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[From the New York Times – November 10, 2017]
Katie Lee, Folk Singer Who Fought to Protect a Canyon,
Dies at 98
The folk singer Katie Lee, a passionate defender of Glen Canyon in Northern Arizona, in an undated photo. Credit Cline Library/Northern Arizona University
Katie Lee, a free-spirited folk singer who found her mission as a performer and writer protesting the loss of Glen Canyon’s spectacular beauty to a dam on the Colorado River, died on Nov. 1 at her home in Jerome, Ariz. She was 98.
Her death was confirmed by Kathleen Williamson, the executor of her will.
“Rivers are the lifeblood of our planet and they need to flow,” Ms. Lee said in “Kickass Katie Lee” (2016), a short biographical film by Beth and George Gage. “They don’t need to be dammed every 15 feet.”
Eloquent and blissfully profane, Ms. Lee joined conservationists like David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, and the writer Edward Abbey to try to stop construction of the 710-foot-high Glen Canyon Dam in Northern Arizona, which opened in 1963. She became part of the chorus of environmentalists that ever since has demanded that the canyon be restored.
The only impediment to her blowing up the dam, she would say, was that she did not know how.
Her enchantment with Glen Canyon began in 1953 during a visit with friends and continued when she became a river runner. She adored its rapids, and the breezes that she said sounded like voices speaking to her. She swam nude in its potholes and waterfalls. She explored its 125 contoured side canyons, each of them named (some by her), and each one a different aesthetic experience.
“When they drowned that place, they drowned my whole guts,” she said in an interview in 2010 at Telluride MountainFilm, a documentary festival. “And I will never forgive the bastards. May they rot in hell.”
Her anger at the federal government, in particular the Bureau of Reclamation, which built the Glen Canyon Dam, fueled her music and made her a magnet for filmmakers. In her ballads, she sang about rivers and boatmen. In her protest songs, she rebuked dam builders.
In “Colorado River Songs,” an album she released in 1964, she pilloried the Bureau of Reclamation.
Three jeers for the Wreck-the-Nation Bureau
Freeloaders with souls so pure-o
Wiped out the good Lord’s work in six short years.
Eric Balken, executive director of the nonprofit Glen Canyon Institute, said that Ms. Lee was an important part of the environmental movement to the end of her life.
“She converted her passion for the canyon into fiery opposition to the Glen Canyon Dam,” Mr. Balken said in a telephone interview. “She conveyed the canyon’s beauty and essence to so many people nationwide.”
She was often referred to as “the Desert Goddess of Glen Canyon.”
Once the dam was built, she did not return to Glen Canyon. The loss was too great.
“What’s left of my rivers, what’s left of me,” she said when she was 96. “We’re probably going to go together.”
Kathryn Louise Lee was born on Oct. 23, 1919, in Aledo, Ill. Her family moved to Tucson when she was three months old, and she grew up loving the desert. Her father, Zanna, was an architect and homebuilder; her mother, the former Ruth Detwiler, was a decorator. Her mother pushed her to play the piano. Her father taught her to hunt rabbit and quail with a Remington shotgun.
Ms. Lee at Glen Canyon in a scene from the 2014 documentary “DamNation.” Credit Cline Library/Northern Arizona University
Earning the lead in a high school play called “The Patsy” made her feel as if the stage were her living room. “Wow! This is where I belong!” she recalled thinking in 2008 in an oral history interview for the Cline Library at Northern Arizona University. “I knew every line of the play, I knew exactly what to do, and I was fine.”
That early acting experience led her to study drama at the University of Arizona. She went on to have a modest career as an actress that included roles on radio shows like “The Great Gildersleeve” and “The Railroad Hour,” a music series starring the singer Gordon MacRae.
She found greater acclaim as a folk singer, developing friendships with stars like Burl Ives, Josh White and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Mr. Ives praised her once by saying, “The best cowboy singer I know is a girl — Katie Lee.” Her repertoire was traditional for folk singers in the 1950s: songs about outlaws and murder, love and hate, cowboys, labor, poverty, injustice and politics.
But the planning for the dam on Glen Canyon gave her a particularly strong motivation to sing.
“My river was about to be unjustly dammed … politically dammed,” she wrote in “All My Rivers Are Gone” (1998), one of several books she wrote about Glen Canyon. “Songs about my river! Songs of protest! Folk songs. Holy Mother!”
She added: “I had a cause! A cause that didn’t center on me-me-me: one that asked nothing of me, really, yet was far from mute. I’d never had a cause before, but now there was a place, almost a person, that needed my help.”
She did not sing only folk or protest songs. She recorded humorous songs about psychoanalysis on the 1957 album “Songs of Couch and Consultation.” With lyrics by the jazz saxophonist Bud Freeman and music by Leon Prober, the album became a hit in England and the songs became a popular element of her act. She had initially rejected Mr. Freeman’s suggestion that she record the songs but reconsidered after listening to his demo tapes on her way back from a trip to the Colorado River.
One of several albums Ms. Lee recorded. The folk singer Burl Ives once called her “the best cowboy singer I know.” Credit J.P. Roth Collection
“The tunes were catchy,” she told The Arizona Republic in 1960, “so I thought, ‘Why not?’ “
In “Stay as Sick as You Are,” she sang:
I love your streak of cruelty
Your psychopathic lies
The homicidal tendencies
Shining in your eyes.
She continued to sing about cowboys, rivers and canyons. She recorded the album “Love’s Little Sisters” in 1975 at a studio on the ranch owned by the Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart in Novato, Calif. At the time, Mr. Hart was living and working with Jerilyn Lee Brandelius, Ms. Lee’s stepdaughter.
Last month, at a party for her 98th birthday, Ms. Lee performed her composition “Song of the Boatman.” Holding a birthday card, she sang:
Today I know your magic call
Will lead me back to the canyon wall.
And the music in your rapids roar
Make this boatman’s song from his soul outpour.
In addition to Ms. Brandelius, Ms. Lee is survived by her son, Ronald Eld; another stepdaughter, Susie Brandelius; and two stepsons, Ken and John Brandelius.
Her longtime partner, Joey van Leeuwen, whom she met on a trip to Australia in 1979, committed suicide one day after her death, Ms. Williamson said. Mr. van Leeuwen, who filled their house with his wood carvings of birds, worried about what would happen to him if Ms. Lee died first. In “Kickass Katie Lee,” he said, “I would have a terrible life on my own.”
Ms. Lee was married at least twice. She was divorced from Eugene Busch Jr., a businessman, and became a widow after the death of Edwin C. Brandelius Jr., a racecar driver and track announcer.
Ms. Lee recalled in “All My Rivers Are Gone” that while on a trip to Glen Canyon in 1957, a year after the first dynamite blast that initiated construction of the dam, she took a break from lunch, stared at the river and talked to the water.
“I feel betrayed,” she said. “Homo sapiens! Greedy pathetic fools with a genetic mania to destroy all the sanctuaries that feed their souls. Well, hell, I don’t give a damn if we’re blotted out. I don’t want to be a part of the human race when I see the pimps in government and the whores who do their bidding. I’d rather be a coyote.”