Kate Taylor’s Beads and Guitars
By J.V. Houlihan, Jr.
Kate Taylor can sing like an angel, and speaks with a casual southern cadence. I told her once that her voice reminded me of a female version of the late musician Levon Helm; she loved the compliment. “Ya know, that really made my season, he’s the real deal,” she said. (I could listen to Kate read a telephone book all day long; actually, a grocery list would be better, there’d be more color with her inflection.) Kate was born in New England, and as she says, “was raised up,” in North Carolina. Additionally, along with this voice is a smile that is at the same time, both a wink and a nod. Besides making beautiful music, this wild and charming baby-boomer makes something else. Kate makes Wampum, and it’s some of the best in New England, especially on Martha’s Vineyard.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, Wampum are: “beads of polished shells strung in strands, belts or sashes and used by North American Indians as money, ceremonial pledges, and ornaments.” Kate and her late husband Charlie Witham, along with another friend Joan LeLacheur got interested in Wampum in the late 60’s and early 70’s. “We were so taken by the aesthetics of the beads and the soul of the people, that we wanted to learn how to work with the shell, and keep the tradition alive,” says Kate. They would walk the Vineyard beaches hunting for ocean tumbled pieces of shells, and then practice learning how to drill the pieces without breaking them. “There was lots of trial and error involved,” says Kate. As she recalled those early days, I sensed an endearing image of she and Charlie scouring the beach together, tracking down the workable, raw material. The work these partnered-up and like-minded people produced is hard to describe, but I’ll give it a shot. Picture a bracelet of purple and white beads about a half inch long―polished to a smooth finish. Each bead has a small hole drilled through the center, and said beads are strung together with fishing line. This is labor intensive work, and they had to learn the making of the Wampum from scratch.
As my wife was helping Kate get supper on the table, I scooted out to a funky little shed in back of her place, to see where she makes the beads. It’s called the “Mint.”
“Keep in mind out there; it’s not a place a girl would want to wear her prom dress, if you know what I mean,” said Kate quoting her friend Joan. Inside I saw a: careworn swivel chair and bench, a wood burning stove, shells in various stages of development and some of Kate’s works in progress. There has been for years, a prodigious amount of blood, sweat and tears going on in this little place which resembles one of those old school campers from the 60’s that looks like a loaf of pumpernickel bread; you know the ones I mean. This is where it all goes down: the design, drilling, grinding and polishing of the shell.
While the ladies were putting the spaghetti and meatballs out, I started to rummage around a pile of Kate’s work: bracelets, string tie pendants, and necklaces. The pieces defined the woman who made them. In order to make Wampum at this level, it requires: patience, tenacity, focus, and long hours in the musty “Mint.” There are no shortcuts allowed here, none. One piece I especially liked, was a colorful bracelet with quarters attached between the beads―they were tips that Kate got from a little waitressing gig she had as a kid.
While eating, I asked Kate if there were any young people that she was mentoring for working with the shell, and keeping this tradition alive, “not yet,” she replied raising her eyebrows. “Where would one begin, to learn this craft,” I asked. “Well, it would begin by finding an ocean tumbled shell piece, and then attempting to drill a hole in it before it breaks; kind of like learning to crawl before you can walk,” she said, continuing “it becomes a very intuitive thing while drilling the shell.” Looking at a beautiful purple and white tubular bead necklace, I could see what she meant. This is not work for the feint of heart. One needs to be intuitive, forthright, imaginative and very dedicated to do this kind of work. Kate possesses these qualities in spades. Furthermore, she has put her own creative flourishes, such as animal carvings and stars on the ocean tumbled beads. They are beautiful; however, the work needs to be seen up close or worn to truly absorb the beauty.
I always knew Kate was a guitar picker and singer; her first album Sister Kate rose to 88 on the Billboard charts, and people still love the record. Moreover, it is great to see that she has not let up on her music. After Kate and Charlie raised their children, they had more time to work on the music. One example of their effort was the recording of the album, Beautiful Road. Besides being partners in their working of the shell, they were collaborators of their music. This project was produced by Charlie, along with Bob Dylan’s long time bass player, Tony Garnier, and was performed by a passel of other great players. It’s a showcase of terrific; singing, songwriting, musicianship and commendable production values. It’s a great record―she and her brother James do a great cover of Auld Lang Syne; some tight harmonies here. Sadly, Charlie passed away just before the record was completed; it was a bittersweet thing for Kate. She described her husband as a real character, who loved to write and had a love of music.” They were quite a team and their collective work says it all.
In this day of instant gratification, and a desire to have things done yesterday, Kate Taylor appears to be an anachronism. Her get-ups (long flowing dresses with cowboy boots and plenty of her creations draped around her neck and wrists), crafts, speech, and world view are intelligent and engaging. She is open and caring, a doting grandmother, and an all purpose good gal. An example of this is when she was slipping our dogs Mac and Sailor pieces of meatballs, as they dutifully worked her during supper―you just have to love a woman like that. Finally, we had to stop by Kate’s place on the way to the Vineyard Haven to head home. I’d forgotten my glasses. When we got to the house, she was all excited about just getting three new bookings out in L.A., and is also hoping to start some recording for a new record. She looked like a little kid. The woman’s unstoppable. Kate Taylor will be heading out West on that “Beautiful Road,” to pick her guitar and sing, and then she will return to the Vineyard to: grind, drill and polish her beautiful beads, and keep both of these traditions moving toward the future. She is the real deal.
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