The Ghost of Karen Dalton
by Siân Evans
Across the distance of a computer screen, I’ve witnessed a dear friend process her trauma around starting her career as an ER nurse in a pandemic this year. I’ve felt helpless as so many people I love lost family members they didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to over the past few months, haunted by the irony of their loved ones dying alone in overcrowded hospitals. And while I’ve wanted to hold all this grief in my small hands, it often feels like this year has stretched the very limits of empathy, distancing us all from each other – both physically and in our varied experiences of loss.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I would have regular Zoom happy hours with my friends where we’d talk about television shows, books, art, and where to get groceries. One night, one of my friends said, “I’m just not that into joy right now.” As every former New Yorker knows, it is possible to feel wholly alone while surrounded by millions of people. And yet, these days we’re finding ourselves – even in teeming cities – quite literally alone, “social distancing” and thinking about loneliness perhaps more than we’re used to. As the pandemic has stretched on, I have largely stopped socializing, exhausted by the prospect of being in touch with anyone at all. So I find myself listening to Karen Dalton’s haunting folk songs and writing about loneliness in my makeshift attic office in Baltimore, surrounded by the trappings of what was a very different life just a few months ago.
Loneliness isn’t easy to write about, partially because it’s a feeling of absence rather than presence, but also because the concept of being alone is itself so fluid. A decade ago when I was living in Brooklyn, I made a pact to start a blog about loneliness with another friend recovering from heartbreak. We were in our twenties and strung out on self-indulgence, and so our imaginary blog was snarkily titled, How To Die Alone. Only shortly after the pact was sealed he ended up moving to Sweden for the woman he’s been with ever since, leaving me behind with several unfinished essays about the musician Karen Dalton, visual artists Francesca Woodman and Hannah Wilke, and feminist theorist Shulamith Firestone. All these women conjure images of loneliness, isolation, abandonment, and uncertainty; they’re all bound to a ghost-woman trope so often posthumously applied to work made by women. It has always broken my heart that we’re allowed, even encouraged, to view any human being’s creative production through this lens. So, here is the inevitable slippage from a youthful joke about heartbreak to the deep, coastal shelf of terror at “this sad human framework,” to steal a line from one of Karen Dalton’s poems, published decades after her death by her friend Peter Walker.
Dalton is the soundtrack to loneliness: a voice of great range channeled through a shuddering quaver over spare banjo folks songs. She was active in the 1960s and 70s and has become a cult figure in the past few decades. Almost every essay about Karen Dalton, like Laura Barton’s 2007 Guardian piece, “The Best Singer You’ve Never Heard of,” mentions that she was Bob Dylan’s favorite singer and how many artists now cite her as an influence. In 2015 several contemporary musicians – including some of my favorites, like Sharon Van Etten, Julia Holter and Lucinda Williams – recorded an album crafted from the sheets of her poetry and music discovered after her death. She is often hailed as the authentic folk singer—from rural Oklahoma, part Cherokee, and part Irish—who arrived in Greenwich Village in 1960, tall and reedy with a voice writer Nina Renata Aron describes as being like “scorched earth” in her lovely essay about Dalton in a now defunct San Francisco-based magazine focused on unearthing history’s “neglected stories.” There’s always mention of Dalton’s “dark side,” too: she was a heroin addict and died of AIDS in a trailer on Eagle’s Nest Road, in an artistic community near Woodstock, in 1993, at the age of 55. She never gave an interview in her whole life and where there are gaps in Dalton’s story, rumors bloom like mushrooms in the forest at night: her missing teeth were the result of a jealous lover, she loathed the music industry and was tricked by savvy producers into recording her first album, and she died homeless in New York City. This last falsehood remained on her Wikipedia page until 2016.
It is true, however, that she played the banjo, 6- and 12-string guitar but hated performing. Her best work seems to have been done around a kitchen table, like the posthumously-released Green Rocky Road (2008). In fact, as music writer Jordan Bassett among others have noted, Dalton, like Elliott Smith and Tupac, has been prolific in death. Another recording of Karen and her estranged husband, Richard Tucker, titled Karen Dalton: 1966, was captured almost accidentally on a friend’s portable reel-to-reel as the couple rehearsed for a gig, and was only released in 2012. 1966 is my favorite Dalton album by far; it feels the most intimate, the first song a tender rendition of Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe,” recently covered by Vagabon and Courtney Barnett. The Pitchfork review of the record opens, “Picture the great American folk artists of the 1960s and 70s sitting for a group portrait; Karen Dalton’s there, but her figure’s a blur, flitting restlessly out of frame.” I love the image of this fictional photograph of the folk scene with Karen Dalton never centered, always cast slightly aside but never quite allowed to disappear.
The image itself is also filmic for me; perhaps because, when I was still living in New York, it was a filmmaker friend who introduced me to “Katie Cruel,” the fourth song on the second of Karen Dalton’s two studio albums, 1971’s In My Own Time. Following a soft, sweet number, the traditional folk song “Katie Cruel” announces itself with a warbly, jangly banjo. Then Dalton’s smoky voice practically coughs out this death knell:
When I first came to town
They call’ me the roving jewel
Now they’ve changed their tune
They call me Katie Cruel
These old bluesy lines flirt with prophecy, as if they foreshadow Dalton’s French exit from the music industry and descent into addiction. After In My Own Time failed to bring her commercial success, she never recorded again and, as Barton put it in her Guardian article, “seemed to drift out of view” as she made less music and delved deeper into drugs and alcohol. It’s as if she were always floating in and out of a camera’s frame.
It seemed clear enough to me that my filmmaker friend’s own work, painfully awkward, tender and difficult, had something of Dalton’s mystique about it, but he never took me up on the suggestion to make a documentary about her. So, over the years I’ve come back to this desire for films about Dalton time and time again. I recently watched A Bright Light: Karen and the Process (2018) a strange, Swiss filmic essay about her, in which a group of women travel across the United States talking to musicians and occasionally Dalton’s friends and former lovers about her life and creative process. The narrator periodically reads Dalton’s poetry in a thick Swiss-French accent, wearing a lion’s mask purchased on-screen at a Mardi Gras store. She paints watercolors of Dalton’s face and sews dresses inspired by the songstress. There is a lot of ghostly 8mm footage of places Dalton lived and some she probably didn’t: Colorado, New York, New Orleans, rural Mississippi. (And, for some reason, one of my favorite contemporary Baltimore bands, Lower Dens, appears in a brief scene, tinkering with synthesizers in short shorts in a sweaty summer basement.) We also get snippets of Dalton’s life in grainy, vintage footage: Karen breaking in horses on a windswept hill, laughing on her sun-drenched porch, climbing up a mountain, making tea. But it’s not enough. Dalton herself is elusive: throughout the film, she appears sylph-like in Levis, her waist-length hair floating around her. At one point, the narrator says, “It’s as if she’s flying, like a dancer.”
Although I enjoy non-narrative documentaries, the film itself is meandering and at times self-indulgent. And the clearest picture we get of Dalton is at the very end: the folk musician Peter Walker is leading the crew through the forest-green trailer in which she took her last breath. Walker was her lifelong friend and caretaker in her final decade; it is he who discovered her dead and is the unlikely hero of her story. As he points to the spot where he found her seemingly asleep in bed with the television on, he recounts how the local community – terrified of the woman living alone in the woods, dying of a disease that people thought you might catch from an embrace – shunned her at the end. He tells the camera that she felt everyone blamed her for never becoming famous, that they blamed her for getting AIDS. For me, this is the most heart-wrenching moment of the whole film. From my plush velvet couch in Baltimore, I realize that it feels even lonelier than living through a pandemic that you can, indeed, catch from an embrace.
In thinking about Dalton’s legacy, I come back to Aron’s essay, in which she writes, “her tragically premature death can seem prefigured in the haunting music she made. As she sings, almost whimpering, on Blues on the Ceiling, ‘I’ll never get out of these blues alive.’” I sympathize with this desire to locate an artist’s downfall in their work and I’m sometimes guilty of it. It’s an easy tale to tell. In a 2015 interview, however, Walker expressed his distaste at this type of posthumous mythologizing of Dalton: “Like many [‘tragic artists’], once she’s dead she’s much more valuable and popular. […] The minute she’s dead, everyone wants to be her long-lost best friend. I didn’t think it would be like that in Karen’s case. I thought she would just fade away.”
I think, again and again, of the 8mm footage of Dalton sweeping her long brown hair from her face and smiling before she drifts offscreen. I believe the film was an earnest attempt to explore who Karen Dalton was through her creative process, but over and over again Dalton appears like a ghost, and in doing so, she stops being a real person with a real life full of loves and aches and wants and skinned knees and missed appointments and arguments and friendships and late-night peanut butter and jellys. This is exactly what an audience wants her to be: silent and beautiful, emptied to fill with all of our own desires. But it’s not fair to pin this on just one film, whatever my complicated feelings about it; almost every piece of work about Dalton trafficks in some kind of mythology. At the end of a beautiful BBC radio documentary from 2016, for example, aforementioned writer Laura Barton (who also seems to keep coming back to Dalton) says in her lilting British accent, “There are still holes in her story, we have a tendency to want to patch up holes, and that’s what’s happened with Karen Dalton: the stories and myth have mixed with her music, to the extent that it can seem difficult to ever get a hold on who she really was. But I think perhaps that’s what I like most about her, that even now she still slips our grasp and what we’re left with is her voice.” Moments later, Peter Walker recounts how Karen Dalton never wanted to be famous after her death because, as he quotes her, mimicking her Oklahoma twang, “Peter, I won’t be here to enjoy it.”
When I think of the problem of Karen Dalton’s ghost, I think about all the women we have cast aside, women who refused to be what the world wants them to be. I think about how long we’ve needed to empty women of their humanity to appreciate their work. I come back to Francesca Woodman’s ghostly photographs, to Hannah Wilke’s posthumously mythologized body art, and to Shulamith Firestone dying alone, perhaps having starved to death, in her small apartment. I want them all to be here to enjoy this strange and often painful world.
Another film about Karen Dalton, produced by Wim Wenders, will come out this year. It’s titled In My Own Time: A Portrait of Karen Dalton and I can’t help but hope that it will put her squarely in the center of the frame, rather than forever dancing at the edge. I can’t help but hope that it will untangle the woman from the myth. I can’t help but hope it’ll feel less lonely. And, so, the potential of the film has become something larger than the film itself could ever be in my imagination: it becomes the mechanism by which we can stop collectively imagining that she died alone – at least no more alone than any of us do – because there’s no such thing as dying alone as long as someone, somewhere loves you. This film of my mind is the gift I want to give to my nurse friend, who loves sad folk music and has a haunting singing voice; it would be such a sweet gift after this strange and lonely COVID winter.
But if I’m honest it’s not really my imaginary film about Karen Dalton that I want to give to my nurse friend, to everyone who has lost so much this year. I suppose it’s more the gift of a new world, one unlike the world we lived in before. In my post-pandemic gift of a world, this friend and I are driving around on the sun-dappled roads of rural Maryland, in a meandering search for a swimming hole. We pack all our favorite people into her Subaru station wagon and wave our hands out the window, feeling the warm summer breeze on our fingers and laughing with abandon. The dried flowers she keeps on her dashboard shift gently with the twists and turns of the road as we sing along to Karen Dalton, who is no longer the soundtrack to loneliness because we know that – whether we made it through this year completely intact or not – we are all deserving of a Peter Walker to hold our grief. We are all worthy of being loved in our wholeness, our sorrow, ourselves.
Siân Evans is an art librarian and writer based in Baltimore, MD. She can be found at https://sianevansmls.com.