Rosalie Sorrels at Home
Idaho native Rosalie Sorrels lives in the mountains outside Boise, in a log cabin her father built. She began her career as a musician in the 1960's, when she left her husband and went on the road with her five children. She has recorded more than 20 albums and written/edited three books, including Way Out in Idaho, a collection of Idaho songs and stories. In 1990 The World Folk Music Association honored her with its Kate Wolf Award. In 2005, she was nominated for a Grammy for her folk album My Last Go Round. Rosalie talks about her music and life in an interview conducted at her home in December of 2005.
Rosalie at home
Q: What role does your audience play in your performances?
A: Connecting to my audience is the most important thing to me. I actually wanted to be an actress before I got into this, and I was a great admirer of Stanislavski. I think everything has to be connected; the people you work with and the people you work to.
Theater is a living thing and to me it's way more than just coming out and prancing around and having a character that you assume. For example, I don't like to be in a spotlight so I can't see the people. I want to make eye-contact with them. I want to break the "4th wall" which is a theatrical thing.
"Folk music is music that you make because you need it, not because you're going to sell it or because you're going to perform it."
At first I got a lot of criticism for that and people used to give me a lot of advice about how I should not do that under any circumstances because it makes people nervous; but that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be more an experience of how you can in fact break walls. I like the idea of breaking down barriers, breaking down walls.
The middle segment [of the concert] is all political songs. I wanted to do some of those because I'm continually told I can't do them here, and I, in fact, know better than that.
Rosalie in her twenties
Q: What do you hope that connection is about?
A: I hope they don't just think of one song. I hope they get a whole piece. I think it's a story. I think it has a beginning and a middle and an end and I hope they remember everything. And I want you to know that I think I have achieved that better than most people do. I know people who have seen me 30 years ago who remember every word I said because I'm a good story teller.
Q: Do you have a sense that people in their daily lives are aware of all the connections, are paying attention?
A: No. Maybe they're paying attention but they connect it to something in their own life which is always interesting. I actually have people come and ask me to sing a song and I can't remember what song it is they are talking about and we talk about it and finally I realize they are talking about something I read or they will come and tell me a story that they think they heard me tell and I will understand they are telling the story that I made them think of which is their own story – which is very gratifying because that means I've really gotten inside their head.
Q: You always want to get inside people's heads?
A: Yeah. That's very interesting.
"I want very much to help people. That's very important to me. I try very hard to find the way to tell those stories so they relate to everyone."
Q: Did you do it as a kid? Did you talk to other kids and try to find out their stories?
A: No, I never learned how to get along with people until I was about 25. I was a very solitary kid. I was up here or I was on the farm and a lot of the kids I knew didn't read and they thought I was weird and didn't want to have anything to do with me so I made up people to play with. They were very interesting.
Q: Did you always sing as a child?
A: Probably. Everybody in my family sang. I don't remember singing when I was a little kid so much as I remember poems and things. I must have sung all the time because everybody sang in my family.
Q: So you had no formal lessons in singing?
A: No. One time I got a very brief bunch of singing lessons from a very good teacher who taught people to sing opera. I wanted to be an opera singer but I didn't have the patience or the chops to do it but they did teach me something about breathing and projecting.
Rosalie as a young child
Q: Talk about the importance of words to you.
A: I grew up in a very literate family and I heard the words of Shakespeare. My grandfather quoted Shakespeare. He cursed the horses in Shakespearean language when he was plowing. He quoted Shakespeare all the time.
We played Dictionary and Hinky Pinky and all kinds of word games like that and everybody was involved in that. Everyone was involved. You had to sit down to dinner and have a conversation. You had to learn to have a conversation if you were going to be there. And you had to be there. It was required. Everyone had a profound sense of literacy.
Words are so important to us, all of us. Malvina (Reynolds) has a thing, words distinguish us from the blessed beasts. The power of the written word and the spoken word is so complete and if you don't articulate what you are telling people, how the hell are they going to know what you want to communicate to them.
Q: And the importance of the storytelling in your concerts?
A: It's almost like a fabric. I'd feel uncomfortable if . . . sometimes I sing places where they don't want me to tell stories and I almost can't do that. I can sing a bunch of songs but they don't make any sense to me if you don't have the stories. They don't connect. They don't have a context if you just sing them.
Q: You don't view yourself as a western singer?
A: I'm an actress. I'm a troubadour. I take the news from place to place. I do it with music. I do it with poetry and stories and I try to connect. I think we need to be connected and that's my mission. That's what I think I am. I'm a connector.
I know how to sound western. I am western. There are a lot of things about me that are western, but as I said I was raised by a very literate family. In fact, my mother taught me that you can go anywhere in your mind, and I went everywhere, and I physically went a lot of places, too. And I think I can connect with almost anyone in any circumstance.
A recent photo of Rosalie
Q: Why did you start your Liberty Theater concert with "This World"?
A: I think it's because people are thinking of me as retired and old, and I don't think of myself that way. Not only that, things are really bad right now. I think everything is really rotten, and I've been through what I think is rotten at least four times that I can think of, which is hopeful to me because I made it through all those things, and I want to communicate that to other people, that even though things get really rotten, you actually can survive them, and that the world is a beautiful place, and it's worth doing. That's a favorite song of mine to either start with or end with.
Q: You're not afraid to talk about some of the sorrows in life.
A: If you are interested in life and you leave that part out, you've really got a big hole there. And, besides that, I really love Billie Holliday and Edith Piaf, and they sure as hell aren't afraid to sing about those things. Everybody loved them. Nobody minded at all.
"Sometimes I sing places where they don't want me to tell stories and I almost can't do that. I can sing a bunch of songs but they don't make any sense to me if you don't have the stories."
Q: You said when you first started performing, it was the song, not the singer that was paramount.
A: I always sang traditional music because I grew up with it . . . I was concerned that I would do it right; and at that time there was a whole lot of real argument about it. If you didn't sing it like it was supposed to be, then you were doing it wrong.
What I sing is a combination of a whole lot of different voices I heard that finally, you work on it and work on it, and finally you hammer out your own voice, and it is affected by a whole lot of different things.
Rosalie playing guitar when she was young
Q: When did you start being a singer?
A: I was being a folk singer – that is, singing the songs the way I learned them – like a parrot, with probably less feeling than I had for the songs, in order to satisfy all the people who thought I shouldn't put myself into the song. I was doing that, but it was a hobby. And I started a folk music club where everybody came over on Saturday night and sang; and different things would come into your life a little at a time, blue grass and all that stuff.
Then I met this guitar player named Ralph Kahn. Ralph was a really great guitar player of some note. And he said, why do you sing like that? You can really sing, he said. By the time I had met him, Bruce Phillips had come back from Korea, and he had written all these songs which I thought were really great, and I was singing some of them. They weren't folk songs, so I guess I probably put a little more feeling into them.
Ralph was really knocked out by them. He said, why don't you just sing? And he played for me, and he played for me instead of trying to get me to sing the way he played. He played the way I sang. That's the first time I realized I could sing.
Q: Do you like writing songs?
A: No, I don't. I can't do it a good part of the time. When I do it, it's impossible to understand where it comes from. I can't do it on purpose.
Q: What about your guitar playing? What role does that play?
A: I don't think of myself as a guitar player, and I also don't apologize for it. I think it does what I want it to do. It keeps me on pitch. I think my guitar playing is a little eccentric and just like my phrasing musically, it's affected by the number of people I've associated with, but it basically is percussive. It's a guide for me.
Vintage photo of Rosalie's children
I do a couple of things that are odd and I realized one time where I got it from, totally by accident. When I was first learning to perform with the guitar, I hung around with Heddie West for a long time and she was a great banjo player and she had the old style frailing. Just by osmosis I picked that rhythmic thing up; so I pull off and hammer on like a banjo player does, to get extra notes, and I strike down with this finger, which just ruins that fingernail all the time, like a banjo player does.
Q: In all of those years when you were trying to travel and sing and raising the kids, clearly it was the support of your friends that had to keep you going.
A: I had so many friends. When I lived in Salt Lake City, I had a big house. That's in "The Travelin' Lady" song. "I used to live in a big fine house with many rooms and a wide open door." It was a really big house and everybody came and stayed there. And it was during the time when everybody was on the road. They were all trying to be Jack Kerouac, going back and forth across the country.
We had people staying there all the time, so when I went out on the road, I knew a lot of people who stayed with me, and I stayed with them then. It was like a big family. It was a huge family kind of thing which seems to have disappeared in about 1976, that sense of being a big family. The good part is that it lasted longer and still is alive. Maybe not alive and well, but alive in the folk music community. There is still a sense of family.
Q: You said you couldn't really make a living in Idaho and you spent time on the West coast and the East coast. How much of Idaho is in your songs?
A: A lot. I spent three years collecting Idaho songs for that book [Way Out in Idaho]. I grew up with it. It's very present. Idaho is a deep vein, a big blood vein. I have a solid blood connection with the place.
Vintage photo of Rosalie with her parents and brother
Q: How did you come to know you had an aneurism?
A: Do you know what an aneurism is? You're born with it, if you have it. It's a weak place in the blood vessel. The way it was described to me, it's like a flaw in a tire or a tube when the side of the tube which is already weakened makes a bubble.
I had a brain aneurism. If it bursts, you die. That's all. But if it ruptures, a small rupture, you have a slow bleed and are likely to live, and I had a slow bleed. I was doing the project "Way out in Idaho." I spent three years collecting songs from all over Idaho. That's what I found to do to keep me here, and I would be able to subsist on it.
I was almost at the end of the project and I had gone to a Pow Wow, an All Nation Pow Wow to record some Indian music. I recorded some forty-niner songs and some gambling songs. You have to wait till 6 o'clock in the morning to record the gambling songs. Somebody told me I was the only white-eyes who ever came there that could stay up late enough to get there. I had been up all night and all day, too, and then I had to drive home.
I was driving my daughter, Shelly's car. She was out of the country. She was in Belgium. I felt so tired that maybe I couldn't drive home, so I asked my daughter Holly if she would follow me. She had just had a baby. She followed me up here. I had two bags of groceries, I had just come in the door, I'm just putting my foot on the door, and I thought someone had hit me in the back of the head with an axe. I can't remember when I had felt any pain like that. An all enveloping pain and I also remember having this strobe light effect where all the groceries came out of the sack and I went down. I am feeling like Alice In Wonderland thinking, oh there are the grapefruit, oh, not the eggs. It was like that. There was no pain before, no headache and then this sudden flash, eruption of light and pain and then this weird strobe light thing. I had no notion. I felt perfectly fine except for feeling extremely tired just before it happened.
My daughter said I got right back up and said there's something wrong with my head. You have to take me downtown. She said, I'll call an ambulance and I said, I don't have any insurance. I'll kill you if you call an ambulance. So she called John Thomsen, and he and his wife came over and put me in their van and they took me downtown. Took me to Doc-in-the-box, which is one of those places where there are six doctors and you take whichever one you can get. And this doctor said, She has a migraine headache. Give her an aspirin and take her home. Now that would have killed me.
But my daughter is so smart. She really is. She said, but my mother doesn't get headaches. So she went to look for another doctor. It took her quite a long time, I think eight hours, before someone would see me. And this doctor looks at me and said, this is not a migraine. I was livid by then. I was dying. He said, she needs a CAT scan; and my daughter said I sat straight up and said, how much is that going to cost and then I completely passed out and never said another word.
I was in a semi-comatose state for about eight days until they thought I was stable enough for them to operate on me.
Q: And you were diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988 . . .
A: I actually found the lump myself. I always did self-examination, which I think everybody should learn to do, and I found this little tiny lump while I was on the road. I think I was in Santa Cruz. I had maybe two or three weeks of work to do. By the time I got home, it was already quite a bit bigger. It was really aggressive. And I knew that I should deal with it, which I didn't want to do, but I did. I went to the St. Alphonsus Breast clinic and they poked around at me and said you have to have a biopsy, and then they said you have to have a mastectomy. That quick.
Q: Was there ever a point in the treatment that you felt you weren't going to make it?
A: No . . . it was really useful to be around a whole lot of people who had the same problem. The people who run that center all clearly want you to get better. It was really good to be around other people who had the same problem and to a greater degree than I did. A lot of them were in way more trouble than I was, and I wanted to get better.
Rosalie when she had lost her hair as a result of chemo
All my friends raised a ton of money. I still had no insurance and I think I came through that particular ordeal with a very positive feeling about where I live and who I live with. It was massively unpleasant. Chemo therapy is not your basic picnic but it works.
Q: What was it like to perform bald?
A: Actually I didn't mind being bald. I minded it at first but I didn't look that bad bald.
Q: You've talked about the hard things that happen in your life, how you can either let them pull you down or you can use them.
A: . . . Everybody has hard things happening to them. They don't talk about them. I think the reason I talk about them and sing about them is because I see that it is helpful to people. There are a lot of things I would have hesitated to talk about or sing about some years ago but sometimes when I was just in extreme pain and felt like I couldn't NOT talk about it, I would have people come and tell me how much it helped them and then I would see what that was . . . and I want very much to help people. That's very important to me. I try very hard to find the way to tell those stories so they relate to everyone.
Q: You have that way of connecting that many people don't have, weren't born with.
A: And I did get it the hard way. I don't know how many people want to do that.
Q: You got it the hard way by what you lived through in your life. Did it change your voice quality?
A: Yeah. I think my voice is richer and certainly the skill in terms of breathing and making it say what I want it to say. There were a lot of times when I felt like I sang very well and I did exactly what I wanted to do but I don't know how I did it and now I do. That's the difference, really. I know how to do it. And the equipment is in different shape than it was but I don't think that getting older necessarily interferes with it, or even having flaws in your voice interferes with the possibility of performance connections.
Vintage photo of Rosalie in front of a large tree
Q: So you know how you do it by going inside yourself?
A: No. I don't really know how to explain that. I just know what I do. It's almost like getting outside of yourself, getting outside of yourself and then watching yourself do it. It's really hard to describe but when I feel like I'm completely free, I'm outside of myself. It's not just myself or my inner thing that's making it happen. It's all the things that are present. And if I can get outside of being involved with whether I'm worried about how I look or how I sound or how I feel or where I am and just can be free.
Q: Malvina Reynolds says, "I'm in love with my audience the way someone would be in love with somebody else."
A: Yeah, I love that.
Q: Do you have that feeling?
A: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Q: Talk about that.
A: Oh, gosh, I don't know. You connect with a whole room full of people you never even saw before in your life and you just feel like you want to pack them all up and take them every where with you. And they'll come up after and talk to you and they are so beautiful.
Q: Is folk music still alive?
A: Folk music is something that never goes away. I think folk music is music that you make because you need it, not because you're going to sell it or because you're going to perform it. You make it because you need it. And some of it goes on to be famous, and some of it goes on to be there, and some of it goes away, but it continues to happen over and over because people always need things like that.
Q: You don't consider yourself a folk singer.
A: No, I don't, because I'm very deliberate about what I do, what I have in my mind. I think a troubadour would be a better description, because I use music from all kinds of disciplines, and I'm not always the same. You could see me a lot of times and still not know exactly what I do, because I'm going to do something different if I get a chance. I'm very different when I'm in New York. It depends on what I'm doing.
Q: The song, "I like It . . . " the words are about how it doesn't really matter how commercially successful you are . . .
A: I have people who ask me, "Are you really sad because you aren't successful"? (I say) What do you mean I'm not successful? I do what I like to do. I make a living doing it if you can call it a living. I have made that my life. I have the respect and the friendship of my peers. I live in a house my father made with his hands. I have a damn good life.
Q: What are you going to be working on next?
A: I'm going to make an album of father songs. I really want to do that.
A: There aren't enough of them. I know some great father songs and I thought my father was great. I always think it's sad when people don't like their father.
Q: Do you fall into any kind of genre at all?
A: Hope not. I've been trying to climb out of the box all my life. I'm sure I'm nearly out.