Kate Wolf


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Courtesy of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Used by permission.
December 12, 1986

Gaye LeBaron's Notebook

A Column left unwritten

ey, this is one I don't want to write. I'd rather just sit here, looking out the window on a gray and gloomy evening, and let my mind roll back 15 years or so to a funny little restaurant on College Avenue with avocado soup on the menu, '60s style murals on the walls and outrageous graffiti in the restrooms.

There at Carl Repfening's Painted House, with a group of good friends, after a semi organic dinner, I heard a new singing duo called Wildwood Flower for the first time. We clapped our hands and sang along, we hushed when the song turned serious, a protest of war in general and Vietnam specifically. We marveled at the vocal clarity of the woman who sang a capella songs she had written about Sonoma County, about the hills and the hawks and the lilac trees, the orchards and the country roads she traveled to get there.

*   *   *

THAT’S WHERE I want to be again this afternoon. Not here. Not writing that Kate Wolf of the clear voice and clearer mind is dead.

Wednesday night, at UC Hospital in San Francisco, she lost her eight month battle with leukemia. It was a battle she had no intention of losing. The last time she called here, she was talking about rescheduling her "Homecoming" concert in Sonoma County, which she had to cancel in April, just as soon as the marrow transplant was complete.

She might have sung the old songs she wrote when she lived out there in the country, near Sebastopol, the songs she called "Sonoma County Music" even when she had to explain what that meant to audiences in New England or the Midwest, at the famous Wolftrap near Washington, D.C., or on the national broadcasts of "A Prairie Home Companion," or PBS's "Austin City Limits." She wasn't ours, you know. Not anymore. She had achieved a certain stature that took her far.

But for that Homecoming Concert she might have sung like she sang at O'Connell's Grove in the good old days of the early '70s, before insurance companies turned nasty, when like minded people could still get together, borrow an orchard, and have a concert. Boy, I'd give anything to hear her.

*   *   *

I HAVE NEVER been a person to gush over entertainers but I was an unabashed, wholehearted fan of Kate Wolf. By the time I met her for the first time -- at a benefit concert at Windsor Vineyards (she did more benefits than Bob Hope)--I had written so many glowing pieces on her music that she greeted me with: "I'm happy to finally meet you. People keep asking me it you're my mother."

When our kids turned up in the same elementary school, we became friends. Her son Max played with our son. Kate advised our junior high age daughter on choosing a guitar. She was becoming famous, and very busy, but she always had time to sing for the Girl Scouts, to share an adventure from a road trip. When she moved to the Bay Area, I missed seeing her.

*   *   *

WHEN KATE left Sonoma County she took something with her. She didn't intend to, but time was passing. SRJC instructor Ed LaFrance, who was the on the air partner in radio station KVRE in those years, put it well. "Kate spoke of the rural, small town flavor of Sonoma County. She took what we had in those years and put it into words. She was really more of a poet than a song writer and that was what was special about her music. She embodied the spirit of a whole bunch of people. She put it all in words. It was a time."

It was, indeed a time. Music critics called it the Renaissance of Sonoma County folk music, which I always found puzzling since I don't think we ever had a music of our own before. But Kate was the Renaissance Woman. The Den Mother of Sonoma County Music, I called her. And I wasn't kidding. She looked like a teenager but she had the dedication of a church choirmaster and the energy of a rock band.

*   *   *

NO, I DON'T want to write about Kate Wolf dead. I want to keep writing about her alive. About the day she met Emma Rose, the woman she put in a song because she liked the sound of her name on a mailbox along a west county roadside. It was at a record signing for Kate's first album called "Back Roads," which was recorded in a marathon session at Katie and Dale Iversen's beach house at Goat Rock. The party was held at Pete Wiseman's Texaco Station on Farmers Lane. Pete, a fine musician in his own right, had played bass on the album and Kate loved the incongruity of a record party around the lube racks.

I want to hear her sing about the red tailed hawk that "writes songs against the sky," about the homely pleasures of Sonoma County's rural community like going to the dump on a Sunday morning over a bumpy country road. I want to talk to her about the notes I saved for her about the hoboes who passed through here in the Depression days and the song she wants to write about them.

I want to write about the folk festival she put together at SRJC in '75. I went around with her at the end of the first day, from Rose Maddox to U. Utah Phillips, from an old sailor singing sea chanties to a banjoist teaching kids to play the spoons. She was a middle aged kid in a candy shop, surrounded by her idols and better than all of them.

*   *   *

I WANT to write about the day she came to SRJC to sing a noon concert, to sing about Agent Orange long after Vietnam was ended and bring tears to the eyes of a new generation of students who were too young to remember but old enough to know this woman sang the truth.

I want to write about her standing in mid stage in her faded; denim patchwork skirt and boots, tapping her foot, strumming her guitar and calling all her musical friends around her--her former husband Don Coffin, her staunch friend Nina Gerber who started with Kate as a teenager and became her main accompanist, Hugh Shacklett and John Brandeburg, Michael Beargrease, Bob Ward of the Cigar Band, and Tommy Thompson and the others--leading them in one last chorus of "May the Circle be Unbroken."

Last night, the National Public Radio broadcast of "All Things Considered" closed with Kate singing "Give Yourself to Love."

And a lot of people around these parts cried.

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