‘Karen Dalton: In My Own Time’ Review: An Elemental Musical Force

Musicians working in pop modes often navigate their careers using a combination of talent and calculation. Karen Dalton, a singer and instrumentalist who made a substantial impression on New York’s 1960s folk scene, and whose small body of recorded work moves and inspires listeners to this day, was someone for whom calculation was inconceivable.

That’s one impression left by “Karen Dalton: In My Own Time,” an excellent documentary directed by Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitz. Dalton, who died of AIDS in 1993 at age 55, was of Irish and Cherokee extraction, born in Texas and raised in Oklahoma. As her friend and colleague Peter Stampfel observes, she was one of the few musicians in Greenwich Village’s earnest Americana scene who was authentically “folk.” (He tells some truly hair-raising stories of Dalton here.)

As a player and singer, she was an elemental force. While her voice resembles that of Billie Holiday, there’s no sense of imitation or affectation to it, as Dalton’s unique reading of Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” demonstrates.

Archival footage provides a disquieting window into Dalton’s bearing. Early in the picture there’s a home movie of Dalton singing, accompanying herself on guitar. Her mastery seems effortless; she’s framed by a seemingly unshakable confidence. Once she puts the guitar down, that confidence falls away, and she becomes awkward, almost uncomfortable in her own skin.

A visibly missing tooth in some performance footage testifies to a life of privation and of abuse. Some abuse was self-generated. Like her friend Tim Hardin, another artist for whom compromise was inimical, Dalton was a hard-living addict. And alas, this cinematic tribute ends with an account of Dalton’s bad breaks continuing even after her death.

Karen Dalton: In My Own Time
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. In theaters.

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