Karen Dalton, a Musical Mystery That Doesn’t Need to Be Solved

Yoshiko Yap

The hauntingly soulful blues-folk singer Karen Dalton once described her dream concert: “She’d be in her living room with friends and playing music,” her friend and fellow musician Peter Stampfel recalls in the new documentary “Karen Dalton: In My Own Time.” “And then somehow the living room would be put on a huge stage, which would be surrounded by a massive audience who would be watching in rapt attention while she ignored them totally and just did whatever she wanted to do.”

Born into postwar poverty and raised in Oklahoma, Dalton had a warm voice that was as creaky and lived-in as a beloved rocking chair. She sang “like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed,” as Bob Dylan put it in 2004 in the first volume of his autobiography, “Chronicles” — easily the most-quoted thing anyone’s ever said about Dalton. (Dylan accompanied her on harmonica for a handful of gigs on the early ’60s Greenwich Village coffeehouse circuit; he has also called her his “favorite singer” of that whole scene.)

But as that living-room-as-live-stage suggests, Dalton was not nearly as comfortable in the spotlight as many of her better-remembered peers. She was indifferent to fame, and her career sputtered because of a combination of hard luck and self-sabotage. She recorded just two albums in her lifetime, suffered prolonged drug and alcohol addictions and succumbed to an AIDS-related illness in 1993, at age 55.

That name-drop in Dylan’s memoir and the rise of the so-called “freak folk” movement of the early aughts brought revival interest in Dalton’s oeuvre; both of her studio albums — the aching “It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best” (1969) and the cult classic “In My Own Time” (1971) — were then reissued, and several compilations of her home recordings were released. Dalton was at last applauded as one of ’60s and ’70s folk music’s most skilled and idiosyncratic interpreters. The unique, unhurried phrasing heard in her renditions of “Reason to Believe” and “When a Man Loves a Woman,” for example, make these familiar songs seem as though they’re being sung for the very first time.

Plenty of posthumous appreciations of Dalton have been written in the past 15 years, and thanks to her untimely death and the crackling pain palpable in her voice, their headlines all seem to describe her with the same word: “tragic.”

A first-time directorial effort by the filmmakers Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peete, “In My Own Time,” refreshingly, adds a few more adjectives to Dalton’s story and personality.

“She was charismatic, and the center of attention when she was in the room,” Yapkowitz said in a phone interview. (Neither of the filmmakers met Dalton, but they conducted enough interviews and research to speak about her with an easy familiarity.) He insisted that her drug use shouldn’t overshadow the other aspects of her life: “She just seemed fun, like a person that I would want to hang out with.”

Peete and Yapkowitz became friends while working together in the art department of several independent films. Their mutual love of Dalton’s music first came up more than a decade ago on the Branson, Mo., set of Debra Granik’s brooding, woodsy drama “Winter’s Bone”: “It was the perfect movie to rekindle our interest in Karen,” Peete said with a laugh.

Moving restlessly from Oklahoma to New York City to Colorado, Dalton lived a nomadic life, which presented a challenge for the filmmakers. “Archival materials, and the folks we interviewed — everything’s sort of scattered across the United States,” Yapkowitz said. “Some people didn’t even know they had them in their closets until we asked them to look,” he said of the many new photographs featured in the film.

When they first had the idea to make a movie about Dalton — while hanging out at a bar one night and noticing that, in Peete’s words, “all of her peers were on the jukebox except for Karen” — they thought they could do it in less than a year. “That was almost seven years ago,” he said.

But making a film about the retiring Dalton posed a larger predicament, too: Mystery and a sense of elusiveness are inherent parts of her music’s appeal. Dalton resisted the industry’s star-making machinery at nearly every turn, so in some sense the incomplete nature of her body of work represents a conscious act of defiance against the music industry’s commercial imperatives. To romanticize her slippery nature would be a mistake, but to fill in the blanks too completely would be to dishonor her unruly spirit. Peete and Yapkowitz knew they had to strike a balance between presenting the facts of Dalton’s life and allowing for parts of her to remain unknowable.

The author and Dalton fan Rick Moody articulates this tension at the beginning of the documentary, and Peete said they took his words as a kind of mantra: “Some of the incompleteness and the gaps in Karen’s output may have been decisive and part of who she was and how she expressed herself. The thing I don’t want to do is excessively imagine that you can interpret the fragments. I want to be with the songs that are actually there and to try and delight in the legacy of what’s actually there.”

Still, their documentation of Dalton’s fragments became more meaningful than they even realized. Shortly after digitizing a collection of Dalton’s journals, doodles and poetry that she had left in the care of her friend Peter Walker, these papers were all destroyed in a fire. (In the film, the musician Angel Olsen reads from these journals and beautifully conjures the combination of playfulness and emotional intensity that characterized Dalton’s voice.)

Though Dalton has audibly influenced artists like Joanna Newsom, Jessica Pratt and Nick Cave, “In My Own Time” is not the sort of music documentary overstuffed with critics and celebrities expounding on the canonical importance of her work. Most of the time, watching it feels like hanging on a porch with some of Dalton’s closest confidants and surviving family members, trading stories about her favorite horses, her humorously botched recording sessions or her homey hospitality. (“Karen made the best beans in the whole world,” we learn from one of her Colorado friends.) As a result, if only in fleeting glimpses, this long-lost musician comes vividly to life.

In some sense, Dalton seemed to exist in the wrong time period for her talents to be fully appreciated, and this is part of her continued mystique. Dalton was something of a proto-indie artist, seeking out a more modest alternative to the mainstream before such well-trod pathways existed. When I heard Stampfel describe Dalton’s ideal performing space as a kind of amplified living room, I realized that last year I’d seen the film’s narrator, Olsen, do something quite similar, broadcasting an intimate solo livestream from the comfort of her own home.

Maybe that is the tragedy of Karen Dalton: the fact that she was making music in the wrong era. “We’re definitely in a time now when artists can have more control over their own careers and public image,” Yapkowitz said. “If we could say ‘would have, should have, could have,’ the industry has changed and Karen would have been more comfortable in it, to say the least.”

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