Katie Lee will be 95 on October 23.
Ever since Glen Canyon was buried by Reservoir Powell in the nineteen sixties, Katie Lee has sung, stomped, photographed, written about, fought to restore the magic of Glen Canyon and to let the Colorado River run free. She is venerated as the most flamboyant of knights among a growing legion of pro-wilderness activists. She refers to the reservoir as ‘Loch Latrine’ and ‘Rez Foul.’ Her auto license plate reads ‘Dam Dams.’
Katie Lee: Wild Riding Career
Katie had an eclectic and wild-riding career. She began her professional career in 1948 as a stage and screen actress. She performed bit parts in motion pictures in Hollywood; had running parts on major NBC radio shows, including The Great Gildersleeve and The Railroad Hour with Gordon McRae; was a pioneer actress and folk music director on The Telephone Hour with Helen Parrish in the early ’50’s; she left Hollywood to spend ten years as a folk singer in coffeehouses and cabarets throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
When I met her in 1980, she was the foremost documentarian of cowboys and their songs in western ranching circles.
She brings them to life in her book Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle: A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story and Verse; and in her recording Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle. The book might have been a bestseller among ranchers if goddam hadn’t been part of the title. Ranchers are a conservative and religious lot. My entreaties to change it would be met with angry expletives followed by “It’s the title of a famous cowboy song.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, Katie performed at cowboy poetry gatherings in Ruidoso, New Mexico; Medora, North Dakota; and Elko, Nevada, among others. Those festivals revived the West’s great legacy of cowboy songs, which are different from the songs sung at country western music festivals, which Katie loathes. “Country and Western is neither,” she once told me in an interview for an article I wrote for Sing Out! (a folk song magazine). “Its lyrics are about tight miserable places like phone booths, dingy bars, and stuffy bedrooms and some poor twit whose wife or girlfriend just dumped him.” She dismissed country superstar Waylon “f*#!ing” Jennings, “He wouldn’t know a cowboy from a cow.”
There’s no mistaking what Katie feels about anything. “Tact is a f*#!ing waste of time,” she once told me.
Her books, Glen Canyon Betrayed and Sandstone Seduction and recordings “Folk Songs of the Colorado River” and “Colorado River Songs,” and DVD, Love Song to Glen Canyon are paeons to the magic of a canyon now lost under the waters of Reservoir Powell.
“Why Glen Canyon,” I asked her over lunch one day, I was hoping my question would take her by surprise and that she might give me an answer that was not in her books. Without even a pause, she said, “Because Glen Canyon is always present in my mind, it’s hardly ever in my dreams. It’s as if my feet are still stuck in the sand at the edge of the river. It’s where I live. This other life I walk around in all day—well, that’s a passing thing. And in many ways it’s my defense against the sadder mechanisms of life around us. And God knows we all need those mechanisms from keeping ourselves from going crazy in this mad world.”
Katie Lee 1971
Jerome in 1971 scarcely looked like it does today. Big buildings were in decay. The Little Daisy had no roof and no windows; the old hospital was boarded up; the deterioration of the Victorian houses on Company Hill were symbols of the ghost town Jerome was purported to be. Although the population never dipped below 200, journalists portrayed it as one most famous ghost towns of the West.
Here’s how Katie Lee described moving to Jerome 1n 1971.
“Betty Bell had a gallery uptown and it was her fault I was here. She knew of a house for rent. ‘No way I’m going to live on damaged earth. It’s a dead town.’ ‘Yeah,’ said Betty, ‘but you’ll love the price.’ I went to see it. Ninety dollars a month was way less than the $250 a month I paid in Sedona. There was black and white linoleum in the front entrance, and one wall was painted the most god-awful purple with green trim. It was the most horrible color combo I’d ever seen. The windows faced down the gulch, which looked like an ugly junk pile. I paid the rent, moved my furniture and plants, put my bags down, and handed the keys to the only two guys I knew and asked them to please water my plants. Then I headed to Princeton, New Jersey, to begin another tour of the United States as a folk singer.” (From the book: Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Richest Copper Mining City)
Katie Lee: Career Milestones in 2014
The year 2014 marks three major milestones in Katie Lee’s career: she’s featured in two major documentaries and published a new book. A special edition of black and white art photographs highlights Katie’s 37-year old nude body in Glen Canyon. No wonder Katie is in a triple tizzy.
Producer ML Lincoln’s film Wrenched is a gut-wrenching documentary about the community of activists that were inspired by the work of Edward Abbey, who wrote so eloquently about the lonesome and beautiful places of the Southwest. (www.wrenched-themovie.com)
DamNation documents the loss of America’s endangered rivers and the dams that block them. www.damnationfilm.com
Katie sings and talks her way into the heart of the films, grabbing viewers emotionally.
Hite Marina before Glen Canyon Reservoir
The Ghosts of Dandy Crossing, published in 2014 by Dream Garden Press, is a triple love story: the characters that lived around Dandy Crossing, now Hite Marina, before the river rose to drown it; the love of the beauty of Glen Canyon that would soon be drowned; and Katie’s love affair with a cowboy/miner that lived at Hite. Katie is one of the few writers whose words can weave us into the magic spell that the canyons of the southwest have—and this book does it very well. The book is one of the few historical documents about the life lived in Hite Canyon before the dam before it was flooded by Glen Canyon dam.
Naked Katie: Classic Portraits
Anyone who has ever hiked or boated with Katie in the wilderness knows she will shed her clothes as quickly as she possibly can, and not put them on again until she gets close to her car. In her words, [I have been]” hiking freely and in tune with nature for at least half of those years. When I met Glen Canyon it was love at first sight— a place far from the inbred taboos of our society— closer to a dreamland than to reality. I have never posed as a model and am not doing so here…only doing what I always did in Glen Canyon—climbing, dancing, walking, touching, talking to the stone, swimming in the river, lying in the shallows, sliding down the falls, crawling through ruins, inching up crevasses, hanging from tree limbs, covering myself with mud, playing, singing, living with the canyon. I can always tell when a model is photographed in a place she’s never seen or experienced before; it’s in body language that can’t be hidden.”
The limited edition of black and white portraits of Katie Lee at 37 years old is now available from Hance Editions, http://katie-lee.hanceeditions.com/about-us.
Katie Lee: A Rich Legacy Realized in Her Own Lifetime
Happy Birthday Katie. I’m so glad you are able to feel the effects of your eloquent activism in your lifetime. And I’m so happy to be your friend. www.katydoodit.com
Diane Sward Rapaport is the author of Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Richest Copper Mining City.