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Kate Wolf: She Gives Herself To Love

Marja Eloheimo
Photographs by Jay Daniel
The Fax
A weekly newspaper of the San Geronimo Valley
October 1984

      "When the morning breaks
      and the sunlight warms my soul
      In the east the eagle flies
      and the Redtail proudly soars
      I'm on my way
      to the place of the spirit one
      grandfather hear me now I am on fire.
      Let the sundance guide my feet
      to your desire
      Give me visions for my eyes
      and words like gold
      that shimmer in the sun."

fax1a.jpg (9302 bytes)You can't forget the beauty and magic and mystery of life when you're around Kate Wolf. She speaks of it, sings of it, and surrounds herself with its lightness--living as openly as she can, like a room without walls.

Her voice burrows then tickles. Her eyes twinkle then demand. Her life brings her gifts that she wraps in music and ties with guitar strings that sound softer than silk. Then she gives them away and the present is always her heart.

Kate Wolf is the singer and Kate Wolf is the song.

In the morning coolness of her studio in Forest Knolls, Kate welcomes me with hot tea and a warm heart, given freely once again. But she says, "I don't feel exposed. What I sing about is really common to us all. It's nothing secret."

Indeed, Kate was influenced greatly by the "very direct" tradition of country music, listening to the original Jimmy Rogers and the Carter family. "It doesn't beat around the bush," she says, "It deals with every day life. And it endures."

In the early '60s, though painfully shy, Kate sang in coffeehouses and played guitar. When she dropped out of San Francisco State to marry and raise a family, she stopped playing. But one day, when her daughter was only a year old (she’s seventeen now), her babysitter brought Kate a record of Rosalie Sorrels playing Utah Phillips. Kate had never heard of either but their music awoke her inspiration. She sat down immediately to learn the whole record.

Then and there, without expecting or even recognizing it, the seed of Kate's future was planted. ("It's amazing the little things people drop in your way.") And in the sixteen years that have followed, that seed has grown, enduring droughts and winters that lent strength to the vine and sweetness to rich harvests of fruit. Kate's songs are ripe with the taste of experience. And as a symbol of her maturity, Kate today shares the stage with Utah Phillips. They have become close friends.

Every Sunday on KPFA radio, Kate's clear voice rings out the theme to the folk music program ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE. Recently I attended a concert where Kate asked her audience to join in singing this song and, to her surprise, they knew not only the chorus but the verses, too. People who know Kate Wolf, listen.

At the concert, her audience felt like family and the comfort felt like home. It was fitting: with the warmth only true friends can bring, Kate was welcomed back to the stage after a year long sabbatical. With a big smile she said, "It's really nice to take a year off to discover that what you want to do is what you've been doing all along."

What Kate has been doing is writing and performing, hosting radio shows and, since 1976, recording. With her first album, BACK ROADS, which was made and financed by the local people of Sonoma County where she then lived, Kate began to be appreciated by ever widening circles.

By 1981, with the arrival of her fourth of five albums, Bob Young, Program Director of San Francisco's KSAN radio had written--
"...I listen to a lot of music. After a while most of it starts to sound the same. That's why I'm a fan of Kate Wolf. Her music isn't like everyone else's. It's real. Maybe it's like baking a cake. You can follow directions right off the box or you can bake it right from scratch. Kate sings from scratch.."

Kate's songs often hold a sadness that's like clear water in cupped hands. Indeed, she says that one reason she started singing as a child was to touch that sadness. Today people send letters to say they have been taken by her songs through their sadness. They've been taken to the other side.

      "The finest hour, that I have seen,
      is the one that comes between
      the edge of night and the break of day,
      When the darkness rolls away."

And what's on the other side?

I didn't ask but my guess is Kate would say-- a little bit of humor. In her concerts she brings a smile after every sad song--and even sometimes in the middle. When a sleeping child caught her eye and the lyrics slipped her mind, Kate quipped, "You look at a kid and forget all you know." She brought laughter but, more than that, she shared the beauty that had moved her. By stroking the moment delicately she had given both lightness and something deep.

Kate is now forty two. In the last four years she has gone through what she calls, symbolically, a "shake down" and an "emptying out" as well as a vision quest, a marriage, and a move to Marin. Now she feels on the brink of something new and, because she risks to follow where her heart and instincts lead, Kate is open to the road ahead though she can't see 'round the bend.

fax1b.jpg (8253 bytes) "It's an unfinished life
that I find lies before me;
an open-ended dream
and I don't want to wake.
I've crossed so many rivers
in search of crystal fountains;
I've found the truest paths
always lead through mountains.
I've seen water on the sky,
and fire burning on the lake."

Today Kate is very excited about what she feels is happening in the world and in herself. "Something is getting healthy" both within and without. Of herself she says, "'I've slowed down. I've let go of a lot of the sadness and fear in my life and have started to really enjoy where I've been and what I'm getting into." And in speaking of the world she points to a fabric of individuals who are working to make the land healthy “not in an abstract sense, but out there stomping around."

A few weeks ago Kate joined Gary Snyder-- a poet, farmer and spokesperson for bioregionalism; Lee Swenson--"an extraordinary human being," says Kate, who was Director of the Institute for Non violence and is involved with the Farallone's Institute; and Mark DuBois of Friends of the River--for an all-day symposium on "The Recovery of the Commons."

Though Kate felt she had more to learn than to say at the event she was moved to sing:

      "Finding work that is your own
      may take some time to find
      You've got to ask yourself some questions
      You've got to draw the line
      You've got to start all over
      if your heart says it's not right
      You can make your own way peaceful
      or you may have to fight."

What may be coming for Kate is a blending of her voice in song with the voices of others who--though speaking in different forms--like her, care to heal the ways of people and the wounds of the earth. Recognizing the very special role music can have in this work she says, "I can never remember poems but I can remember songs. There's something about when you put a melody to words that engages the heart...."

And there's something about when you put Kate Wolf behind a guitar that engages the heart, too.

      "Love is born in fire;
      it's planted like a seed
      Love can't give you everything
      But it gives you what you need
      Love comes when you are ready,
      love comes when you're afraid
      it will be your greatest teacher,
      the best friend you have made.
      So give yourself to love
      if love is what you're after
      Open up your heart
      to the tears and laughter
      and give yourself to love,
      give yourself to love."

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