Essential New Music (Film): “Karen Dalton: In My Own Time”

When Bob Dylan hit the New York folk music scene, he found that one singer stood out from all the others. Karen Dalton, he thought, was the real deal. She left such an impression on him that he praised her decades later in his autobiography; she, on the other hand, told him that he wasn’t playing some chords right. So how come Dylan went on to stardom, and Dalton died early in a Woodstock, N.Y., trailer, with just two albums to her name? 

You’ll have a pretty good idea after watching Karen Dalton: In My Own Time, a documentary just released to theaters. (Digital distribution will come next month.) It marshals commentary from fellow folk musicians, lovers and her daughter, Abbe Baird, that creates a vivid impression of Dalton as a person who was very clear on the merits of her talent, but deeply ill at ease with the mechanics of getting other people to pay attention.

Singing in someone’s living room, her Billie Holiday-influenced voice and knack for drawing out a song’s essence could blot out all competition like a solar eclipse. But she had little patience for studio craft, audience cultivation and record-label games. Her persistent unease fueled an appetite for substances that made her ill-suited to every-day functioning, let alone show-business grunt work.

The film has a few of the requisite famous talking heads, but the people who knew her most get far more time, and Angel Olson is quite effective reading excerpts from Dalton’s personal papers. But even though Dalton died in 1993, she gets plenty of time in the film, courtesy of old live footage and a radio interview. If you know her work, this film will help you to know her a little better; if you don’t, well, what are you waiting for?

—Bill Meyer