Karen Dalton, a musical mystery that does not need to be solved

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Hauntingly melancholy blues-folk singer Karen Dalton once described her dream concert: “She would be in her living room with friends and play some music,” recalls her friend and fellow musician Peter Stampfel in the new documentary. “Karen Dalton: In My Own Time.” “And then somehow the living room would be placed on a huge stage, which would be surrounded by a massive audience who would watch with close attention while she totally ignored them and did whatever she wanted to do. “

Born into post-war poverty and raised in Oklahoma, Dalton had a warm voice that was as squeaky and inhabited 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” – by far the most cited thing ever. never said about Dalton. (Dylan accompanied her on harmonica to a handful of concerts on the Greenwich Village coffee shop circuit in the early 1960s; he also called her his “favorite singer” of this whole scene.)

But as this show as a live stage suggests, Dalton wasn’t as comfortable in the spotlight as many of his better-remembered peers. She was indifferent to fame, and her career failed due to a combination of bad luck and self-sabotage. She recorded only two albums in her life, suffered from prolonged drug and alcohol addictions, and died of an AIDS-related illness in 1993 at the age of 55.

This fall of the name in Dylan’s memories and the rise of the so-called “freak folk” movement of the early days sparked a renewed interest in Dalton’s work; his two studio albums – the painful “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 subsequently reissued, and several compilations of his recordings at home were released. Dalton has finally been applauded as one of the most skilled and idiosyncratic performers of folk music of the ’60s and’ 70s. The unique, unhurried phrasing heard in his renditions of “Reason to Believe” and “When a Man Loves a woman ”, for example, gives the impression that these familiar songs are being sung for the very first time.

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

A directorial debut by 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 telephone interview. (None of the filmmakers met Dalton, but they conducted enough interviews and research to speak of her with easy familiarity.) He insisted that her drug use shouldn’t overshadow other aspects. of his life: person with whom I would like to go out.

Peete and Yapkowitz became friends while working together in the art department of several independent films. Their mutual love for Dalton’s music first appeared over a decade ago on the set of Branson, Missouri, of Debra Granik’s dark and woody drama “Winter’s Bone”: “That was the movie. perfect for rekindling our interest in Karen, ”said Peete. with a laugh.

Relentlessly moving from Oklahoma to New York to Colorado, Dalton led a nomadic life, which presented a challenge for filmmakers. “The archival documents and the people we interviewed – it’s all kind 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 watch,” he said of the many new photographs featured in the film.

When they first got the idea of ​​making a film about Dalton – as they were hanging out at a bar one night and noticing that, in Peete’s words, “all of his peers were on the jukebox at the except Karen “- they thought they could do it in less than a year. “It was almost seven years ago,” he said.

But making a movie about the retiring Dalton also posed a bigger problem: mystery and a sense of elusiveness are integral to his music’s appeal. Dalton has stood up to the manufacturing machines of industry stars at almost every turn, so in some sense the incomplete nature of his work represents a conscious act of defying the business imperatives of the music industry. Romanticizing his slippery nature would be wrong, but filling in the blanks too completely would dishonor his unruly mind. Peete and Yapkowitz knew they had to strike a balance between presenting the facts of Dalton’s life and allowing parts of her to remain unknowable.

Author and Dalton fan, Rick Moody, expresses this tension at the start of the documentary, and Peete said they take her words as a sort of mantra: was and how she expressed herself. The thing that I don’t want to do is imagine too much that you can interpret the fragments. I want to be with the songs that are really there and try to celebrate the legacy of what is really there.

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

While Dalton has audibly influenced artists like Joanna Newsom, Jessica Pratt, and Nick Cave, “In My Own Time” is not the kind of critically-acclaimed and celebrity-laden musical documentary exposing the canonical importance of his work. Most of the time, watching him feels like hanging on a porch with some of Dalton’s closest confidants and surviving family members, swapping stories about his favorite horses, sloppy humorous recording sessions, or his warm hospitality. (“Karen made the best beans in the whole world,” one of her Colorado friends learns.) As a result, if only in fleeting glimpses, this long-lost musician comes to life vividly.

In a sense, Dalton seemed to exist at the wrong time for his talents to be fully appreciated, and that is part of his continuing mystique. Dalton was somewhat of a proto-indie artist, seeking a more modest alternative to the mainstream before such avenues existed. When I heard Stampfel describe Dalton’s ideal play space as some kind of amplified living room, I realized that last year I had seen the film’s narrator, Olsen, do something quite similar. , broadcasting an intimate solo livestream from the comfort of his own home.

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


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