DVD Pick: “Karen Dalton: In My Own Time”

Moving documentary about the folk-blues singer feels perfectly tuned.

There’s a scene in the harrowing but soulful new music documentary about the bluesy folk singer, Karen Dalton, that describes what it’s like for fans when they first hear her gorgeously frayed voice singing the song, “Something’s On Your Mind.” Recorded as the lead-off track on her 1971 album, “In My Own Time,” it was written for her by the artist Dino Valenti.

In the scene, Australian musician Nick Cave is remembering the first time he heard the song on a cassette while driving. He says he had to pull the car off the road because he was in tears: “And it wasn’t that it was sad that it made me cry … it was that it was perfect. There’s something about human achievement when it reaches so high, in such a casual way, and can do something so utterly perfect.” Still sounding astonished, he adds that his band, the Bad Seeds, has been trying to match the song ever since.

This sadly beautiful documentary offers the tragic story of Dalton’s life, intimately told by close friends, former lovers, and her adult daughter, Abralyn Baird (who looks exactly like her). It isn’t an easy watch; Dalton suffered her entire life from poverty and later, substance abuse stemming likely from undiagnosed mental health issues. After releasing only two albums, and times living on the street, she died from AIDS-related health problems in 1993 at the age of 55. However, new generations of artists and fans continue to rediscover her small output of recorded material.”[Her music] made demands on the listener, it’s not background music,” Cave explains at the start. “Whether you liked it or not, you had to enter her world. And it’s a despairing world, a dark world.”

Which makes it all the more miraculous that first-time filmmakers Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peete manage to stay focused on the beauty at the heart of her story by centering their documentary on her singular musical talent and purity of vision, the former withering and fading as hard drugs took control. Avoiding the pitfalls of many music documentaries, these filmmakers understood “not to excessively imagine that you can interpret the fragments,” as Peete notes in the film: “I want to be with the songs that are actually there and to try and delight in the legacy of what’s actually there.”

And the little bit of recorded music she left behind, that is there, is still earning worshipful fans some fifty years later.

Raised in a strict Southern Baptist family in Depression-era Oklahoma, Dalton was married and a mom by the age of 15, with a second child and another husband at 17. When the social changes of the sixties began, she tired of domesticated life and longed to focus on her music. She left her young children behind with family and moved to New York and the burgeoning folk scene in Greenwich Village coffeehouses, where “she hit harder than Dylan in terms of talent and impact,” the guitarist Peter Walker remembers.

Friend Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders notes that she was the only person in the folk scene who actually had an authentic folk background, having come from poor, working-class roots; “She were a folk,” as he puts it. Dylan would later call her his favorite singer of the period, writing “she sang like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed,” in his 2004 autobiography, “Chronicles.” One funny scene finds Dalton’s adult daughter remembering Dylan visiting them in one of her mother’s decrepit apartment dwellings in New York: “He was playing guitar and talking to my mom about roots [music] and how he thought she was the female Woody Guthrie, and she didn’t seem to care. She just looked at him a couple times and said, ‘that’s not how you play that chord’ [laughs].”

Everyone in the film agrees that Dalton didn’t care about “making it” in show business terms, which sabotaged her career from the start. After several attempts, this led to her abandoning a tour opening for Santana, which marked the beginning of her long, final slide down: “She wasn’t a showbiz gal. The joy of it escaped her,” one ex says. But she was a singer who always brilliantly interpreted other people’s songs, preferring the joy of playing within small circles of friends. Once she said her ideal concert setting would be playing her living room with a large crowd watching on the outside, removed. Her daughter notes that her mother was moody and prone to losing her temper; a perfectionist unwilling to cater to audiences or play the fame game. Instead she had a nomadic lifestyle that involved living, at times, with her young daughter in the wilds of Colorado, then later returning to New York to give music another try.

The documentary makes a case that her musical soulmate was the singer-songwriter Tim Hardin, whose original songs she often sang; there are great audio snippets of “Reason to Believe” and “Turn the Page” here. Sadly, friends also speculate that it was Hardin, who had his own methadone (and driving) problems, who may have steered Dalton from her early beer and pot habits to the harder stuff. Modern singer Angel Olsen does an uncanny job reading fragments of Dalton’s poetry and journals throughout the film, which often feels like a ghostly portal to the singer’s most intimate thoughts.

It took the filmmakers seven years to complete this documentary, partly because there wasn’t a lot of archival material available. Proving that smart editing and well-conducted interviews are still important, “In My Time” doesn’t need technical frills or animation to earn its place alongside great music docs about cult musicians such as “Louie Bluie,” “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me: A film about Roky Erickson.” As longtime friend Walker notes in the movie, thankfully the directors were able to film and catalogue much of her artwork, poetry, and lyric sheets. This gives the story something of a lift at the end, considering that in 2018, nearly all of her work was destroyed in a house fire.

I know, it all sounds like a depressing watch. Dalton had a tough life and earned her blues stripes from a hardscrabble existence. But like her best songs prove, there is a profound beauty in her personal striving for human connection through art. Even as she regularly made bad decisions, she did things her way and remained confident in her own voice for years, as well as a loyal believer in the power of art to transform and heal. Unfortunately, she just ran out of chances and time.

And yet her music lives on – especially that one gorgeous song still giving new listeners’ chills.


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