Kate Wolf Music Festival, 2012I managed to get away a couple of times to music festivals this year. In June, I made the long trek up to Laytonville (on the edge of the Redwoods) for the Kate Wolf Festival. It was a good chance to catch up with a few friends who came up from the Santa Cruz and Bay Areas, as well as some old friends who used to live in Anaheim and had moved up to Washington. Song circles popped up a few times over the weekend. I stayed up wayyy too late the first night at the big campfire down by the river. Still, there was a great song/jam circle that got going as the night went on. I paid the price in some missed music later that night, but heard most of it from my tent, wafting over in the evening air.
The first Kate Wolf Festival I went to was the memorial one at Caswell Vineyards in Sebastopol. It is easily still the most soul stirring and inspirational music event I've been to. I was blown away by Rosalie Sorrels and her song "I Can Fly" as well as the one about the flower that lives on the edge of volcanoes. Utah Phillips told stories and sang as well. For a little while, he was sitting next to me near the front of the little grass bowl near the stage. Utah's most impacting words that day were about Kate herself. How she paid attention. If someone needed help, she saw it. If something might become a song, she recognized it and paid attention. But more, she paid attention to what people needed. Utah also talked about our songs being like seeds, to be cast upon the wind. I had written down many notes that day. My mission in life was to really learn how to write my own songs, and learn how to play guitar in such a way as to sing them.
By the next summer, I had a notebook full of her songs, transcribed in pen, with chords worked out. I had to figure out what chords worked for my voice (and as a newbie guitar player, my hands). On one road trip, I was sitting in a small laundry-mat along the Russian River transcribing and learning her songs. I was playing them to myself in campgrounds at night. Sometimes people would stop in and listen or bring out a guitar and share a song. A lady from Lake Tahoe had taken down my address, and sent me the nicest card later that year, encouraging me to keep learning to play guitar and write songs. Some time later, I wrote a few songs of my own, initial efforts, that leaned heavy on Kate's form and sensibility. "Big Green Waves" was rooted in my favorite northern California beach, at Patrick's Point. "Asking You Why" was written for and about Utah Phillips. "Trabuco" was one that particularly resonated with a place near where I was living at the time.
When my sister got married, in my grandparent's home, she asked if I would play Kate's song, "Cornflower Blue" for the ceremony. I practiced and was ready, but it was just too much emotion. We let Kate sing it from a CD. It's still a little embarrassing, but that song, in that context, meant so much.
I missed the transition years when the Festival moved, eventually to Laytonville and the Black Oak Ranch. I went back to a Kate Wolf in 2005. I felt the reverence and respect for Kate were very much there in 2005. Rosalie Sorrels was back. She did a fine set "in the round" with Garnet Rogers. Nina Gerber was there and Greg Brown as well, and the writer of one of my all time favorite songs, James Keelaghan.
Nothing remains the same over time, of course. By 2012, I was wondering if Kate Wolf had become just another music festival? Despite a packed lineup that included Richard Thompson, K.D. Lang, and many more, I was concerned that this legacy had been lost, until two things happened.
First, Ferron was there, and managed to captivate us with her passion and soulfulness. It wasn't about radical musicianship or jumping beats, it was about finding that deep place and opening it up. She was terrific. And funny too. She admitted she was a little rusty, having just been in the hospital with a health issue. So she confessed all, saying how happy she was just to be here (as in here on earth) and went on to give a great performance. At one point, in her mid morning set on the main stage, she came to the point in her song where a band might have ripped into a stirring solo section... standing there with just her guitar, she looked left and right, and said "hit it". Then she looked behind her at the empty stage, microphones and gear laid out for the next act, and kind of shrugged. She had us. We were in for the rest of the ride. A special kind of grace. This felt like folk music. One thing she said that stayed with me was her current role working in a program for at risk youth in Michigan. She said she had done a lot of great things on her bucket list, but it was good to do something that was about giving of herself and helping others. (She said it far more eloquently than I just tried to recall).
The second thing, was a tribute set to Kate Wolf on the smaller stage. It was the highlight of the festival as far as I was concerned. The Cache Valley Drifters, Sherry Austin, Paul Kamm and Eleanor MacDonald (they had been there in 2005 too!) were there along with Rita Hosking, who was appearing at other times with Cousin Jack, her great band. Not noted on the program, but participating, was a fellow who had played music with Kate way back in Santa Rosa days. I wrote his name down, but I can't find it at the moment. He had some really good stories. The Cache Valley Drifters played and told some good stories. Bill Griffin talked about meeting Kate when they first came to the area, and her wrangling them into a gig within hours. The rest, as they say, is history. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the audience, many of whom did not know of Rita Hosking, discover her that afternoon. Finest moment of all was an a capella version of Kate's Lilac Bush and Apple Tree that Rita did. Not a sound other than her voice casting out the story with such passion and tenderness. It gave me chills and brought tears. Tears for the beauty of that moment. Yes, it was still the Kate Wolf festival I remembered.
A lighter moment, as the weather was hot and uncommonly humid, was when Rita came out into the audience with water bottles and offered to soak anyone who needed it. It certainly helped! Another personal favorite moment was being asked by a woman, who saw my older Kate Wolf shirt, to help her pick out a good first CD of Kate's to get her started. I think I convinced her to get three by the time we were through looking at the song titles on a dozen choices. I recognized the kid (relatively speaking) working at the booth as one of my campfire mates on that "all night jam" the day before. We both smiled about that and traded sleep deprivation stories. Turns out he had managed to survive a second night, while I had managed to turn in by 1 or 2 AM. Youth has its advantages. But I was walking around with some precious memories. He'd get his turn at that too, and where better to store them up.
I'm not sure if this is an every year festival for me. Were I living closer, the decision would be easier. But so long as they remember to keep that essence of Kate in the program, I'll be back again.