Happy birthday, Katie Lee! The West’s grandest dame turns 95 today – and she’s as sharp and feisty as ever, I’m delighted to say (she called our office a few months ago from her home in Jerome, Arizona, to tell us about her new book, Ghosts of Dandy Crossing).
A staunch wilderness advocate, writer, folksinger, and adventurer, Katie has written hundreds of songs and at least five books during her long career. Her 37-year-old self, posing nude in Glen Canyon before it was drowned by what she scornfully calls “Lake Foul,” is featured in dramatic black-and-white art photographs. Most recently she appeared this year in “DamNation,” a documentary about freeing our nation’s blocked rivers, and in “Wrenched,” a documentary about monkey-wrenching activists in the Southwest. As HCN contributor Craig Childs put it: "(Katie Lee) is our foul-mouthed, lightning-eyed, boot-stomping balladeer, a character Louis L'Amour never could have invented."
Diane Sward Rapaport, the author of Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Richest Copper Mining City, posted a heartfelt birthday tribute describing Katie’s varied roles:
She began her professional career in 1948 as a stage and screen actress. She performed bit parts in motion pictures in Hollywood; had running parts on major NBC radio shows … ; was a pioneer actress and folk music director … in the early ’50’s; she left Hollywood to spend ten years as a folk singer in coffeehouses and cabarets throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Katie performed at cowboy poetry gatherings in New Mexico, North Dakota and Nevada, among others. Those festivals revived the West’s great legacy of cowboy songs, which are different from the songs sung at country western music festivals, which Katie loathes. “Country and Western is neither,” she once told me … “Its lyrics are about tight miserable places like phone booths, dingy bars, and stuffy bedrooms and some poor twit whose wife or girlfriend just dumped him.”
Katie became an activist along the way, as she began to explore the Southwest, learned to love the mighty Colorado and became a devoted river rat. Here’s a passage from a High Country News story describing the beginning of her involvement in the battle to stop Glen Canyon dam.
In 1960, the Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) had poured the first bucket of concrete on a dam that would eventually drown almost 200 miles of the Colorado River under Lake Powell. … Desert lovers drove, bused and hitchhiked to the Glen in a rush to explore it before it was gone.
Katie Lee, a young actress and singer, abandoned a fledgling career in Hollywood and joined river guides who let her ride for free; in return, she brought her guitar and entertained the customers. …
"Glen Canyon was peaceful and protective. The more you got to know it, the more you fell in love with it," she recalls. "It was very spiritual - and very real - you had to watch what you were doing in that place."
When Katie Lee heard about Glen Canyon Dam, she rallied opposition with her songs about the "Wreck-the-nation Bureau," and its plans to "crucify my river." Phil Pennington showed his slides of the canyon to the Sierra Club and groups in the Bay Area. David Brower, head of the Sierra Club, visited the canyon with his family, filmed it and lobbied to stop the dam.
Too little, too late. Brower had missed his chance in 1956, when the Sierra Club backed off its opposition to Glen Canyon Dam as part of a congressional deal that eliminated two dams slated for Dinosaur National Monument. The scattered river runners and college students were no match for Bureau chief Floyd Dominy, the self-proclaimed "messiah" of water projects.
Katie’s activism continues to this day. Earlier this year, she got Mountainfilm Telluride’s 2014 Director Award; David Holbrooke, the director, wrote her a letter explaining why. Here’s an excerpt:
Dearest Katie -
So the reason I chose you for the Festival Director's Award is only partly because of your wonderful bottom, which you bared so beautifully in our galleries but really more because you are such a badass. Your clear and steadfast resoluteness in speaking out about what you see as environmental injustices is a well-needed tonic for our times but also a real and true inspiration for the many young folk who will need to do the same if we are ever going to turn the tide of the madness.
So, here’s to you, Katie Lee! In honor of her birthday, I’m planning to have a cupcake and a shot. And if you happen to be near Jerome, drop by the Town Hall tonight. There’s a library fundraiser starting at 6 pm, and a party for Katie Lee.
Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News. She tweets @Peterson_Jodi.