Gino Sky

Gino Sky is a poet and author, perhaps best known for his Rocky Mountain cult classic, Appaloosa Rising: The Legend of the Cowboy Buddha. He has also written a collection of stories, Near the Postcard Beautiful, seven collections of poetry and the book Coyote Silk. Before that, he edited Wild Dog, a famous literary magazine of the 1950's and '60's. He has known Rosalie Sorrels for more than 40 years.

gino sky

Q: When did you first meet Rosalie?
A: We met in Salt Lake City. She was married, had five kids and I lived in this 3-story house on 2nd Avenue, and I was working at the public library. I was the music librarian, so I started hearing stories or comments about Rosalie Sorrels, the folk singer. I mean, a real folk singer.

They had this wonderful little underground that was going on. There was a bar that had jazz quite a bit and then Rosalie would bring in her friends, folk singers. She brought Pete Seeger in.

"I would say that she probably knows more Mormon folk songs than anybody I know . . ."

Then Rosalie brought in the Georgia Sea Islanders, which was a black group of singers and they live on the islands off the coast of Georgia. That's what she was doing, and she was taking them up to the university and they were doing their gigs there. So she was making an enormous impact at that time for Salt Lake City, plus she was going around and gathering up the folk songs and Mormon songs.

I would say that she probably knows more Mormon folk songs than anybody I know, to sing them. There are other collectors and folklorists who probably know more, but for her to sing, she could just go on forever.

So that was kind of our beginning and we would go over and hang out with Rosalie and her husband Jim and her kids. Rosalie would always have these grand parties even back then. Invite everybody.

Q: So, how do you describe someone like Rosalie?
A: I would say she's sort of like a little bit of Patsy Cline, a little bit of Edith Piaf and a little bit of Billie Holliday; but it's all Rosalie. And that's the wonderful part about it. It's always all Rosalie.

[Image: Gino and Rosalie]

Gino and Rosalie

In the '50's and the '60's there were these great black and white films coming out of Europe, and we used to all go see them, and they were just great art films. That was sort of like Rosalie. She was this great black and white art film, but she was always in color, but what she did was the black and white. She got down inside of it. As a mutual friend of ours said one time, she always played the low notes; and that's the way Rosalie is. She always plays those low notes. She gets down inside. She goes places most people are afraid to go.

Q: How is she able to do that?
A: Because she is the true folk singer. That's what she does. She's given up a career being a lot more famous to really do these recordings and these songs that she really thinks are important, like civil rights and abortion and women's issues.

People say, well, we can't have her on this big stage. We'll put her on this little stage; and that's where she's always been, on this little stage. That's the way those black and white films were. In those days they were in the little art theaters. They were never on the big Hollywood stage.

". . . that's the way Rosalie is. She always plays those low notes. She gets down inside. She goes places most people are afraid to go."

Q: So, what do you think Rosalie's legacy is?
A: Rosalie's legacy? She's got great legs! She has outlived a lot of people. She's got about 25 recordings out now and three books, and she's working on another book and another recording. And so many people look up to her as a hero, as a teacher. Yeah, she will continue on. She's like "John Henry" out of the folk song. She'll just keep doing it her way.

Q: She's kind of stubborn, isn't she?
A: I think Van Gogh was stubborn too. All those great artists give up a lot. How many times has Rosalie come that far from dying? But she keeps on going. Her work will keep going for a long, long time. What I always hoped would happen was that some university would just give her a chair and just give her a whole bunch of money like these universities have done for writers and poets like Robert Creeley and Charles Olsen.

I have spent time with Alan Watts, Buckminster Fuller, Imogene Cunningham. Rosalie is in that class, and she probably would be embarrassed by me saying that, but she's right up there. She knows more about literature than anybody I know. And poetry. And she goes out and finds these people and makes friends with them and learns from them and comes back to Boise and she has all these wonderful stories and knows these people and she spreads it around. She does these gatherings. She's like the Hopi or the Navajo mother, with all these kids around her, hanging all over her.

Q: Many of us were impressed with her ability to remember all those songs without notes at the Liberty Theater concert.
A: You should have been around her before her cerebral aneurism. It was staggering. Some of us were saying after her cerebral aneurism that maybe she's going to be like the rest of us. But then all of a sudden she's back, she's back and can get up on stage and remember all those songs and it's just there. I've seen her read a poem once and then recite it. And that's not fair! It's beautiful to be around. It really is. I'm amazed that I got to spend so much time with her. That's what I could really say is, that I got to spend 43 years of being a true friend.

Q: Does her stage persona compare with who she is off stage?
A: I don't think there's something in her that we haven't seen. Her life is here and she puts it on stage and it's there. I really don't think that there's anything that people don't see about her. And she's incredibly sensitive. She's very vulnerable, but she is strong. She is so strong to keep on doing what she's doing and not be really recognized for what she really is.

"She's just a courageous person...You have it or you don't. She's tested herself and there it is. Like someone in battle."

Not that maybe she doesn't want to be recognized. Not to say, okay I'm going to be a big star or that everybody in the world knows her name. I think she'll say, I gave it a shot and this is what I've got and this is what I wanted to do.

I go back to some of the painters and great musicians. What lasts is their work. We're not all angels. Some of us have got a real dark side to us. Some of us have done things we'd never want to have known at all. She's a true friend and she's generous and she's a great artist. That's where she is and that's what I've always admired about her and why I always wanted to be around her, because I was always going to learn something. There wasn't a time that I didn't learn something from her, and that's pretty amazing.

Q: Doing what she has been doing all her life can not be an easy way to live.
A: She was driving cross-country in snow storms with her kids and going from gig to gig and she was living hard, and if you know what it's like doing concert after concert after concert., it is exhausting. I once did a two-week gig with her, traveling around the country, and I had to rest for a month, and she kept on going.

She's really strong but she's had breast cancer and that cerebral aneurism. Then she had another operation sometime in the '70's when she was living in Vermont. If she ever stopped, I would take her around in a wheelbarrow to the concerts. A gold-plated, pearl handled wheelbarrow. That would be my honor to do that for her because even when she's 90, when she talks, I'll be learning something.

Q:You mentioned Edith Piaf and Billy Holiday and Patsy Cline.
A: She's that good. I heard Piaf perform in the Olympia Theater in Paris because I was stationed in Germany in the Air Force, and I had gone to Paris on a vacation, and I went to one of her concerts and I was just knocked out by her. Rosalie has that great quality and Edith Piaf lived a full life. She took life, opened up her arms and her heart and said let's go.

And Billie Holiday. Rosalie has that incredible kind of sadness in a jazz way about her that Billie Holiday does. Billie Holiday sang that song "Strange Fruit" about the hanging of the black men in the south. Rosalie has done that too. And Rosalie has lived on that edge where Billie Holiday lived also.

When I listen to Rosalie, I may say that sounds like Patsy Cline, that sounds like Billie Holiday, that sounds like Piaf. But it's not that. It's just that it's in there. It's like great paintings. They've all been influenced. One artist has been influenced by other great artists, but then they do their own piece of artwork, and that's what makes it. You've created your own voice, and that's rare.

Q: Some have said that folk singers tell the alternate history of a country.
A: It's not the alternate. It's the real history. History is written as what the book publishers will publish, and we all know that.

When the folks are hungry or being brutalized or getting fired on the job or walking the picket line, that's the history. Tolstoy said you can see a street fight and then go home and write about an entire battle.

So with that little folk song, you've got the whole battle that is going on with capitalism, where people are not really significant. It's how they can be used. When you talk about capitalism or communism or socialism, they've all shown their dark sides or their bad sides, their bloody sides. So you just keep on singing and you keep on writing your poems and stories, and that's the history. Those people are not afraid to say that and do it because that's where their lives are, living on the edge.

Q: Many of her songs speak of courage and doing the right thing.
A: You don't go out and buy courage. I think by the time she finally left her husband and took her kids and went out to live on her own, taking her kids around everywhere with her, how much courage does that take? I don't know if I could have done it. Very few people could have done it. To walk out on stage. That's courage. To say here I am, I'm not going to sing all those songs you want to hear, I'm going to sing you the songs I think you should hear. That takes courage.

Living up on Grimes Creek by herself. That takes a hell of a lot of courage. Driving across country in an old Dodge van with her kids and it's snowing like crazy and it's got bald tires and she's got a gig and she's 500 miles away from her gig and she keeps going and it's ice. Yeah, that takes courage.

To keep coming up with more music and more music. That's courage. She's just a courageous person. But you don't go buy it. You don't rent it or you don't go study it at any kind of center and pay five thousand dollars a week to find courage. It's there. You have it or you don't. She's tested herself and there it is. Like someone in battle.

She is a great folk singer. I know a few, I've heard a few. She's right up there at the top. I don't know of anybody better.