Kate Wolf: Links In The Chain
-- From A Conversation With Utah Phillips
A Journal of the San Geronimo Valley Cultural Center
On February 8th, 1989, Utah Phillips met with Terry Fowler and Jean Berensmeier
following his concert at the (San Geronimo Valley Cultural) Center. He spoke about Kate
Wolf -- both as a musician and a friend in the community. The following article is adapted
from that interview.
Kate was a true artist. She did not come back refreshed by the applause.
That's exhausting. She came back refreshed because she knew that what she was doing
artistically held together. That she had been successful in creating a piece of art on the
stage. Like a painter. Or a poet, who looked at it and said, "That's done. I have put
something in the room and it stands by itself." Refreshed by the internal perception
that it is correct, it is good art.
Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once told me,
"Praise corrupts the house of the soul." As an artist, you can't think clearly
about art if you are just into praise. The image of the American entertainer, sculpted by
the media, is so overwhelming that it's so easy to let your ego run away with you. But
what happens to the art? Kate found comfort in the integrity of the piece of work that
happens on the stage.
In times where we are given over to machines (televisions, VCRs,
automatic tellers), it is important that we not only try to create intimacy, we must
demand it. Kate did that. Not just created it, by being there and doing what she did. But
to consciously demand it, and work at it until its forthcoming.
Ask people what they really know, and they'll tell you the truth. They
will tell you their good news. And out of that you may become good news yourself, despite
all the bad news in the world. Kate was able to do that, and people brought her their good
I felt that as she listened to poets, she was trying to get some tools
that she couldn't get from songwriters on how to get it out. On how to resolve things.
With her last records, when you listen to "Slender Thread" or "In China or
a Woman's heart", it was paying off.
Kate invited me to the Santa Rosa Folk Festival. She had gotten an old
Rosalie Sorrels/ Mitch Greenhill record [featuring many of my songs]. It was one of those
things. That was the record which convinced her she could write, that she should be making
songs. She simply wanted to meet me and invited me to the festival. But she got into my
notebook and started pulling out songs, pulling out words. My notebook was like a box of
rubbish. And she took one of those, put a tune to it, and sang it at the main concert.
I had been doing quite well in the East, where most of the old folk music
societies go back to the days of the CIO. If you are going to crack this nut, you are
going to crack that one. Either that or go industrial. So I decided that there were all
these audiences back there who needed to listen to Kate.
We drove to Washington, where there was a rally for Karen Silkwood by the
Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union. Kate had always said that I do a lot of external
politics, politics of the world, and she did the interior politics. Between us, they kind
of met. On the stage it was as if there was one whole person. On the drive down I gave her
the material I had on Karen. And then she asked to sing. I went to the head of the Union,
and said that Kate would like to sing. They had never heard of her. But they had the time.
And she sang "Links In the Chain." She had been making it up in the back seat
all that way. It was the first time she had ever looked at the situation and stepped
outside herself. It was a great song. And a fair trade. It was always a fair trade.
My last memory is from a concert in Berkeley. There was an enormous line
out in front. Old friends. As I was cruising the line, everyone wanted to know about Kate.
I got up on stage and told the audience to ask her. She was sitting there in a shawl.
Everyone drew their breath like a ghost was there. But during the intermission, she got up
and sold all my records. Just stood there dealing. Taking cash. Counting money. We were
trades people and were doing it right.
The first time she felt really part of the community was here. She was
able to look at what she had written against the background of community. So, of course,
she came here, to the Center, to carve out that basis for existence that doesn't depend
upon your notoriety. Where you are putting in time with your peers in the community.