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Who is Kate Wolf? If you’re like most people, you probably have no idea. I’m a huge folk music fan, and I’d never heard of Kate until last year, but I’m happy to have discovered her. Better late than never. Her music pierces my heart, and the simple beauty of her voice, melodies, and guitar-playing transport me to transcendent realms.
There’s a story that a fan at a live concert once complimented Kate on her earrings. Without hesitation, she removed the earrings and handed them to the fan. I believe the beauty of Kate’s music emanated from the beautiful being that she surely was.
Kate Wolf came to prominence during a ten year period from 1975 to 1985. Tragically, Leukemia brought Kate’s life and singer/songwriting career to a premature end at the age of forty-four. Despite her foreshortened life span, Kate managed, in her gentle way, to become a major influence on the folk scene with songs like, “Give Yourself to Love,” “Across the Great Divide,” “Green Eyes,” “September Song,” and many more. In all, she produced seven albums including a “live” in-concert album recorded at a music festival in Mendocino, California.
The appeal of Wolf’s music is the same today as it was when she released her first album on her Owl Records label more than 30 years ago. Her music is plainspoken with powerful natural imagery woven into poignant portrayals of the longings, joys, and sorrows of the heart that transcend romantic stereotypes.
Singing in a plain, pure voice, Wolf never indulged in vocal ornamentation for the sake of effect, and she avoided saccharine sentimentality with her natural sweetness.
As an acoustic guitar-based folk artist, she distinguished herself from such forebears as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, and from her more self-consciously naturalist and mystical contemporaries in “women’s music.”
Now, when cynicism and irony seem to be second nature to pop music, Wolf’s directness rings truer than ever.
“Kate was unique,” says Berkeley-based guitarist Nina Gerber, who was inspired to become a professional musician after seeing Wolf perform in a pizza parlor in Sevastopol, a small town north of San Francisco. Gerber became Wolf’s key accompanist from 1978 to 1986. Gerber produced the memorial album, Treasures Left Behind, and she has helped organize and produce all four Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festivals.
“She had her own style,” Gerber says. “There was nobody to compare her to. Nowadays, you listen to somebody and they either sound like Shawn [Colvin] or Nanci [Griffith] or Emmylou [Harris] or whomever.
“Kate really took on the environment she was in, so when she wrote about it, it wasn’t contrived. She didn’t go out of her way to try to be flowery and poetic. She pretty much said things the way they were.”
Yet, while Wolf’s songs seem inimitably personal when she sings them, they lend themselves surprisingly well to interpretation. As a prime example, Nanci Griffith, an unpretentious young woman who once described her music as “rockabilly” and eventually gained an international audience, lends a soul-searing depth and beauty to her interpretations of wolf’s songs.
When Wolf sang of a woman who “rises like the dolphin,” or an “owl calling softly as the night was falling,” it felt true. She brought the listener into her unpretentious realm while prodding him or her to see the natural world anew — always with love as the bottom line.
Wolf, born Kathryn Louise Allen in San Francisco on January 27, 1942, cultivated her approach after moving to Sonoma County in the early 1970’s. She sang songs like “Across The Great Divide,” “Safe At Anchor,” “The Wind Blows Wild,” “Poet’s Heart” and “Give Yourself To Love” in a pure voice, as unaffected, comforting and honest as you want to hear from your lover in the middle of the night. At the height of her popularity, Kate appeared at The Austin City Limits Music Festival and Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.
“I live for a sense of a feeling of purposefulness in this world, you know, that I could stop my life at any point and feel that my life has been worthwhile; that the people I’ve loved and my children have all reached a point where their lives are now going to come to fruit. And as far as something I live by, it’s to try to be as alive as possible and feel free to make my mistakes and try to be as honest as I can with myself.”
Kate Wolf, 1942 to 1986