One of the most compelling and enigmatic figures to emerge during the Greenwich Village folk era, Karen Dalton (1937–1993), as Bob Dylan famously noted in his book Chronicles, “sang like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed.” That’s no exaggeration, though I’d say her fine guitar playing was as informed by folk sources—she primarily played a Gibson 12-string, as well as six-string and banjo. She was, first and foremost, an interpreter of blues and folk tunes (old and new), but her recorded output was slight: just two albums—the moody, stripped-down, folk-blues masterpiece It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going To Love You the Best in 1969 and the more musically ambitious (and to my ears, over-produced) In My Own Time in 1971. Neither was commercially successful. When she died in 1993 of AIDS-related complications at the age of 55, following years of drug abuse and unsuccessful stints in rehab, she had all but been forgotten.
However, just as the brilliant but doomed Nick Drake has been rediscovered in the decades since his passing, so, too, has Karen Dalton been embraced by new generations of admiring musicians and fans. The culmination of this latter-day fascination with Dalton is a beautifully made and quite moving documentary called Karen Dalton: In My Own Time, directed by Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitz. Using a combination of rare footage of Dalton performing, archival photographs, illuminating interviews with fellow musicians, friends, and lovers, plus excerpts from her poetry, letters, and other writings (read by Angel Olsen), the filmmakers trace Dalton’s saga—her days growing up poor in rural Oklahoma, marrying and having her first child in her mid-teens; heading to New York and falling into the Greenwich Village folk scene, where she was widely acclaimed; her peripatetic nature and her discomfort with some of the demands of the music industry, which led to occasional acts of what appear to be career self-sabotage; and her long, sad decline.
But this is no shallow, over-dramatized Behind the Music story. Rather, it’s a deep, soulful, revelatory exploration of a talented but fragile soul who rarely seemed completely comfortable in her own skin or in the music business. Along the way, we’re treated to her heartfelt performances of songs written or popularized by Billie Holiday, Fred Neil, Elmore James, Tim Hardin, Dino Valenti, and others, most featuring Dalton’s sure, nuanced 12-string work. I highly recommend you check it out!
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.