Lately I’ve been thinking about Kate Wolf (1942-1986), a singer and songwriter from this part of the country who was just beginning to draw national attention when leukemia took her at the age of 44. Growing up, she listened to Dylan, The Weavers, The Carter Family, and Merle Haggard (1). Her poetic lyrics celebrated backroads and small towns and her music wove the “high lonesome” sound of bluegrass into landscape of northern California.
Once I loaned a friend one of Kate’s albums. When she returned it she mentioned that her 10 year old son listened to several songs and said, “Wow, that music is really sad.” Pothos comes to mind, a Greek word I have used here before, that signifies a restlessness, an unrequited and unrequitable longing for what lies beyond the horizon. Pothos is the affliction of dreamers and it’s woven as a minor chord through much of this music, even when it seems most concrete:
Here in California fruit hangs heavy on the vines,
But there’s no gold, I thought I’d warn you,
And the hills turn brown in the summertime.
– from “Here in California” by Kate Wolf
In April, 1986, Kate was diagnosed with leukemia. After chemotherapy, she went into full remission, started work on a retrospective album, and scheduled another tour. The disease returned in the fall, however, and we lost her on December 10. Her long time friend and touring partner, Utah Phillips covered the remaining shows she’d booked, including one in Placerville Mary and I had tickets for.
He led the crowd in singing her songs and said something I’ve never forgotten. “At the end of her life, Kate told me she knew why she’d gotten cancer. She took in people’s pain, the pain of living. It was the source of her art, but she realized too late that she never learned to let it go.” Phillips warned everyone to beware of clinging to grief and reminded us of the threads of hope and joy we also find in her music.
Kate’s music has been covered by musicians like Emmy Lou Harris, Nanci Griffith, and Peter Rowan. You can sample her songs on katewolf.com, a website her family maintains, as well as on iTunes. Once you listen, these songs find a home in your head and heart, for as Kate Wolf put it in “Brother Warrior:”
We are crying for a vision
That all living things can share
And those who care
Are with us everywhere.