Since this article first appeared in September 2011, Rosalie has retired (really!) and now lives full time in the cabin built by her father outside Boise. The structure needs work and family and friends are asking for help: "…we realize that we need support. We would like to organize a fund to make some necessary repairs to her home 'The Cabin.'" Here is a link for an article written by her granddaughter: 'Rosalie Sorrels retires…this time for real'. You will find information there on how to make a donation.
I turned the television on a few nights ago and before the picture came in, heard an unmistakable voice—Rosalie Sorrels. To my delight, I had tuned in at the beginning of an hour-long PBS show 'Rosalie Sorrels: Way Out in Idaho', featuring one of the most unique and memorable performers I have ever experienced.
Known predominately as a singer and songwriter, Rosalie Sorrels is also a respected folklorist. She was born in Idaho to a family of readers and musicians, and began collecting traditional folk songs as a child. At 78, her passion for gathering and sharing the history that these songs preserve continues. She hadn't planned to be a folk singer, but when her marriage ended in the mid 60s, Sorrels loaded her five kids in the car and took off. It was the beginning of what would be a lifetime on the road for the 'Travelin' Lady'.
I have had the good fortune of attending two live performances by the artist. The first, thirty years ago in Fort Collins, Colorado, and again four years ago in Albuquerque, New Mexico. You don't go 'to see' Rosalie Sorrels. From the moment she speaks, you are drawn into the world of stories and songs she shares. She is a great entertainer, but above all, she is authentic. In an era of high tech hype and slick performances, her pure and simple music and storytelling make her a powerful communicator. At both shows I was struck by that power. At the second show, I was also struck by the fact that in the twenty-five years since I'd last shared that experience, she had survived a brain aneurism and breast cancer.
Rosalie prefers small stages, intimate arenas. She likes to see her audience and communicate with them. I had a sense that she was as glad to be there as we were—that singing to us was important to her. I felt liked and special. You can't ask much more from a performer.
It is no exaggeration to say her voice is distinctive. There is a video on YouTube that mistakenly identifies a singer with Jerry Garcia at Woodstock as Mimi Farina. I laughed at the number of people commenting who identified Rosalie solely by her voice. That voice has been described as "an instrument as mellow and finely aged as an antique viola." The Boston Globe called her “one of America’s genuine folk treasures.” Gamble Rodgers called her the "hillbilly Edith Piaf". Studs Terkel said "Rosalie Sorrels sings songs the way you've always hoped they'd be sung: Deeply felt, effortlessly, and altogether loverly." Bruce Utah Phillips admired her ability to "get into the guts of a song." The Chicago Reader wrote, "Sorrels has decried the music industry's attempt to homogenize women and ethnicity into something blander. She's living proof that there are some things the biz just can't whitewash." Deeply moved by her performance, the late John Wasserman, entertainment critic at the San Francisco Chronicle commented "She did something that only the best can ever do; she brought back memories that we never had. She's one of the genuines, Rosalie Sorrels is." Others have described her vocals as 'well weathered and wise; real substance; true and powerful; a grain of crusty toughness; a voice that "cuts like a knife and purrs like a kitten".
No, she isn't a household name, and I'd be curious to see how she would do at an audition for one of today's 'star' shows, but those who know folk music know Rosalie Sorrels. In 1990 she received The World Folk Music Association's Kate Wolf Award. With the new millennium came an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Idaho, and in 2001, The Boise Peace Quilt Project presented her with a peace quilt. In 2005, her album 'My Last Go Round' received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album, and in 2008, although officially retired, she recorded 'Strangers in Another Country', her tribute to lifelong friend Bruce Utah Phillips. It received another Grammy nod. In 1990 she published the 250 page book 'Way out in Idaho: celebration of songs and stories'. The contents came from hundreds of people who Sorrels met as she traveled across the state. She did what she does best, watched, listened and collected their stories, songs, poems, recipes, interviews, and photographs. It includes sheet music for 85 songs, and lyrics for many others.
Today, she lives in a log cabin her father built near Boise Idaho. She still performs, and still collects songs, and yes, still enriches the lives of those who have a chance to see or hear her.
As I write, I'm listening to her sing Malvina Reynolds' song 'Magic Penny'.
It's just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won't have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you'll have so many
They'll roll all over the floor.
For love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.
When the credits rolled at the end of 'Rosalie Sorrels: Way Out in Idaho' I noticed that it was produced by Idaho Public Television and funded in part by the Idaho Humanities Council. I shivered thinking of recent efforts by politicians to cut into or completely eliminate these kinds of programs. Rosalie Sorrels is a hero, a patriot, a woman who tells and preserves the history of this nation, of its PEOPLE. It is frightening to think that her legacy might not survive.
This video was recorded in Sarasota Florida in 1994. The first part of the piece is a poem Rosalie's mother wrote for her, the second half is the song she wrote in response.
"If you treat your children like they are the most interesting people you know, they probably will be." Rosalie Sorrels