didn’t turn them into songs,” Peete said. “We didn’t know that she had actually written a full song with chords and everything until pretty far along in the process.” So why didn’t Dalton perform or record her original material? “She may have felt like if she did she would be influenced by all these things she’d already heard,” Baird said.
Instead, Dalton filled journals with volumes of poetry, a natural gift that presented itself as early as her second marriage, to Baird’s father, when she was accepted to the University of Kansas on special admission for nontraditional students. And it’s impossible to know what Dalton may have achieved had she lived past the age of 55, if the enthusiasm of younger generations would’ve energized her like it has Shirley Collins and Marianne Faithfull. Perhaps there would have been more original songs. In her own time.