Katie Lee, 98, fiery folk singer who fought to protect a canyon

NEW YORK — 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 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 David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, and 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.

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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 and formed Lake Powell, 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 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,” 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 in Aledo, Ill. Her family moved to Tucson when she was 3 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.

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 Northern Arizona University. “I knew every line of the play, I knew exactly what to do, and I was fine.”

That 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 such radio shows as “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 Burl Ives, Josh White, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. 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. “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 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.

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.’’

Her longtime partner, Joey Van Leeuwen, whom she met on a trip to Australia in 1979, committed suicide one day after her death, Williamson said. 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.”