"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." —Rosalie Sorrels
With a sound that "cuts like a knife and purrs like a kitten," Rosalie Sorrels has become one of folk music's most enduring entertainers. Her repertoire spans more than twenty albums, including the 2004 Grammy-nominated My Last Go-Round. Both a singer and a storyteller, Sorrels' intimate style has helped revitalize American folk music.
But labels don't begin to capture her range and versatility. Indeed, Rolling Stone magazine wrote that "Rosalie Sorrels, who must know a million songs, can sing each one as if it's her life story." And Folk Roots magazine called her "an authentic living legend."
Rosalie Sorrels: Way Out in Idaho features a concert performance videotaped in 2005 at Bruce Willis' renovated Liberty Theatre in Hailey, Idaho, near Sun Valley. IdahoPTV's award-winning production team captured the event, using seven digital cameras and a state-of-the-art sound system. Also included in the program are interviews with musical legends Pete Seeger, Nanci Griffith, Jean Ritchie, Terry Garthwaite, Utah Phillips and others.
Idaho-native Rosalie Sorrels began her career as a musician in the 1960s, traveling the country as a folksinger and storyteller, often with her five children in tow. She has received numerous awards, including the Kate Wolf Award from the World Folk Music Association. She now lives in her father's cabin in the mountains outside Boise.
"Rosalie Sorrels is as far from the misty-eyed 'folkie' stereotype as good bourbon whiskey is from pink lemonade."—Chicago Reader
Rosalie Sorrels: Way Out in Idaho
Features Rosalie Sorrels in concert at the Lilberty Theatre and includes interviews with Sorrels, Pete Seeger, Nanci Griffith, and more.
The Liberty Theatre marquee blazed brilliantly above the main street of Hailey, Idaho. And inside, an appreciative crowd waited to hear an Idaho singer in the prime of her career.
Rosalie Sorrels' music reflects a lifetime of traveling and a lifetime of experiences. Her distinctive voice and style guarantees that she'll always be one-of-a-kind. As songwriter Nanci Griffith remarked, "Rosalie is her own genre!"
Rosalie is a story teller as much as she is a singer. And when she puts those two talents together, the one-two punch can be devastatingly effective. Her 2004 recording, My Last Go-Round, brought her a Grammy nomination in the Traditional Folk category.
Joining Rosalie on stage at the renovated Liberty Theater were some of Idaho's most accomplished musicians.
The Divas of Boise -- Sirah Storm, Kathy Miller, Rebecca Scott, Rocci Johnson, Debbie Sager, Carrie Padilla,, and Margaret Montrose Stigers -- provided a powerful presence on stage for many of the musical numbers.
Using seven cameras and a state-of-the-art sound system, Idaho Public Television videotaped the concert for inclusion in the performance documentary, "Rosalie Sorrels: Way Out in Idaho." This 90 minute program also features interviews with Pete Seeger, Nanci Griffith, Jean Ritchie, Utah Phillips, and others. The show premiered on IdahoPTV on March 8, 2006.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Actress, troubadour, songwriter, connector - Idaho native Rosalie Sorrels describes herself as all of these in Idaho Public Television's new performance documentary. Her recordings are often found in the folk music category but she refuses to be categorized.
"I've been trying to climb out of the box all my life. I'm sure I'm nearly out," Sorrels says. "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," she says in describing her performances.
Fellow musicians say she is unique. Producer Marcia Franklin interviewed Pete Seeger, Nanci Griffith, Jean Ritchie, Bruce "Utah" Phillips, Terry Garthwaite, Barbara Higbie, Roma Baran and others for the documentary.
"It was fascinating to see how they all independently wanted to stress the same point - that Rosalie's storytelling is as much about who she is as her singing," Franklin says. "And they all talked about how Rosalie doesn't fit into any commercial 'box.' She's her own person, with her own inimitable style."
The program showcases Sorrels in concert with friends - musicians from Idaho and across the nation - in Hailey in September 2005. The Divas of Boise add their voices to the songs; Rosalie adds depth with her stories.
"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," Sorrels says.
The portrait drawn by concert footage, interviews, including with Sorrels herself, and vintage photographs of Sorrels and her family is vibrant and uniquely Idaho.
"She is incredibly generous with other musicians," executive producer Bruce Reichert says. "She'll never do a song without mentioning the songwriter's name. It's important to her to give credit where credit is due."
He adds that Sorrels also epitomizes something that reflects her Idaho pioneer heritage - perseverance. "Her life has not been easy, but she perseveres. And she's gutsy. As a friend commented to me, she plays those low notes. She goes where others fear to tread."
Pete Seeger is an icon of American folk music. Both a folk singer and a political activist, he was one of the leaders of the 'protest music' movement in the 1950s and 1960s. A founding member of the folk groups "The Almanac Singers" with Woody Guthrie and "The Weavers" with Lee Hays and Ronnie Gilbert, Seeger was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. He is perhaps best known as the author or co-author of the songs "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "If I Had a Hammer," and "Turn, Turn, Turn" which have been recorded by artists worldwide. But he is also known for his work reclaiming the Hudson River from pollution. He first met Rosalie in the mid 1950s.
Q: When did you first meet Rosalie?
A: I was passing through Salt Lake City and somebody told me to stop and see Rosalie Sorrels. And there she was, a harried homemaker with a batch of children in an apartment that had some windows at one end and windows at the other end and dark in between and I could see that she was really trying to figure some way out.
Q: What are some of the things you like about Rosalie's songs?
A: I very much appreciate their having a strong home base. I'm a complete fan of that phrase, "think globally, act locally."
Q: Talk about Rosalie's voice.
A: If anybody can sing like Rosalie I say, "Hurray!" You don't show off your fancy voice. You stay on pitch, stay in rhythm, enunciate clearly enough so people know what the words are. That's my ideal.
It's a real voice. It's not trying to say, "Look what a beautiful voice I have." A real person's voice and whether you sing softly or strongly or sing high or low, I say "that's a real person singing." It's not someone studying, "Oh, you must get pear-shaped tones."
Hailed by Rolling Stone as "the Queen of Folkabilly," Griffith is a Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter. She and Rosalie have toured together and Nanci wrote a song, "Ford Econoline," that was based loosely on Rosalie's life on the road. Rosalie opened for Nanci at a concert in Boise in 2005.
Q: Do you remember when you first heard Rosalie's voice?
A: Many years before I met her. A dear friend of mine, we were huge fans of the "Travelin' Lady'" record. I wore mine out on vinyl for sure.
Q: What about Rosalie's voice did that for you?
A: Nobody's voice sounds like that. She's so unique. She's her own genre. She's just Rosalie Sorrels and the minute she opens her mouth and the notes come out you know it's her.
Q: What was it like touring together?
A: We had great fun. The first tour we did was in Nina Gerber's Ford Econoline. Nina Gerber the guitar player extraordinaire. Rosalie is funny on the road. She was asleep in a bunk in the back of the van. We went through some place in Northern California called Pantyhose Junction. We decided we would stop and see what Pantyhose Junction is and trying to wake Rosalie up and see if she wanted to go in and get something to eat and see what it was all about. And Rosalie said there is no place called Pantyhose Junction. So we said, we'll show you.
We went in and it was definitely something out of a Fellini film. They had cigarette lighters and matches and t-shirts and caps. We just bought every piece of memorabilia we could find and placed them on Rosalie's bunk so when she woke up in the morning she said, there really is a Pantyhose Junction.
Q: Talk about "Ford Econoline," the song you wrote about Rosalie.
A: It's a thumbnail biography of Rosalie Sorrels and Kate Wolf and combining their stories. .[T]hey had both, Kate and Rosalie, had fled some abusive husbands in a vehicle that the abusive husband had been stupid enough to purchase for them. I've known what it's like to need that vehicle and I wanted to write something that is reinforcing to people who are considering leaving an abusive situation, and it's my way of giving them the keys to the ignition. Rosalie and Kate were both great inspirations for me as a young woman growing up in Texas and knowing that I needed to get out.
Q: And so you felt inspired by Rosalie?
A: Always. A great hero.
Q: What is Rosalie's style?
A: I think Rosalie has done a brilliant job of combining all the genres that have influenced her, from traditional music, country music, to left-winged country music like Utah Phillip's songs. She's just done a great job of combining all of that.
In my own music, I'm a combo of Woodie Guthrie, Buddy Holly, the Crickets and Loretta Lynn; and you mix Rosalie and Kate in there, and you pull out Nanci Griffith.
Jean Ritchie grew up in Viper, Kentucky, one of 14 children in a music-loving family. When she was about seven, she learned to play the hammer dulcimer from her father. Ritchie graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Kentucky with a degree in social work. Her first job was on New York's Lower East Side, teaching children Kentucky songs, ballads, and singing games. As Ritchie's popularity spread, she also mentored up-and-coming folk singers like Rosalie Sorrels, inviting her to play at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. It was Rosalie's first trip back East. The two have been friends for more than 40 years.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the quality of Rosalie's voice.
A: It's very unique, Rosalie's voice. You know immediately it's Rosalie as soon as she starts singing. There's a timbre to it that no other voice has. Besides being unique, it's something that compels listening. As soon as you hear it you want to say, "What? What is she singing, what is she saying?"
Q: Is it possible to classify her?
A: I would call her a storyteller, and she's very good at it. I think it's important to have the stories for a singer who is a collector and a believer in the heritage. You want to have the life around the song. You want it to be a folk life thing as well as a folk song thing. You want people to understand where it comes from, who sang it, why it was important to them, whether it was the way they played games, it was a game song or whether they rocked babies, it was a lullaby, things like that. You put it in a frame. You have the song and then you have it in its setting and you have the life around it.
Q: Talk about the link between you and Rosalie and the Newport Festival.
A: I was one of the seven original trustees for Newport and about the third year in or so they were asking us for suggestions and I suggested Rosalie. They didn't know who she was and little by little I brought records in and I talked her up and they invited her. So she was invited to Newport and she made a very good contribution that year and I think it helped her and I think it helped us having her there.
Q: What was it about Rosalie that made you want to introduce her to a wider audience?
A: She had done a lot of collections and a lot of work among the Mormons and among the people in Utah and that was a part of the country that hadn't been showcased at Newport and I thought it would be a good addition. And I loved her music and I thought it had a lot in common with other rural music.
Q: One of the things you two share in common is that she doesn't always sing the same song the same way.
A: Especially the old hymns and the decorated songs. They're never quite the same. You never sing them the same way twice. When I play the dulcimer, when she plays her music-- I'm sure she substitutes different chords and things like. We try to make the accompaniment help tell the story as well as the voice tell the story. I notice that her music is very inventive and wandering the way mine is and she's always looking for a better way to say it.
Q: What was it like for her to travel with five children?
A: It was very hard for her. She had one of the hardest lives of anybody I can imagine, to have done all she has done. She has really surmounted many, many obstacles.
Q: What is her place in American folk music?
A: Rosalie's place in American folk music is a very important one. She has almost single- handedly filled in the Utah and the Idaho parts of the country. And her stories and her songs have all reached many people. I think her willingness to travel and to go to different places and to take the messages of her songs and stories has been good. If you just sit at home and write books or if you just sit at home and sing for the church or go to New York once a year and do a big concert, that doesn't do the same thing as getting out among the people and putting yourself in all these little places the way she has done.
Q: It sounds like a great community you all had.
A: Nowadays, I don't know; it seems to me that most of the motivation is money, is making lots of money quickly and getting a big name and getting in a lot of magazines and on the covers and things like that. All the young girls want to be Brittany Spears, and even she is passé by now I guess! They don't want to get out there and slather around like we did and do the hard work.
Q: Anything else you'd like to say about Rosalie?
A: She's one in a million. I can't think of anything that sums her up, but it's been mighty good knowing her.
Bruce "Utah" Phillips is a Grammy-nominated folk singer, storyteller, and poet. Many of his songs relate to the struggles of labor unions and workers, particularly rail workers. Phillips and Sorrels first met in Salt Lake. They would eventually travel and perform together all over the country. The two recorded an album together called The Long Memory (1996), a tribute to American workers. Rosalie often sings his songs in performance.
Q: What was it about Rosalie singing unaccompanied that was such a great experience? Is it the quality of her voice?
A: She could get into the guts of a song. Listening to her sing unaccompanied was truly an extraordinary experience.It's a way of singing that gives the listener, gives me, a better understanding of what the song is really about, and arriving at that understanding about a song is more important than anything else. Otherwise you are "muzak."
But Rosalie, first of all in her manner of singing, demands intimacy. In the manner of her performance, demands intimacy. Even though people may be uncomfortable with that, she demands it, and they give it up. She knows how to make them do that, and it carries over to the singing. Now that you've achieved this feeling of intimacy, a real connection between us, I can sing to you in such a way that you are really going to understand this song, and you are really going to be able to find out how it fits into your life as you are living it, and fits into your past as things have happened to you. It's phenomenal to watch.
And the thing is, it keeps getting better. Rosalie is singing better than she ever has in her life and her performances are simply awfully good theater. And Rosalie has learned how to do that. It's so uncommon among folk singers. Folk singers coming up through the folk revival really wanted to be traditional people and pretend that they weren't doing theater, but damn it, when you've got an audience and microphones and lights and a stage, you are doing theater so you might as well learn how to do it. Well, Rosalie went at it that way and simply learned how to do it and do it as well as it can be done.
And she's not doing characterizations, she's not doing personae. Rosalie walking on the stage is the same person who was standing in the wings, the same person who was walking down the street. That also is very rare.
Q: Discuss the importance of "theater" to her music.
A: When I got thrown out of Utah after Black List, I backed into this trade and Rosalie was very, very helpful in getting me started in it. When I had to leave and wound up in New York and wound up in Saratoga. I listened to a lot of folk singers. The whole thing was new to me. I was green as corn. I saw them sing a song and then fumble around tuning an instrument or picking up another instrument or scratching their head and deciding what to sing next and there was no thread of continuity. There was no theater to it.
I discovered soon, and watching Rosalie, that what you did between the songs is as important as the songs themselves. And that your set is constructed in such a way so that one thing leads to another. You wind up doing a two-act play instead of a concert with a first set and a second set, and in many ways trying to make sure that each word is exactly where you want it to be. You have to bring to it economy of language. You only have a certain amount of time on that stage, so you go over the language and make sure the words are where they need to be, that you are not rambling. There are halves and sometimes whole concerts that Rosalie has done that could stand by themselves as pieces of art.
Q: How did the two of you start performing together?
A: I guess it was the Utah Folk Music Society and we'd have "sing arounds" over in the living room, on the front porch with these singers who were coming through, and they would stay with Rosalie, and then we'd sit on the front porch and sing together. We shared the stage sometimes. I think we put together a theater piece. I hope Rosalie still has the script of that someplace because I would like to do that again. "The Face of A Nation" where we had a reader, Willie from the radio station. A great radio voice and we had selections from Woody Guthrie and Thomas Wolfe. Passages that he would read and then we would match songs sitting on each side of him to those passages. And we did it as a concert. I thought it worked beautifully. In fact, some of those things I still do. And it was theater, and it was good theater. We did that in Salt Lake at the Union Building at the university. I would like to find that again. I think that really was the first formal relationship leading to a trade. I'm not sure that either one of us at that time was anticipating that this would be the way we would make a living for the next 30 or 40 years.
We gave a very well balanced performance because she can sing and I can't. She has a very, very solid way of playing the guitar, and I fumble around with it. She does the art portion. I do the down home trash part. It's a very well balanced presentation, very well rounded.
Q: Describe the energy between the two of you on stage.
A: Well, first of all, it's one of mutual respect; and that respect is grounded in the fact that each knows what the other one is doing. We're not completely egocentric. We're aware of what another person is doing. In our situation, even though you've done the same thing 3 or 4 or 5 times, you really look at each other as though you are hearing it for the first time, as though you are having a conversation to create that theater. And that was a real theatrical tension to pay attention to what I'm saying, I pay attention to what she's saying, and I can bounce off of that, and I can adjust timing. We're both feeling the same audience but we're both going at them in a little different way.
So if they laugh, releases the tension, hand it back to Rosalie and then she can build the tension again. It is theater. It's really paying attention and it is understanding the theater of what you do and owning it and being so secure in your own ego that you can sacrifice it, you can bend so that things work, so that you come out right.
So much of the theater of it is making it real for yourself and then getting on the stage and being enough of an actor or actress to convince the audience that you're making this up as you go along, and that you are having as much fun with it as you ever did. I guess the rule is, it doesn't matter whether a thousand people or three people are in that audience, this is going to be the best show you ever did in your life. Those are the rules.
Q: What was Rosalie's contribution in terms of collecting and preserving traditional songs?
A: Learning them and performing them. Breathing life back into them. Bringing some of them to life. Some of those I imagine hadn't been sung for years by anybody. And just like she does with every song she sings, breathing life into it.
Q: How do you feel having Rosalie sing your songs and keeping them going, keeping them alive?
A: I'm glad the songs are useful. I would like to make useful songs. I never regarded song making as just a matter of self-expression. I think it's great that young singer-song writers are using song making as self-expression, but there is a whole lot more to it than that. There's a whole world out there with stories that are begging for songs and for somebody to come along and pick those up and I want to pass those songs along.
I think Rosalie and I are both tuned into a pretty traditional process. We understand that the well of the people, the music is very, very deep, but that old songs way down, back in the tunnel of time, at the bottom of that well, get lost and that well will run dry unless songs are put in the top of that well and passed around so that it doesn't run dry.
I believe so strongly in writing outside of oneself and putting songs in that well, which means throwing them into the air so that they take [on] a life of their own and give you up and give up your name, because that's the way it lasts, you see. One of the things I'm doing up in Nevada City right now is working with young singer-song writers who are very self involved, and I have them over to my house, and I tell them stories that I have carried for years that I will never get turned into songs, and they have tremendous facility with language and image, and I say come back in a week with a song and they do, with these songs about these stories. What I have been doing at the same time is taking the ego out of song making. It's not mine, it's not mine. The songs of mine that Rosalie sings really aren't mine any more. They are out on the air and they are going to go where they will and if they do anybody some good, that's fine.
Q: Going on the road with five children, surviving breast cancer and an aneurysm-- talk about Rosalie's strength.
A: She is the most constitutionally hearty person I know. There is absolutely no reason why she shouldn't have perished a dozen times over, but she simply persists. She's enormously durable. Part of it is genetic and part of it is raw stubbornness and the refusing to give in or give up. She has a great deal of courage but just a great deal of innate hearty-hood. If there is anything that characterizes her as a western woman, it's probably that, almost stereotypical.
Q: Do you view Rosalie as a western singer?
A: Rosie is any kind of singer she wants to be on any given night. If she wants to be a torch singer in a saloon in New Orleans she will be, and she'll make it stick. She knows how to do it.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say about Rosalie?
A: Rosalie has not been content to go from town to town, hotel to hotel to the stage in the car, back to the hotel and on to the next town. She has been functionally and politically engaged over the years in all kinds of movements for social change, for political change and given herself away endlessly to benefit our people at large. That's again, part of that furious energy, that deep, deep fire that burns way down within that doesn't seem to want to cool off at all. It's an engine that drives Rosalie that hasn't just benefited her, but through her it's been a tremendous benefit to all of us.
Terry Garthwaite is an internationally known singer, songwriter, composer, producer, and teacher. Her recording career dates back to the late 1960s when she and Toni Brown formed the rock group "Joy of Cooking." Garthwaite, Rosalie Sorrels and Bobbi Louise Hawkins performed together on the road, and recorded an album together, "Live at the Great American Music Hall." Terry's recent recordings and writing focus on the healing nature of music. She currently leads vocal retreats, drum circles, and singing classes.
Q: How would you characterize Rosalie's voice, her sound?
A: Rosalie's sound.nothing like it. Cuts like a knife, purrs like a kitten. It's an interesting vehicle because she can use it.as a jazz vehicle or as story vehicle or in her folk songs, and all of those things have different tone to them. I think probably one of the things that I love the most about working with her musically is that she has that breadth of tone.
Q: What is it like being on stage, working, collaborating with Rosalie?
A: It's always like having the best seat in the house. It brought me back to being a solo performer within the context of good company, and what a wonderful way to perform. You're not there by yourself with an audience. You're there in the best of company with the audience, so I feel very fortunate to have been able to do that.
She's got a great sense of humor. She tells wonderful stories and I think probably the aspect of doing stories in song is something that has not been in my musical history.
Q: What role do Rosalie's stories have in her performance?
A: A big role. I think it's hard to know whether the stories wind around the songs or the songs are a vehicle for the stories. They all segue so beautifully together that it's of a piece. I think they are equally important.
Q: Do you view Rosalie as a folk singer?
A: I think of her as a folk legend, but not as a folk singer, because she is so much more than that, because her stories are so wonderfully told and so "spot on" for the listener. There's a lot to be learned from her stories.
Barbara Higbie is a longtime Windham Hill recording artist now recording for Slowbaby Records. Both a singer and a songwriter, Higbie is a championship fiddle player, as well as a pianist and composer. The co-founder of the successful acoustic group "Montreux," Higbie has recorded two award-winning solo CDs, "Signs of Life" and "I Surrender." In addition, Higbie has played on more than 45 albums, recently recording with Bonnie Raitt on Rosalie Sorrels' tribute CD to Malvina Reynolds. She also worked with Rosalie on her album "Borderline Heart." The two met in 1994.
Q: What makes Rosalie distinctive?
A: She's a truly great artist. There's no artifice at all. She is completely who she is. I think the best description I've ever heard is, "the hillbilly Edith Piaf." She's got that universal kind of expression of human emotion on that level but it's through a whole country hillbilly kind of lens.
But also just being on stage with her or recording with her, she will take it emotionally just to the wall. She will go fearlessly into these emotions that she has obviously experienced in her life and bring them out in this way that is fearless. I just know that most people will go to a certain level and stop, but not Rosalie. She will take you to a point. I've played the song many times with her but I'm sitting there scared. "Wait a minute, don't go that far!" And then she brings it all around and makes it whole again. It's an amazing magical thing that she does.
Q: You say, don't go that far, because you worry that she might crack?
A: Right. Exactly. She might crack and we all might crack. You're not supposed to get that intense and that loving towards life. She loves life in a big way that I think most of us don't let ourselves do.
A: I've learned that life is precious in a way. You know that, but there's a way that she has kind of the death and life right there all of the time which makes you really realize that life is precious and emotions are precious and people are precious. She certainly isn't about material success and the trappings of fame or anything like that. She is just about the moment of life is all we really all have, the moment we're in. And she is about that moment and about taking it into your 70's and 80's. She has taught me about being awake to life in another way.
Roma Baran is a folk musician and Grammy-nominated music producer who has produced for many artists, including Laurie Anderson and Kate & Anne McGarrigle. She was also nominated for an Oscar for her work as co-producer of a documentary about the music of Bernard Herrman. Baran has produced several of Rosalie's recordings, including the Grammy-nominated "My Last-Go Round." She was one of the musicians accompanying Rosalie during her concert in Hailey, ID, and is producing the CD of the concert. She met Rosalie in New York when she was just a teenager and looking for work as a guitarist.
Q: How did you first meet Rosalie?
A: A long time ago, I hate to say. It was in the sixties. I was in New York and so messed up and David Bromberg was playing with Rosalie at 'The Bitter End' and he had to do another gig so he suggested me to replace him and I went down to meet with Rosalie at 'The Bitter End' to see if she wanted to hire me but I was just so out of it I didn't say a single word. She said, "Well, okay" and we opened up our guitar cases and I played and she said, "That's fine. Just come back tonight." I don't think I ever said a single word that whole gig.
Q: Describe Rosalie's style.
A: The first moment I worked with her I saw in her what I still see and what I think everybody sees. She is so intimate and real and she's exactly the same off stage as she is on. She's very focused and she gets it. Music is complicated and performing is complicated and she really gets it. She really appreciates her musicians and loves the audience.
Q: Can you tell me about her voice quality?
A: It is certainly unique. In two seconds of any Rosalie song there's nobody you would mistake that voice for. Nobody. And there are very few artists you can say that about. Janis Joplin, just very few. To describe it - her voice, it's very emotional, very flexible and fluid and very tuned into the lyrics. The lyrics are extremely important to her.
Q: Over the years, have you noticed her voice change in any way?
A: It's gotten better, which is amazing. Usually as you get a little older, the voice gets a little raspier and I think she's just singing better than ever.
Q: You must have been incredibly worried when she was so ill.
A: Oh, yes. Absolutely. She's just such a fighter. I don't know why it would be any different when she was ill. She just fought her way through being ill like she's fought her way through a lot of very devastating things that have happened to her in her life. The music I think saved her.
Q: What has she taught you about life as a friend?
A: Just watching her determination and her courage in an era where - especially women - had to be something in particular. She just went ahead and did what she wanted to do and what was important to her. That was amazing to watch unfold over the years.
Q: Can you categorize Rosalie?
A: I can understand people have to do marketing, but I certainly don't think of her that way. She's Rosalie. She performs, she sings, she talks, she tells stories, poems. The songs are very different. Clearly some of them have more of a country feeling, but no, I don't really think of her fitting into some category.
Q: How do you feel about her storytelling?
A: I never tire of it. You can imagine how many times I've heard some of these stories and they're always different. They're always very tuned in to the mood of the evening, the mood of the audience and I'm also mesmerized by her technique, just watching someone tell a story, that timing is always like to the split second, perfect in her delivery, so I never tire of hearing them.
Q: What was it like to get word about the Grammy nomination?
A: I was just thrilled for Rosalie. Millions of people have heard her and enjoyed her but to the extent that she hasn't had the commercial success, that was an affirmation of her standing in the music community. I'm really happy for her.
Q: What is it like being up on stage with her?
A: It's great fun. She is very interactive. Being up on stage with her is great fun. She's listening to the musicians all the time, making eye contact. She loves to have the interplay. Especially people reacting, answering her vocal lines with her instruments.
Q: Why hasn't Rosalie become more popular?
A: I think it may be because she doesn't fit into some marketing slot and because she certainly hasn't over the years fit into whatever the big thing at the moment is, and she has just continued to do what she does instead of trying to bend into somebody else's idea of how to sell her.
Q: Her legacy?
A: I think her legacy will be her huge body of work and over so many years, and of staying absolutely true to herself and not changing or shifting or reacting, but just really being true to herself and the music.
Musician Rocci Johnson has been a singer in a rock and roll band for many years. She and her husband own Hannah's Bar in Boise, Idaho, where she is the lead singer with The Rocci Johnson Band. She also organized The Divas of Boise, who accompanied Rosalie Sorrels in the 2005 concert at the Liberty Theater in Hailey, Idaho.
Q: Who are the Divas of Boise?
A: I always had an idea of getting all of my girlfriends together and being on one stage and doing one thing. so I called every female entertainer in town that I knew. Our first year nine women came on board. We chose the Women's and Children's Alliance Crisis Center as the beneficiary of our performance, and we raised a ton of money and had a line down the block for hours, and it was just amazing.
The only criteria to being a Diva is that any differences, any problems, anything you have with each other all gets left at the door at all rehearsals and all performances. That's the only criteria. When we hit the stage, we're on one page, and it's amazing. We've had an amazing 11 years together, and it's been just terrific.
We all have our own style, our different costuming. It's just a rainbow of diversity when we step on stage. I think the biggest thing for the Divas of Boise is that we believe in the celebration of life. We believe in coming together to show how diverse and amazing life can be when you are all on one page and all with the same cause.
Q: What was it like performing with Rosalie Sorrels at the Liberty Theater concert?
A: Supporting Rosalie was an incredible thing for us, because of who she is and what she has achieved in her life. And we feel that she's the Queen Diva of Idaho! Not only is she amazing in what she has achieved but all of her performances are for a purpose. She wants to make a change. She wants to make a difference. She wants our society, our nation, our culture and indeed the world to be a better place. So all of her material, whether it's about love, about family, about community, about healthcare, about war and peace, all of her material is about making this a better place, making this earth a better place.
And how could one not support that? That's what The Divas are about, and she started on the path decades before any of us were even in the picture. We could not have been more pleased to support who she is, what she's about, what she's accomplished.Q: Thinking of Rosalie as a Diva might be a stretch for some people.
A: Look, if you are a powerful woman who's out there in the frontlines of life, you're a Diva, whether it's on the TV screen and radio, whether it's in non-profit work, whatever. You are a woman who takes your talents to the forefront and makes a positive difference. And that's what Rosalie's about.Q: Was there a favorite song that you sang at the Liberty Theater concert?
A: "Apple of My Eye," because for every mother it sheds light on that relationship, that special relationship between you and your child.
"We're not one, we're worlds apart, you and I, Child of my body, bone of my bone, Apple of my eye." I mean, that just puts into one sentence how you feel about that child who came forth from your body. It puts it in a way that addresses the problems between parent and child, but yet puts you on the same page, that you will always be together as one, even though there's always other things going on.
Q: What's your take on Rosalie's legacy in the music world?
A: I think that Rosalie's legacy will only become more pronounced as we move forward, because there are so many stories that haven't even hit the surface. Her life's work is amazing. She is an encyclopedia of wisdom when it comes to performance, when it comes to the front lines of life, of raising 5 children, all of her incredible difficulties with illness that she has surmounted. She started her own record label at the age of 70.
I think that if nothing else comes of this, that this performance documentary will expound upon who she is and what she has accomplished.
Q: Is there a train of thought that runs through what Rosalie does?
A: It always comes back with Rosalie to the fact that she feels that her material and her performance is important for social change, whether it's on the family front, in the community, nationally or world wide. That's what is important to her, that she makes a difference in peoples' lives. That is probably the thing I admire the most. That is so important to her. And she has made a difference.
I'm a person who believes in being involved in life. The time for silence is over. The time for discourse is here. The time for discussion about who we are as a nation and where we are on the world stage is hugely important. And we as entertainers have a responsibility to bring that to the forefront and to help that discourse to take place.
Q: Would you describe Rosalie as a folksinger?
A: Rosalie does not fit into one box. Yes, you could say she's a folk singer. Yes, you could say her material is Idaho-based or country-based; but I don't think she fits into any one box. I think she transcends any kind of definition of her work. I think her material goes beyond all of that.
Q: How would you describe Rosalie's voice?
A: At 71 years of age Rosalie has the most crystal clear, omnipresent voice, beyond people half her age. She is always in tune. She is always in the moment. Even when she's not feeling well, even when she's been through breast cancer, aneurisms, horrible family tragedies, she is in the moment and she makes it work. I am completely and utterly impressed with that.
And the fact that she's 71 years old, and she has done all these amazing things, and she doesn't complain, and she's made it all work. Oh my gosh!
The founding director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, and its famous child, the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Hal Cannon has published a dozen books and recordings on the folk arts of the American West. Cannon also produces public television and radio features on the culture and folklife of the American West. Cannon, a musician himself, first met Rosalie in Salt Lake, where he grew up.
Q: Do you remember when you first met Rosalie?
A: I was really young. I think I was about 12 years old when I met Rosalie. She lived in Salt Lake City, had five young children and I went over there every Saturday morning and took (guitar) lessons from her husband Jim Sorrels. I babysat for them. I sort of idolized Rosalie. Utah Phillips lived there in town then too. I have to say that Rosalie and that group sort of opened up the world for me.
Q: In what way?
A: I grew up in a pretty conservative Mormon family and I was sort of hankering to appreciate the world in a larger way and particularly musically. Rosalie not only had me babysit but she would bring in folk performers like the Georgia Sea Island Singers or The New Lost City Ramblers, John Jacob Niles. And she'd have parties at her house afterwards and I was just a little twerp but she'd invite me to come. People were cavorting and talking about things I'd never heard about and being funny. I have to say she had a lot to do with forming the person I am today.
Q: What makes Rosalie a folklorist?
A: She is a popularizer. She's not an academic particularly. First of al,l she's done a lot of collecting. She collected early on, folk music from Utah when she lived in Utah. She took course work from folklorists, so she sort of understood the methodology of field work. What she does, she does preserve it but she makes it pertinent for today. I saw her perform recently and I was amazed that she just has this ability to present things as though they are really pertinent right now even though they may be very old. She just mixes her own personal experience in so much into her performance that it's sort of seamless.
Q: Where does Rosalie fit in the panoply of folk musicians?
A: She's part of a folk revival in the '60's that was not as commercially based as "The Kingston Trio" or "Peter, Paul and Mary." She wasn't really part of that. She really aligned herself with a more gritty, more rough and ready, more politically active, more left aspect of folk music. And the fact is that kind of folk music was really an eastern United States phenomena. And so she was isolated from the center of this folk music revival and she was sort of like the hinter-land western ambassador of folk music.
Q: What do you think her legacy will be?
A: I think the recordings will stand up for a long time. I think that her collecting of folk songs will stand up. I'd hope that she could do some more writing. She's just such a great story teller I could imagine her narratives being put into book form.
She has created - this sounds crass, but it's sort of the "Rosalie Sorrels corporate identity." She's very much her own person and refuses to be pigeon-holed. To build a community of people around you and still be able to have that individuality I think is a tough thing and she's done it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bill Talen, AKA the "Reverend Billy," is a performance artist who travels the country with the "Stop Shopping Gospel Choir" to expound against commercialism in Americans' daily lives. He met Rosalie when both lived in California. The two of them performed together in the Solo Mio Festival in San Francisco.
Q: Describe Rosalie's performance style.
A: I would say that it's an undying, implacable rascally sense of humor that must be brought to the most egregious sorrows that life is going to bring you. I think a lot of people from a successful Rosalie Sorrels concert are going out the door with a kind of preparation for the sorrows that they will have. And in our puritanical society we're not necessarily prepared for sorrows. We're not very good at it. Grieving is one of the things we do worst in this culture. She brings that to audiences, who after all, are given a false happy ending constantly.
Q: What have you learned from Rosalie?
A: She taught me that those labels shouldn't pull you around. You don't let the people selling records, don't let the critics, don't let people who have big words who are trying to organize you into places. I think she taught me to be interested in what you are interested in first, to cultivate your sense of fascination.
Q: Why isn't Rosalie known by more people?
A: I think more people do know about Rosalie Sorrels. Maybe Rosalie would just say "I've got lots of friends," but there are so many towns and cities and ranches in the culture that welcome Rosalie and know her and this is a more important kind of celebrity.
Rosalie Sorrels is in this group of people that I have focused on who have reinvented celebrity. She's not the sort of celebrity who has to have a new product every four months and have a whole marketing system set up and has to go into 28 different kinds of media formats. If she did that she couldn't possibly do what she does. She has a sort of horizontal theme. It's taken from person to person to person to person in the form of story telling, in the form of soulful barter economies, how we contact each other in that way that is uncharted.
Rosalie doesn't need to have the Nielson ratings. She doesn't need to have that sort of pop measurement.