The voice is fractured, fragile and intimate — “plaintive, earthy and insinuating” an early Village Voice critic called it.
Bob Dylan got even closer to the mark by stating the obvious about Karen Dalton and who she was plainly imitating with her pitch, her halting, emotive delivery. “She sings like Billie Holiday and plays (guitar, among other instruments) like Jimmy Reed.”
“Karen Dalton: In My Own Time” is a documentary remembrance of a folk star who never quite was. Texas born, Oklahoma-raised, Greenwich Village-adored Karen Dalton showed up in New York at almost the same time as Dylan, already married twice and just 21, eventually towing her toddler Abbe around to the folk clubs where she played — Cafe Wha? was the most famous — letting her audience be her babysitter.
She didn’t write much of her own music, which held her back, and didn’t get a record deal until Woodstock producer Michael Lang was offered his own record label by Paramount and he signed her, years too late for a folk singer to break out, even if the records — one of which was titled “In My Own Time” — had captured her magic.
Listen to this Tim Hardin song that Rod Stewart, among others, made famous. No, this version didn’t come out on LP during her lifetime. Like many, Dalton was only truly “discovered” posthumously.
Friends, colleagues and others remember her as the “only authentic” working class/dirt farm folkie to haunt the Greenwich Village of that era. She grew up poor, married at 15, never finished high school and rarely prettied herself up for her shows.
She had two missing teeth from getting into the middle of a fight between two boyfriends (one of them interviewed here), shunned makeup, “a Bohemian” who put her daughter through a childhood of no-real-home hardship sleeping on the floors of friend’s apartments as she covered songs by Woody Guthrie, George Jones, Tim Hardin and others and made a name for herself during the glory days of New York folk.
She couldn’t get along with John Phillips long enough for them to build a folk act with two other friends. He rounded up others and started The Mamas and the Papas.
Her career was marked by almosts and “If she’d only shown up” for shows whose rehearsals so exhausted her she almost never did, or for tour dates (Lang had her opening for Santana).
Nick Cave was among those who discovered her, long after Dalton had flamed out. But some of those interviewed in this Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitz hasten to say that we shouldn’t judge what “she might have been” because her career is so incomplete.
A couple of records, a little performance and rehearsal footage, and a public radio interview from the era are almost all this “somewhat depressive individual” managed to produce that survives.
But the filmmakers tease us with the diary entries, with the poetry she rarely set to music, using animation to tell her story when testimonials or that long radio chat won’t do.
“Wait’ll I get my gold tooth,” she boasts to Bob Fass, her Pacifica radio interviewer (who recently died). But she never did. Poverty and impulsiveness and a roaming, impatient personality probably cast her fate before drugs ever entered the picture.
But of course they did.
Still, “In My Own Time” gives us a taste of what might have been much more than a soulful novelty act, an American Original who might have been too “authentic” for her time, if not for ours.
Rating: unrated, discussions of drug abuse
Cast: Karen Dalton (radio interviews), Nick Cave, Lacy J. Dalton, Abbe Baird, Richard Tucker, Becky Baird, Vanessa Carlton, Peter Walker, Hunt Middleton, Peter Stamfel, Rick Moody and Michael Lang
Credits: Directed by Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitz. A Greenwich Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:26