“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
― Jack Kerouac. The Dharma Bums
The 1960s and 70s were a strange time here in California. The great sea change happened, that shifted society away from the conventions and strictures of the previous decades of the twentieth century. Women, whilst not free, had got the idea that they could be, and my sisters that came before me fought for their own freedom and dignity and that of others around them suffering under the yoke of injustice. Yes, here in California, the alchemical reaction was strong and the words were simple, and the beat went on and on. The older generation of today was at the very tip of the iceberg of change that peeked above the surface and sat immense and cool beneath the waves of change.
I have spent the last few days listening to a singer songwriter that had somehow escaped my thirst for musical genius. I have listened up and down this whole wide world, and somehow I didn’t find Kate Wolf until Sunday night, and rectified the absolutely unforgiveable lacking in my listening. Kate filled a void in my heart and soul with her simple, yet powerful melody and words. She exhibits a gentle and understated relationship with inspiration that remained intact and undiluted right to the end of her short but influential career.
Kate was a free songbird, a woman of the Californian hills, a woman who loved and lost and loved again, and all the time she detailed her wins and pain, her fears and hopes, and loves and losses via her songs. Her lyrics are run through with the steel of a woman who has determined to survive to live and laugh once again. Her voice is the velvet glove that softens the blow of that iron fist that she sings about in Close to You.
Wolf’s truths are essentially female truths, though she sings of the human condition, and the universality of the need for love. Her struggles are the same as any woman who has tried to make it in a world which seeks not to make things easy, but to crush any attempts made by women to live free, to live for themselves, not their man or their children, but for the light in their head, the fire in their belly and the swift dexterity of fingers on six steel strings that demand sacrifice if they are going to play the game of creativity.
Kate was born in my beloved San Francisco, in 1942. Had she not passed away from leukemia at the age of 44 in 1985, it would have been impossible for me not to have heard about her, because Kate Wolf was just breaking through at the time of her diagnosis. She had just appeared on Austin City Limits in 1986, giving a blisteringly assured performance, and found out she was very unwell just weeks later.
There is something strange about getting to know someone through their music or their art or words, it is as if you are given the entire person and their life at once. No sooner had I ‘met’ Kate through her songs, picked up my guitar and played Here In California, noting how perfectly the music fit together with the words, and enjoyed the pure pleasure of playing an infinitely well written song, then I read she had passed, and not only that died way too soon.
I listened to Unfinished Life and felt my heart break. Wolf’s ability to grab the emotions of the listener and hold them hostage to truth and life is that of a skilled artist. She doesn’t make you feel how you are feeling, she allows the listener to get outside of their own feelings, and dig deep into hers. Through that sharing of emotion and desires there lays a kernel of comfort. Kate Wolf’s struggles are all our struggles: she wrestles with mortality, with unwise love, with the desire to grasp onto the great beyond and crack it wide open. In The Great Divide she sings of an owl that passes from this world to the next, separated from view. That owl of division haunts her songs of separation. “Time can paint the treetops with colors of the rainbow, but you cannot find the end, no matter how you try”, she sang in Unfinished Life. This sense of being unable to find what you are looking for, the mother’s warning of love being able to destroy a life, that she details in Here in California, the division of being ‘gone away in yesterday’, the mountains that separate the people of our past, and the unknown of our future, and yes, of death and life. Life tumbles by as never ending as a waterfall, never able to recreate that yesterday today or tomorrow.
So powerful is Kate Wolf’s words and music, I feel like I have lost a friend I have just made. That is entirely due to Kate Where Wolf’s uncanny ability to make the listener feel as if they have a personal relationship with her. She doesn’t just sing from the heart: she sings with no barriers, no hang ups, no arms length between her and the listener, instead she draws them in, holds them close and tells them her deepest secrets and feelings. Wolf is not just an open book, she is an entire library of feelings and emotions, an empath of the highest order. Kate is the Ram Dass of folk music, reaching out with her love and compassion, sharing herself freely, both happiness and suffering, with anyone who wanted to listen and be reassured that they are not alone.
Kate Wolf is her music, her music is her. They exist in a symbiotic relationship, and without knowing her personal history, songs like Across The Great Divide are so full of pain and longing, and a sense of loss that it is impossible not to know some of her suffering and her hopes and fears. The life she details in her songs is the the life she tried to live being true to herself. This honesty, her pure intent, her dedication to freedom makes me bolder. If Kate could be Kate with her ‘flame..too much to handle..’ then that fire that burns inside me might not destroy me after all. My hazel eyes looked into the Green Eyes, her beautiful love song that lets the listener into a long term relationship which is showing the cracks as well as the love and lust between two people who adore each other, but harbor long-held wounds. “After all the years of the hard and lonely times, now our days go by like best friends story lines,” is one of the saddest lines even written in a love song.
Everything changes, everything passes, everything has to move on down the line, and in this respect Kate Wolf reminds me a lot of Townes Van Zandt. Her songs are written against a backdrop of natural beauty, of country pleasures, and earth mother appreciation for the wilderness. There is something crystal clear and pure about Kate Wolf, and it is not only her voice, which rings out so true and perfect, but with a vulnerable quality, and complete lack of artifice. Kate is as natural as the world around her, and without gaudy baubles or need of much embellishment. Kate alongside her long term guitarist, Nina Gerber, work best when they work simple. All these songs need is Kate, her guitar, and Gerber’s, and perhaps a little cross harp. Nature doesn’t need trinkets and tricks to make it lovely, and nor do these gorgeous songs.
Listening to Kate Wolf is pure comfort. It is that peaceful easy feeling that is so precious, and that human connection that in this post pandemic world, I have been craving more and more of late.
Being true to oneself is the greatest project of all. There is nothing quite like a person who lives in self-honesty and without trying to be who others want them to be. Kate Wolf is a wilderness woman, her songs are infused with campsmoke, wild flowers and mountain honey sensibilities. “Jay bird’s calling”, in Like A River, while Nina Gerber’s fleet mandolin picks a ‘mountain grass’ rhythm. “Purple clouds turn scarlet in the setting sun,” in Pacheo, and it is impossible not to be transported to somewhere where the wild sage grows as Kate paints pictures with her words. The Redhawk haunts her songs as it ‘writes songs across the sky’. Some put on the outward trappings of nature-momma hippydom, but Kate Wolf, a city girl from San Francisco, loved the wild world like the Wolf name that hung so perfectly upon her.
‘The golden rolling hills of California’ that Kate sings about erupt from her songs, she is a mystical princess, a wise-woman, a wolf on the run, a songbird with a voice that could melt the ice in any heart. A voice that melted the ice around my own. Wolf was clearly an immensely generous spirit, and in songs like All He Ever Saw Was You, she gives her comfort and her succor to her friend whose partner had died. “And now the flame is out, but the light burns on, no one ever said he was bigger than his songs..” Wolf sang with immense compassion, and I shall take her advice now. Nothing can ever put out a flame that burnt as true and brightly as Kate’s. Her songs were seeds planted: seeds of love, of dignity, of longing and comfort, and out in the world they will forever be heard and they will continue to water parched souls desperate for both encouragement and sympathy.
Kate Wolf liked to finish her shows with the song Give Yourself To Love. Perhaps she felt that if she sang it often enough, people might get the right idea, to ‘give themselves to Love, if love is what you are after’. Love is, after all, the ‘circle that holds us all inside’. These songs are lessons from a generation that almost had the answers, that almost had something, that almost plunged wider society into a brighter future. Of course we lost the battle, but the war for love over hate, for acceptance over resistance, for nature over artifice still rages on, and while we fight it, we all need encouragement. Kate Wolf is that warrior woman at the gates waving her flag of freedom and beauty, shouting her battle cry of Love! Love! Love! Give yourself to love!