‘In My Own Time,’ 50 Years Later

Demystifying the reemergence of Karen Dalton

On December 8, 2021

Karen Dalton was not a household name in ’70s folk, but she has modern fans in Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, and Bob Dylan called her his favorite singer in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One. Her second and final album, In My Own Time, celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021, its title both ironic and prognostic — Dalton is receiving much more recognition today, long after her death.

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There were numerous articles, around the time of Light in the Attic’s reissue of In My Own Time in 2007, framing Dalton as one of the best folk singers you’ve never heard of. There are reasons for that anonymity: she seldom recorded or performed, her raw delivery style didn’t exactly land well within the praised “clarion bell” vocalists who were popular at the time, her work defied easy genre classification and Dalton sang exclusively covers during the decades reigned by singer-songwriters. Dalton’s voice is not always easy listening, but has come to be recognized for its incredible emotive power, and drawn comparisons to Billie Holiday (which she reportedly hated) and Nina Simone.


Dalton’s work is finding more of an audience now, with listeners more interested perhaps in authenticity than perfectly smooth vocals, and modern ears less concerned with figuring out what genre they’re listening to. There’s also a mythology to Dalton as an artist, stemming from tales of her difficult personal life. Fellow singer Lacy J. Dalton, who lived with Karen Dalton for part of her life, told the Guardian, “[Karen] was of the old beat generation that felt you had to be burning the candle both ends and dying of hunger to call yourself an artist.


“I’ve always called them canaries in the coalmine, because they were in some ways hypersensitive to what was going on in the world. They were expressing their feelings of powerlessness and they felt they should live, do drugs, drink, whatever to take the pain away.”


‘In My Own Time’ is a window into an alternative world of ’70s folk, and it’s clear from the first listen that the record deserves the attention it’s getting now.


In that same profile in the Guardian, producer Harvey Brooks (bass player for Bob Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited) said, “I only knew her as an addicted personality. She had drug problems the whole time I knew her. She had a painful personality and I think she did drugs to soothe the pain.”


That pain is on full display in In My Own Time. The album, despite being a collection of covers, has a throughline of sadness and the sense that there is so much emotional depth just below the surface, heard especially in tracks like “Something On Your Mind” and “Take Me.” Dalton’s take on “How Sweet It Is” is one of the more upbeat moments on the album, but still doesn’t come close to the saccharine sound of most renditions of the song.


At the close of the album, “Are You Leaving for the Country” is an affecting goodbye. The mournful “Are you leaving for the country? / You say the city brings you down” feels like a euphemism for escapism and her subsequent departure from the music industry.


In My Own Time is a window into an alternative world of ’70s folk, and it’s clear from the first listen that the record deserves the attention it’s getting now. Lacy J. Dalton also told the Guardian, “Karen had true, true greatness that had not been recognised. I said to her, ‘It’s going to annoy the hell out of you, but you’ll probably only get recognised after your death.’” About 50 years later, that prediction seems to be coming true.


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Theda Berry

Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the Assistant Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.

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