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Karen Dalton, a musical mystery that doesn’t need solving

Karen Dalton, a musical mystery that doesn’t need solving
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Karen Dalton, a musical mystery that doesn’t need solving

Karen Dalton, a musical mystery that doesn’t need solving

The haunting soulful blues-folk singer Karen Dalton once described the concert of her dreams: “She’d be in her living room with friends and play music,” her friend and fellow musician Peter Stampfel said in the new documentary “Karen Dalton: In Recalls in My Own”. time. Wish she did.”

Born in post-war poverty and raised in Oklahoma, Dalton had a warm voice that was as funny and live-in as a lovely rocking chair. He “singed like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed,” as Bob Dylan put it in the first volume of his 2004 autobiography, “Chronicles”—the most easily quoted thing anyone had said about Dalton. . (Dylan accompanied him on the harmonica for a few gigs on the Greenwich Village coffeehouse circuit in the early ’60s; he’s even called her his “favourite singer” of that entire scene.)

But as the living-room-a-live-stage shows, Dalton wasn’t nearly as comfortable in the spotlight as many of his better remembered peers. She was indifferent to fame, and a combination of hard luck and self-sabotage took a toll on her career. She recorded just two albums in her lifetime, suffered a prolonged drug and alcohol addiction, and succumbed to AIDS-related illness in 1993 at the age of 55.

This name-drop in Dylan’s memoirs and the rise of the so-called “freak folk” movement of the early aughts spurred revival interest in Dalton’s oeuvre; Both her studio albums Pain “It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best” (1969) and the cult classic “In My Own Time” (1971) – were reissued, and several compilations of her home recordings. were released. Dalton was eventually lauded as one of the most accomplished and distinguished interpreters of folk music of the ’60s and ’70s. For example, the unique, unhelpful phrases heard in his renditions of “Reason to Believe” and “When a Man Loves a Woman”, make these familiar songs seem as if they are being sung for the first time.

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Plenty of posthumous praises have been written of Dalton over the past 15 years, and thanks to his untimely death and the hoarse pain in his voice, his headlines all describe him with a single word: “tragic.”

The debut directorial effort, “In My Own Time” by filmmakers Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peet, refreshingly, adds a few more epithets to Dalton’s story and personality.

“She was charismatic, and when she was in the room, she was the center of attention,” Yapkowitz said in a phone interview. (None of the filmmakers met Dalton, but they did enough interviews and research to speak about him with an easy acquaintance.) He insisted that his drug use not dominate other aspects of his life. Must be: “She just seemed like fun, like a person I want to hang out with.”

Pete and Yapkowitz became friends while working together in the art department of several independent films. Their mutual love for Dalton’s music first appeared more than a decade ago on the set of Debra Granik’s brooding, woodsy drama “Winter’s Bone” in Branson, Mo.: “It was a time to rekindle our interest in Karen.” It was the perfect film for him,” Pete said with a laugh.

Moving restlessly from Oklahoma to New York City to Colorado, Dalton lived a nomadic life, which presented a challenge for filmmakers. “The archival material, and the people we interviewed — are scattered all over the United States,” Yapkowitz said. “Some people didn’t even know they had them in their closets until we asked them to look,” he said of the many new photos featured in the film.

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When he first got the idea to make a movie about Dalton—hanging out at a bar one night and noticing that, in Pete’s words, “all of his teammates except Karen were on the jukebox”—they thought they Can do it in less than a year. “That was about seven years ago,” he said.

But making a film about the retiring Dalton also revealed a bigger situation: a sense of mystery and elusiveness are inherent parts of his musical appeal. Dalton opposed the industry’s star-making machinery at almost every turn, so in some sense the unfinished nature of his body of work represents a conscious act of defiance against the commercial imperatives of the music industry. It would be a mistake to romanticize her slippery nature, but filling in the blanks too completely would be an insult to her unruly spirit. Pete and Yapkowitz knew they had to strike a balance between presenting the facts of Dalton’s life and allowing parts of him to remain unnoticed.

Writer and Dalton fan Rick Moody expressed this tension at the beginning of the documentary, and Pete said he took his words as a sort of mantra: “Some imperfections and gaps in Karen’s output can be decisive and Who could she be a part of and how did she express herself. The thing I don’t want to do is make you over-imagine that you can explain portions. I stick with songs that really are And to try and enjoy the legacy of what’s really there.”

Nevertheless, his documentation of Dalton’s passages turned out to be more meaningful than he understood. Shortly after Dalton digitized his collection of magazines, doodles and poetry, which he had left in the care of his friend Peter Walker, all of these papers were destroyed in a fire. (In the film, composer Angel Olsson reads from these magazines and beautifully juxtaposes the combination of playfulness and emotional intensity that characterizes Dalton’s voice.)

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Although Dalton has audibly influenced artists such as Joanna Newsom, Jessica Pratt and Nick Cave, “In My Own Time” is not the kind of music documentary in which critics and celebrities have highlighted the canonical importance of his work. . Most of the time, watching it feels like hanging out on a porch with some of Dalton’s closest confidants and surviving family members, trading stories about his favorite horses, his humorously poor recording sessions or his homey hospitality. . (“Karen made the best beans in the whole world,” we learn from one of her Colorado friends.) As a result, if only in a fleeting glimpse, this long-lost musician comes to life vividly.

In some sense, Dalton existed in the wrong time period to fully appreciate his talent, and this is part of his continuing mystery. Dalton was a proto-indie artist looking for a more modest alternative to the mainstream before such good paths existed. When I heard Stampfel describe Dalton’s ideal performance space as a sort of amplified meeting place, I realized that last year I’d seen the film’s narrator, Olsen, do something similar, from the comfort of his own home. An intimate solo livestream was broadcast.

Maybe it’s Karen Dalton’s tragedy: the fact that she was making music in the wrong era. “We are certainly at a time when artists can have more control over their careers and public image,” Yapkowitz said. “If we could say ‘should have been, could have’, the industry has changed and Karen would have been more comfortable with it, to say the least.”

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