by Greg Gargs Allard
I picked up Kate Wolf’s first album, Back Roads, for 10¢ at the Friends of the Library Sale in Gainesville today. On Wednesday, which is always the last day of the sale, the records and books go for a dime each. My hamstring was hurting and I didn’t feel particularly like peeling myself from my writing work and going out into the real world but I thought that it might be a rewarding trip, so I went.
The album came out in 1976 when she was 34 and it was the first and only credited as Kate Wolf and the Wildflowers. She did 10 more albums after this and then tragically died at the age of 44 after suffering from leukemia. Had never heard of her but apparently she was very influential with folk musicians like Emmy Lou Harris and Lucinda Williams.
The first record doesn’t have any of her noteworthy hits but her voice on this album makes me cry. Life is a struggle, it is difficult and it’s beautiful and her music makes me feel both strongly at the same time. Although critics have said that she seemed to be holding back on her first album, the first song of the album, “Lately,” has a beautiful quality to it that is sad and lovely at the same time. “Goodbye Babe” has the same qualities.
Born Kathryn Louise Allen on January 27, 1942 in San Francisco, Kate Wolf was a folk, country, bluegrass singer-songwriter in Northern California who was just starting to garner national attention with songs such as “Here in California,” “Love Still Remains,” “Across the Great Divide,” “Unfinished Life,” and “Give Yourself to Love” just before she was diagnosed with leukemia in April 1986. After chemotherapy treatments, her disease went into remission in the fall and she announced a tour and started working on a retrospective album. She was never able to finish either as the cancer returned with a vengeance and took her life in December of the same year.
While looking up her music in Amazon, I found a review for the first album Back Roads from a man who said he knew her and it moved me because he seemed to know what she was all about. I will keep the words misspelled here as he misspelled them to give you that California country flavor that seemed to reverberate in Kate’s music and certainly struck a chord with this man.
I’m a guitarest and ol’ time fiddler and once had the good fortune to spend time with Kate and Bruce Utah Phillips and Nina Gerber in northern California and also in Austin’ Texas. These are people who helped to shape my musical persona and who helped me to become who I am now, some thirty years later. For that I’ll always be greatfull, but perticurly to Kate, who took a personal intrest in me. The level of dedication that kate Wolf had for her poetry set to music was unbelievable and when she wasn’t struggling to keep it together on the survival level, sleeping in her car and playing nickel and dime gigs her creativity flowed like water comming out of a spiggot in the purest form I’d ever heard before or since. She was a folk singer and writer in the best sence, taking the experiences we as people hold in common, friendship, love, lonliness, love for family and wonder of the world we are surrounded by and she put them in a context that was totaly believable and easy to relate to. Durring her short time with us she gave us gifts we can enjoy for all time and that is the mark of a true artist and anyone not firmiliar with her works who has a proclivity tward this form would do himself a favor by developing a collection of her music. It is gratifying to know it is so redily available here, even after this length of time. Her music will always be relevant. – David Silverman
Here’s a live version of one of her songs, “Green Eyes,” that is particularly moving:
She was influenced by such singer songwriters as Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard, and later her mentor Utah Philips.
As humble as her life was, she was buried in a small church cemetery in Goodyears Bar, California. Her music is celebrated each year toward the end of June at the Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival at Black Oak Ranch in the town of Laytonville, Californias
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- Back Roads (1976) (billed as Kate Wolf and the Wildwood Flower)
- Lines on the Paper (1977)
- Safe at Anchor (1979)
- Close to You (1980)
- Give Yourself to Love (1982)
- Poet’s Heart (1985)
- Gold in California – A Retrospective of Recordings (1986)
- The Wind Blows Wild (1988)
- An Evening in Austin (1988)
- Looking Back at You (1994)
- Carry It On (1996)
- Weaver of Visions – The Kate Wolf Anthology (2000)