Musicians who work in pop mode often navigate their careers using a combination of talent and calculation. Karen Dalton, a singer and instrumentalist who made a significant mark on New York’s 1960s folk scene, and whose small body of recorded work continues to inspire listeners today, was someone for whom it was unthinkable to count.
This is an impression left by “Karen Dalton: In My Own Time,” an excellent documentary directed by Richard Peet and Robert Yapkowitz. Dalton, who died of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 55, was of Irish and Cherokee descent, born in Texas and raised in Oklahoma. As her friend and collaborator Peter Stampfel observed, she was one of the few musicians in Greenwich Village’s most serious American scene that was authentically “folk”. (He recounts some of Dalton’s really hair-raising stories here.)
As a sportsperson and singer, she was a fundamental force. While her voice resembles that of Billie Holiday, there is no sense of imitation or influence, as evidenced by Dalton’s unique reading of Holiday’s “God Bless the Child”.
Archival footage provides a disquieting window into Dalton’s bearing. At the beginning of the picture is a home film of Dalton singing, accompanied by himself on guitar. His mastery seems effortless; He is crafted by a seemingly unshakable confidence. Once she puts down the guitar, that confidence drops, and she becomes awkward, almost uncomfortable in her own skin.
A visibly missing tooth in some performance footage testifies to a life of deprivation and abuse. Some of the abuse was self-generated. Like his friend Tim Hardin, another artist for whom the settlement was hostile, Dalton was a hard-living addict. And alas, this cinematic tribute ends with an account of Dalton’s poor break even after his death.
Karen Dalton: In my own time
not evaluated. Walking Time: 1 hour 25 minutes. in Theaters.