Karen Dalton, an enigmatic artist beloved by colleagues Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and idolized by followers like Nick Cave and Courtney Barnett, is the subject of a new film.



A documentary examines a promising career cut short by addiction. In the 1960s, Karen Dalton was a rising star in Greenwich Village, the New York City neighborhood at the center of the folk music scene. People compared her talent to that of Billie Holiday. The documentary helps to explain why many people never heard of her. Allison McCabe has her story.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: A couple of years ago, Laetitia Tamko, the artist known as Vagabon, was out taking a walk and listening to a playlist. When it ended, a random song came on.


KAREN DALTON: (Singing) If I listened long enough to you, I'd find a way to believe that it's all true, knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried. Still, I look to find a reason to believe.

VAGABON: It was the song "Reason To Believe." And my phone was, like, set away, and I didn't know who it was. I just, like, kind of stopped dead in my walk, like what is this?

MCCABE: "Reason To Believe" was written and recorded by Tim Hardin in 1965. Since then, it's been covered by Peggy Lee, The Carpenters and Rod Stewart. But Vagabon says there was something about Karen Dalton's version that set it apart.

VAGABON: The fingerpicking is so beautiful. And there's this, like, mournful yet triumphant quality to her voice. And I remember just replaying it so many times.

MCCABE: Dalton released only two albums in her lifetime - in 1969 and 1971. Neither one charted, but thanks to the new documentary "Karen Dalton: In My Own Time," she's finally getting her due.


DALTON: (Singing) It's a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed. My poor feet have traveled this hot, dusty road.

MCCABE: Dalton's story begins in Enid, Okla., where she learned to play 12-string guitar and long-neck banjo. As a teenager, Dalton married twice and had two children. After her second divorce, at age 21 she took off for New York City. It was the dawn of the '60s folk scene, and Dalton made a name for herself by interpreting the music of her contemporaries and traditional folk songs like "Katie Cruel."


DALTON: (Singing) When I first came to town, they called me the roving jewel. Now they've changed their tune - call me Katie Cruel.

MCCABE: Although Dalton didn't write her own material, she infused her repertoire with a heartache all her own, say documentary filmmakers Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitz.

RICHARD PEETE: She lived the Dust Bowl. She was living - you know, it wasn't a comfortable life. There's a lot of emotion that comes with that, and I think that that is apparent in her music.

ROBERT YAPKOWITZ: And I think a big thing about Oklahoma, too - like, Karen was very close with her family. She loved them very much. But she also didn't quite fit in. And I think the fact that she didn't fit in in Oklahoma and realized that was probably a huge influence. You know, some of the songs she learned from her mother as a child, she was playing on her - in her sets in Greenwich Village.

MCCABE: Bob Dylan called Dalton his favorite singer, but her disdain for showbiz kept her on the margins. After her second album flopped, Dalton retreated from public life, sinking into depression and addiction. She died at age 55, but her music has enjoyed a surprising afterlife, surfacing on soundtracks and streaming playlists like Vagabon's.


YAPKOWITZ: It's insane. You can get to her from Bob Dylan, or you can get to her from Adele or Nick Cave.


DALTON: (Singing) Yesterday, any way you made it was just fine. So you turned your days into nighttime. Didn't you know you can't make it without ever even trying?

MCCABE: The challenge for the filmmakers was how to avoid mythologizing Dalton as a tragic enigma. Once again, the answer was in the music. Though her emotional performances may appear unrehearsed, Yapkowitz says she worked hard to hone her craft.

YAPKOWITZ: We realized as we would listen to some of these demos we obtained that she would be playing the same song and recording multiple demos of the same song over the course of, like, two years. And you can hear her get a little closer to sort of nailing it each time.

MCCABE: In addition to interviews, the filmmakers relied on small details to tell Dalton's story - fragments such as an unearthed reel-to-reel tape of her jamming with friends, excerpts from her journals read by Angel Olsen and an original score composed by Julia Holter, who previously contributed to a compilation album in which artists gave voice to Dalton's unpublished poems.


JULIA HOLTER: (Singing) My love, my love, I will watch you.

MCCABE: Holter says she approached both projects by connecting with Dalton's music on an emotional level and channeling that connection through her own sensibilities.

HOLTER: It's, like, hard for artists to work with language and to communicate with language outside of their music often, and the subtlety of her approach was probably lost on a lot of people.

MCCABE: Although Dalton didn't fit into the singer-songwriter mold of her era, Vagabon says her individuality is the key to her enduring appeal.

VAGABON: I know in her time she didn't quite reach the commercial success of her peers, but whether it's in her voice or her arrangements, she had something that she was trying to pass down to everybody.


MCCABE: Earlier this year, Vagabon teamed up with Courtney Barnett to release a Dalton-inspired cover of "Reason To Believe."


VAGABON AND COURTNEY BARNETT: (Singing) Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried...

MCCABE: Barnett says she's excited to help introduce Dalton's music to new generations.

COURTNEY BARNETT: The music that she recorded is timeless, and, like, it has such a magical quality to it.

MCCABE: "Karen Dalton: In My Own Time" has just opened in theaters. It's coming to on-demand streaming platforms next month.

For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.


DALTON: (Singing) Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else. Someone like... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.