Katie Lee: The Songbird of the Great Southwest
by Ernie Bulow
Last year I drove to Salt Lake City to see one of my idols, Katie Lee. She is a singer, musicologist, folklorist, author, model, actress, conservationist, photographer and author of several books including one of the classics of Cowboy music, Ten Thousand Goddamn Cattle, published in 1976 by Northland Press. Over the years Katie Lee has been an important voice in the Southwest, actively working to protect what is left of our wild rivers, among other things.
Katie is a true character - peripatetic traveler, tomboy, uninhibited beauty, outspoken, bawdy, self reliant and creative. I've already listed an impressive bunch of careers. When I told a friend I was doing a piece on her he said, "Isn't she the one who posed nude?" That's her, and she had the looks to do it. She published a nude poster of herself in the wilderness to raise money for Glen Canyon. At almost ninety she's still a handsome woman.
Folksongs of the West have been an interest of hers from childhood. Her book of cowboy music is one of the richest yet compiled and certainly the most original.
One of the most interesting aspects of the preservation of the oral tradition of cowboy music is the importance of the states of Arizona and New Mexico. Most of the important collections of singing wranglers - and recordings of those songs - came out of the Southwest. Many of the major "Cowboy poets" came out of the New Mexico territory. Katie Lee knew most of them personally. New Mexico poet S. Omar Barker contributed the foreword to her song book.
Katie was born in 1919 and raised on a ranch just out of Tucson, Arizona, and started her folk-singing obsession at an early age, picking up songs from real cowboys like Shorty Mac who worked on the family spread and others from nearby ranches. Her book is a delightful read and a unique literary accomplishment. As a framing device, Lee picks a favorite song of hers - "Old Dolores" - a ditty about a quaint but dying town in the Ortiz Mountains, southeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She sets out to locate the ghost town, only to discover how difficult that will be.
It doesn't take her long to turn up an author for this "folk" song. To her great disappointment she discovered the fellow wasn't an old cowboy, but a law professor at a major Colorado university. It took her some time, but she ran him down, only to learn he was rather vague about the location of the real Dolores after all these years. Her search for this elusive village makes up the "plot" of the book - an unusual format for a history of cowboy songs and lore.
Each chapter chronicles a side-trip or excursion that was part of a search that lasted for many years. And each chapter introduces one of the great characters of Cowboy music - most of them living and working in either New Mexico or Arizona. Katie spent time in Taos with one of my favorite people, the diminutive cowboy, raconteur and realtor, doughBelly price (that's the way he liked to spell it).
Price's classic memoir, Short Stirrups, is one of the few first-hand memoirs of a cowboy during early days of rodeo. Mobility was limited and "champion" contestants were crowned at most any rodeo of size. Price once took the saddle bronc title at Las Vegas, New Mexico. The redoubtable doughBelly was a working cowboy in the off-season and hired on as a bronco buster, camp cook, and snake oil salesman. His stomping grounds were pretty much the entire Southwest. He was also a fountain of knowledge on old cowboy songs.
Katie also befriended Gail Gardner and his wife from Prescott, Arizona. Gardner was the unsung author of "The Sierry Petes," a song that circulated in dozens of versions with dozens of titles, claimed by several singers as their own work. "Powder River" Jack Lee (no relation) published the song a couple of times under his own by-line. Such practice was pretty common in the old days.
I knew the song under the title "Tying Knots in the Devil's Tail." It refers to the famous Whiskey Row in Prescott. Gail was also the author of several other classic cowboy songs. Like many early authors, the lyrics were written and published as poems, later set to music by others - often with several different tunes.
Lee was also a personal friend of Romaine (Romy) Lowdermilk, author of "The Big Corral." This is another of those songs that almost instantly had a life of its own. Romy and two of his pals made up the nonsense song for a talent show in Wickenburg, Arizona, later known as the Dude Ranch Capitol of America. Within a few years there were dozens of variations of the song, with dozens more silly verses, floating around; collected into song books, sung to audiences, recorded by "hillbilly" singers. It had no known author and was considered by many to be a true-blue "folk song."
Katie was a stunningly beautiful young lady and she did some modeling early in her career, but it was music that always drew her. She also did some acting, but always found her way back to the bars and clubs. And a good deal of the time she spent in New York City, she treated audiences to genuine cowboy folk songs.
Among her friends she included several important early folk singers - Burl Ives, Josh White and Harry Belafonte and traded songs with them. Beginning in 1957 with "Songs of Couch and Consultation," she recorded several humorous albums on the odd theme of psychoanalysis. The second disc was titled "Life is Just a Bed of Neuroses." Perhaps her most commercial album was "Love's Little Sisters." But her life was still split between the East coast, where the money was, and Arizona and the Southwest, where her heart was. In 1971 she bought a house in the ghost town of Jerome, Arizona, and spends as much time as possible hunting cowboy songs.
In the Fifties she discovered river running on the Colorado, including the now drowned Glenn Canyon, a passion of hers ever since. Even back then river trips were very expensive so Katie hired on as "entertainment," playing her guitar around the campfires at night. For cash she played gigs in cities like Phoenix and Santa Fe. She has appeared in clubs from Canada to Mexico.
In 1964 she combined her two main passions by releasing an album for Folkways called "Folk Songs of the Colorado River." Since then she did another album called "Colorado River Songs" in 1976 and a compilation of classic cowboy music from her book in 1977 called, appropriately, "Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle." On most of her albums she has been backed by world famous session musicians.
In recent years Katie has produced several films and continues to sing her unique brand of folk music to appreciative crowds. This fall she will be honored with a special exhibit and program at Northern Arizona University.