Happy Birthday, Katie Lee

Katie Lee will be 95 on October 23.

Activist Katie Lee

Katie Lee is a vibrant, energetic and eloquent 95-year old singer, author and activist. Photo: Katie Lee archives

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 Dam.’

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.

One of the best histories ever written about cowboys.

“A beautiful job, exact, comprehensive and witty. Should remain a basic history of the subject for many year to come.” – Edward Abbey.

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.

Cover illustration by Serena Supplee, renowned artist of the Colorado Plateau. www.serenasupplee.com

Cover illustration by Serena Supplee, renowned artist of the Colorado Plateau. http://www.serenasupplee.com

“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.

Iconic view of Jerome AZ from the old cemetery. Photo by Bob Swanson (www.swansonimages.com)

View of jerome from an old cemetery. Photo by Bob Swanson (www.Swansonimages.com)

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)

"Wrenched"-the film

Cover of the DVD of ML Lincoln’s film Wrenched.

DamNation documents the loss of America’s endangered rivers and the dams that block them. www.damnationfilm.com

DamNation

The film “DamNation” is a documentary about the adverse effects of dams

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.

Katie Lee near Dandy Crossing

The cover of Katie Lee’s book published in 2014 by Dream Garden Press (Salt Lake, Utah).

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.

Naked Katie in Glen Canyon

A black and white photo of Katie Lee nude in Glen Canyon hangs in the Patagonia offices. (www.patagonia.com)

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

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Kate Wolf Meets Katie Lee: Fires Burning Bright in Old Jerome.

Jerome Arizona Image Series

Photo by Bob Swanson, Swanson Images.com

After a brief introduction, Kate Wolf walked onto the stage of Jerome’s old Episcopal Church with her Martin acoustic guitar, took a measure of her audience, let them settle into silence, and began her concert. No preliminary chat; no guitar tuning. Dusky melodies floated out and curled into the corners of the room, cloaking 150 people in a cozy warmth. Her delivery was melancholy, almost monochrome, the lyrics clear and haunting. After a few songs, Kate talked a little, then began singing again. She was a quiet enchantress, a charisma that came from an unassuming, direct heart. Her audience was spellbound.

Kate was one of a growing number of artists that chose to record independently of the large record labels. I first met her when I began to interview indie artists in the San Francisco Bay Area. She and other indie artists helped spark the revolution that was written about in my book How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording.

The Episcopal Church had just been restored into a beautiful little theater with stained oak floors; wood paneling on the walls, a large stage flanked by heavy, lined maroon velvet theater curtains. The acoustics were so good that Kate did not need a sound system or microphones.

For almost two decades—before the Jerome Historical Society needed it for offices and archives, there were concerts, plays, lectures and historic symposiums. Perhaps the most well known person to grace its stage was Edward Abbey, the great Southwestern writer and wilderness activist, who introduced his movie Lonely are the Brave, based on his novel, The Brave Cowboy.

After the audience bought some of her vinyl records and thinned out, I introduced her to Kate to Katie Lee. Katie was 64 years old, dressed in a wild combo of orange, turquoise, bright maroon, charisma and feistiness writ large. It was as though a doe-eyed fawn was meeting a peacock.

Katie was in her sixties, the reigning elder of some twenty iconoclastic songwriters and musicians that had moved to Jerome in the late sixties and seventies. Shewas an author and folk singer that wrote and sang about the loss of the real cowboys (not those fake Gene Autrey types), wilderness and the tragic drowning of Glen Canyon, replaced by the Lake Powell reservoir, which Katie calls ‘Rez Foul,’ or ‘Loch Latrine.’ Her car license plate reads ‘Dam dams.’ There’s no mistake about how Katie feels about anything. “Tact is a fucking waste of time,” she once told me.

Katie was sharply blunt. “Kate, you’re a hell of a songwriter, but I couldn’t understand all your lyrics. Sometimes you mumble. You need to learn to enunciate. Lyrics are your most important strength, but if nobody can understand them, you are singing to fresh air. Come by my house tomorrow and I’ll help you as I was helped by some of the top professionals in the industry.”

I was taken aback, as used to Katie’s outspokenness as I was. Kate was unfazed, recognizing a critique given from another professional.

The women became instant friends, a mutual spark between two remarkable artists.
Both were fiercely independent women who shared a love of wild flowing rivers and the importance of finding a sense of rootedness in wilderness places. Both were consummate wordsmiths.

Katie arranged for Kate to stay a few more days at the house of a friend of hers across the street. A few days later, at ten o’clock in the evening, just as Katie was getting ready for bed, she heard a knock on the door. A very excited Kate wanted to play her newest song, “Old Jerome.”

The song captures the eerie stillness of a town still waking up to its new identity and the magic hold that it has on almost anyone who has ever lived there.


OLD JEROME
Words and music by Kate Wolf. Copyright 1983 by Another Sundown Publishing Company (BMI). Lyrics reprinted with permission.

Drinking early morning coffee,
talking with good friends,
and walking the streets of rough cut stone

She was once a miners’ city,
now the ghost of a dying town,
but there’s a fire burning bright in old Jerome.

Some have come for fortune,
some have come for love
and some have come for the things they cannot see

Now the grass is green and growing
where the gardens once had died
and the birds sing in the young Ailanthus trees

And they say that once you live here,
You never really go
‘cause she’ll have a hold on you until you die

With her ground moving crazy,
Her fierce wind blowing free
And her ruins standing proud against the sky

Houses cling to mountains
like miners cling to dreams
they hold on so long and then they just let go

And this mountain she’s your mistress,
you’ll ride her ’til you fall
and wash down to the valley far below.

There are stories that tell on Cleopatra
There are stories that never can be told
The wind and the rain sing their mountain lullaby
The copper shines like Arizona gold

And her walls stand strong and silent,
Starin’ out with empty eyes
like beggars blind and lame that do no harm

With their empty rooms that hold
the old town’s memories
and their doorways that reach out like empty arms

In the streets the children play,
climbing up the crooked stairs,
and lovers touch and turn to go back home

And the sound of hammers echo
in the once forgotten halls
and hope stirs in the heart of old Jerome

The moon shines bright on Cleopatra
Where the mines lie sleeping far below
The wind and the rain sing their mountain lullaby
And the copper shines like Arizona gold

“She strolled the cobblestones and got the pictures in her head,” said Katie. “We yakked until well after midnight.”

Katie loved the song so much she etched one of its verses into fresh concrete outside her writing studio and sent Kate a photo of it. In 1987, Katie persuaded the town of Jerome to adopt it as its official anthem. Katie Lee performed ‘Old Jerome’ on the TV special “Portraits of America.” (You can read more about Katie’s books, music and activism at her website: <a href="http://www.katydoodit.com.)

Kate was already infected with the leukemia that would cause her death in 1986. To her mind, she was infected in 1979 after visiting America’s partial nuclear meltdown in one of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactors in Pennsylvania.

“The Government killed her just like it did my dad,” said Katie. “He was healthiest man in the world, but in the fifties, he was living on the edge of the site near Las Vegas where the atom bomb was tested.” (The people and children that were infected with strange cancers from those tests are called downwinders. As an aside, the great activist and conservationist, Terry Tempest Williams, who wrote the introduction to Katie’s book Glen Canyon Betrayed, wrote about how her mother and sister was similarly infected by those same tests in her book, Refuge: an Unnatural History of Family and Place.)

In the year before she died, Kate Wolf’s career began to skyrocket. She was asked to perform at many of the key folk festivals in the Unites States and Canada. Her records were selling in the tens of thousands.

Kate sings “Old Jerome” on her album “The Wind Blows Wild,” released posthumously. You can hear Kate sing the song on https://myspace.com/katewolfmusic/music/song/old-jerome-live-kpfa-berkeley-ca-29077446

Recognition of the fine quality of Kate Wolf’s songwriting continues to this day. Artists such as Emmy Lou Harris and Nancy Griffith have recorded her songs. Since 1996, a Kate Wolf Memorial music festival is been held each summer in Northern California. More information about Kate, her music, and the festival are found at http://www.katewolf.com/festival.

(This vignette will be included in Diane Sward Rapaport’s new book, Home Sweet Jerome, Rescuing a Town from its Ghosts, forthcoming Spring 2014 from Johnson Books (Big Earth Publishing).