RRFW Riverwire –  Katie Lee Remembered

November 5, 2017

Katie Lee, Folk musician, environmental activist, and author passed away peacefully in her home in Jerome, AZ on November 1, 2017. She was 98 years old.

Katie lit a wildfire in her heart about the loss of Glen Canyon when it was drowned to become Lake Powell Reservoir. Often called the “Grand Dame of Dam Busting,” she never stopped fighting to drain it and return the natural flow of the Colorado River. Her book Glen Canyon Betrayed, a personal journey of her boating trips through the canyon, has become a classic. Only a few people know that Katie named most of the Glen’s many tributary canyons.

Katie Lee’s eclectic life and wild riding career leaves a rich legacy; She wrote five books, including a trilogy about Glen Canyon, recorded fourteen CDs, made two DVDs, and was much sought-after for appearances in TV shows and documentary films about the Southwest.

Hollywood Starlet and Folk Singer

Born in Tucson in 1919, Katie graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. She moved to Hollywood and began her professional career in 1948 as a stage and screen actress. She performed bit parts in motion pictures in Hollywood and had running parts on major NBC radio shows, including The Great Gildersleeve, Halls of Ivy, and The Railroad Hour with Gordon McRae. She was an actress and folk music director on The Telephone Hour with Helen Parrish in the early 50’s.

In the mid-fifties, Katie began a new career as a folk singer in cabarets such as the Gate of Horn in Chicago, The Blue Angel in New York, and the Hungry Eye in San Francisco. She helped organize the Cabaret Concert Theatre, a Greenwich Village type folk music venue in Hollywood, which attracted friends and fellow artists Josh White, Burl Ives, and Carl Sandburg. She began her recording career with a string of albums produced by Bud Freeman on major labels, starting with Spicy Songs for Cool Nights, a folk album in 1956, followed by two albums of psychotherapy parodies, Songs of Couch and Consultation and Bed of Neuroses. “The Best of Katie Lee” was recorded at the Troubadour in 1962 during a live performance joined by Howard Roberts on guitar. In 1964, she recorded Folk Songs of the Colorado River for Folkways. Katie re-published it in 1976 as Colorado River Songs. As an early pioneer with her own independent label, Katydid Records, in 1975, Katie recorded Love’s Little Sisters, a collection of folk songs about the early American ‘ladies of the night,’ in Mickey Hart’s (Grateful Dead) studio in Novato, California.

Folklorist: Songs of the Cowboys

Actor and singer Burl Ives once said: “The best cowboy singer I know is a girl—Katie Lee”

While Katie was touring the country as a folk singer, she interviewed cowboy songwriters and researched the roots of traditional cowboy songs.  In 1976 University of New Mexico first published what has become a classic book of cowboy lore through their songs, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle: A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story and Verse, written by Katie Lee and illustrated by cowboy artist William Moyers. She recorded many of the book’s songs with the late Travis Edmonson in a two-album set under the same title and released it on her Katydid Books and Music recording label.

Katie made an award-winning film documentary, The Last Wagon, which celebrated the lives of Gail Gardner and Billy Simon, two Arizona cowboy legends. The film won the 1972 Cine Golden Eagle Award.

She recorded two CDs of western songs— His Knibbs and the Badger and Fenced—for her own label, Katydid Books and Music.

Maude, Billy & Mr. D—Western Folk Opera 

In 1956, Katie read an intriguing Western short story “The Rider on the Pale Stallion,” by Helen Eustis in the Saturday Evening Post. In the 1960s, Katie transformed it into a folk opera and performed it live in the second half in her concerts for over a decade.  She recorded and published it on her label in 1990. In 2017, her friend and theatre producer Jody Drake premiered the folk opera in Cottonwood, Arizona with a full cast and featuring performances by Katie’s long-time friends, Peter McLaughlin and her protégé Kathleen Williamson.

Ballad of Gutless Ditch

Katie was always composing when she was on the road, driving in her 1955 classic Thunderbird. One day, the words to another musical free-verse Western adventure fell out of the sky and became a powerful ballad that is full of the magic of love, lust and betrayal. Katie recorded it and also published The Ballad of Gutless Ditch in a special limited edition signed by her and nationally renowned artist Robin Anderson, who illustrated the book with twelve etchings. (Published in 2010 by Katydid Books and Music),

The Grand Dame of Dam Busting

On June 15, 1953, she took her first river run, from Lee’s Ferry to Pierre’s Ferry, on the still untamed Colorado River. Katie continued to run the river until her greatest enemy, the Glen Canyon Dam, was completed and drowned her beloved canyons and shackled wild rapids. Her river trips with Tad Nichols and Frank Wright altered her life purpose and future; she documented the natural beauty of the canyon she worshipped in songwriting and journals. Love of the river also caused her to reject her Hollywood ambitions and elevated her deeply personal engagement with the natural southwestern environment.

She is venerated as the most flamboyant of knights among a growing legion of pro-wilderness activists, including her long-time friend and author, Edward Abbey. Her unwavering commitment to her principles and feisty eloquence were primarily directed at draining Powell Reservoir and liberating the flow the Colorado River. Many refer to her as the “Grand Dame of Dam Busting.”

Glen Canyon

Ever since Glen Canyon was buried underneath Lake Powell Reservoir in the nineteen sixties, Katie Lee has held a knife-edged anger and bitter sadness. She called it Loch Latrine or Rez Foul. She tried to write about her trips through the canyon and finally spilled her feelings into a thinly disguised novel. After half a dozen publishers rejected it, Katie decided to follow author Edward Abbey’s advice and write a nonfiction book about her travels in Glen Canyon.

Glen Canyon Betrayed was first published as All My Rivers are Gone: A Journey of Discovery through Glen Canyon (1998) with an introduction by author Terry Tempest Williams. In 2006, the book was re-released by Fretwater Press with a new title, Glen Canyon Betrayed, and a fiery new afterword.

In conjunction with the book, Katie published a CD, Glen Canyon River Journeys, with readings from Glen Canyon Betrayed, interspersed with songs.

In 2004, Sandstone Seduction: Rivers and Lovers, Canyons and Friends was published by Johnson Books. This collection of essays is about events that shaped and inspired her life.

The Ghosts of Dandy Crossing, published in 2014 by Dream Garden Press, is one of the few historical documents about Katie’s relationships with people that lived in Dandy Crossing just as the reservoir began to fill, irrevocably changing all their lives. (Dandy Crossing was a ferry crossing on the old Colorado River between Hite village and White Canyon village, about three miles downstream from what is now Hite Marina).

Her considerable body of work are paeans to magic of a canyon that is now lost. Katie once explained to her friend and author Diane Sward Rapaport why she was still so attached to Glen Canyon; “It’s as if my feet are still stuck in the sand at the edge of the river. It’s where I live. This other life I walk around in all day—well, that’s a passing thing. And in many ways it’s my defense against the sadder mechanisms of life around us. And God knows we all need those mechanisms from keeping ourselves from going crazy in this mad world.”

Film Documentaries

Katie Lee remained passionately active into her nineties, and was featured in three award-winning film documentaries released within the last five years:

Dam Nation, produced by Ben Knight and Travis Runnel and by executive producer Yvon Chouinard;, Wrenched, produced by M.L. Lincoln,  a documentary about the activists inspired by Edward Abbey; and Kick Ass Katie Lee, produced by Beth and George Gage, introduced at Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride in 2016 highlights her life, beginning with her stint as a Hollywood actress in the 1950’s. Lincoln also produced a short documentary on Katie Lee called Drowning River.

Afterword

Katie loved making bead necklaces for her friends. A few weeks before she died, she was making a necklace for her friend Candace of natural green polished stones and four tiny silver charms:  a snake (“because I love them”); a pen (“because I’m a writer”); and a ladder (“of success); the fourth was a tiny disk engraved with the word, Je reviendral, “I will return.”

Katie once said in an interview as she looked around at the mining aftermath in Jerome, "Look at what they've done to the earth. My earth." Maybe, just maybe, Katie never left and never will. For sure the wildfires she set in so many hearts continue to spread.

In lieu of flowers, please make a check out to the Katie Lee Youth Folk Music Trust Fund, and send to Jody Drake, 7405 Bridle Path, Prescott AX 83005. Stewardship of the Fund will be Northern Arizona University.

Jo Van Leeuwen, her partner of many years, died the following night (November 3) by his own hand,

For additional information visit Katie Lee’s website: katydoodit.com

This release courtesy of Diane Rapaport