REMEMBERING ROSALIE SORRELS
Hard Travelin’ Lady
June 24, 1933—June 11, 2017
Rosalie Sorrels grabbed her D-28 and took the Westbound—she didn’t say where she was going. She was living in hospice care at her daughter Holly Marizu’s home in Reno, Nevada. It’s a blessing that U. Utah Phillips (May 15, 1935 – May 23, 2008) preceded her in death; for had he heard this sad news of beloved Idaho folk singer Rosalie Sorrels passing at the age of 83 in Nevada—his home—it would have killed him anyway. I first heard her perform with him when I was a graduate student at SUNY-Binghamton in 1973, when she was young and beautiful. Rosalie and Utah put on a show at Caffé Lena’s in Saratoga Springs that remains the single greatest concert I have ever had the good fortune to hear.
Utah famously refused permission to Johnny Cash for recording an album of his songs, but he had no problem with Rosalie doing it; she recorded his If I Could Be the Rain as the title song of the first album they did together—including six of his songs and six of hers—back in 1967, fifty years ago this year. But we need to go back further than that to get some perspective on what made her the artist she became—for she began as a true folklorist and “song catcher in the southern mountains,” the mountains of southern Idaho.
“Rosalie Ann Stringfellow was born on June 24, 1933, in Boise, Idaho, to Walter Pendleton Stringfellow and Nancy Ann Kelly,” a literary and musical liberal left family of Southern Idaho. Her parents, like their parents before them, had a love of language and song which they passed to their children. Her father worked for the highway department and the family often travelled with him as he did field work.” (Wikipedia) Her mother owned the Book Shop downtown, and that is where Rosalie hung out and started to acquire her encyclopedic knowledge of poetry, story and song.
Rosalie Stringfellow met Jim Sorrels while performing in theater in Boise, Idaho. Jim was a lineman for the county; he worked for the phone company and was seven years older than Rosalie. He was also a guitar player and they married in 1952. They started a family in the 1950s, and, according to folklorist Polly Stewart, interviewed by the author in 2011 at USC, they moved to Salt Lake City in 1958 and became a part of the folk music burgeoning community—indeed along with Bruce Phillips—they became its leaders.
Her voice was the most inimitable thing about her performances: think of her as the white Billie Holiday. A vibrato that extended into the furthest reaches of emotional expression, she could connect with any audience—from children for whom she wrote the classic I’m Gonna Tell, based on a conversation she overheard from her own five children, to the 22-year old son she couldn’t save (Hitchhiker In the Rain), to adult lovers for whom she wrote Go With Me (for Peter Rowan), to old-timers facing the end of the road (My Last Go-Round). Her songs embraced the whole of life’s journey, as in her signature1972 Philo album Travelin’ Lady—which she explored in its bittersweet tragedy and comedy. Only Rosalie could get away with writing a lullaby that fantasizes about dropping one of her babies out of a tree—her hostile Baby Rocking Song, with her priceless opening rant:
All right, it’s 5:30 in the morning. That kid has not quit howling now for six hours. You’re getting sort of desperate, breaking out into a cold sweat because you know that all those other kids are going to get up in about another half hour and they’re going to demand cereal and peanut sandwiches and milk. And you forgot to get milk. Oh, God. All the paregoric is gone. It’s gone because you drank it. Things are getting awful bad and you need something else. Every culture’s got one: it’s the hostile baby-rocking song. You just can’t keep all that stuff bottled up inside yourself. You need to let it out some way, or you’d get strange . . . punch the baby in the mouth . . . and you can’t do that. You’d get an awful big ticket for it, and it makes you feel lousy. So you take that baby and you rock it firmly, smile sweetly . . . and you sing the hostile baby-rocking song:
This is the day we give babies away
With a half a pound of tea
You just open the lid, and out pops the kid
With a twelve month guarantee.
This is the day we give babies away
With a half a pound of tea
If you know any ladies who want any babies
Just send them round to me
There’s an island way out in the sea
Where babies grow up on the trees
It’s oh so much fun, to swing in the sun
But you have to watch out if you sneeze, you sneeze
You have to watch out if you sneeze
From the cradle to the grave Rosalie confronted life head on. She told the funniest story I ever heard—and considering she often performed with America’s greatest storyteller U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest, that is saying something. Her yarn told of making a bet with a banker, and since I can’t retell it in a family magazine at the end I’ll give you the link so you can look it up yourself. Rosalie knew how to leave ‘em laughing.
Rosalie also gave the best history lesson I ever heard—about the Spanish Civil War. She used one of Utah’s songs to illustrate the dedication and commitment of the American volunteers who became a part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; a piano player who lost his arm named Weepy. Utah heard him at a piano bar in Spokane, Washington, playing with one hand. Curious as always, he stayed until after the show and asked him how he had happened to lose his arm. Weepy told him he left it on the battlefield in Spain, and Utah went home and wrote a song about the one-armed Lincoln brigade veteran pianist whose story Rosalie carried on after Utah passed away. It was transcendentally beautiful.
In story and song Rosalie Sorrels sang songs that mattered—that confronted the heartache of life without ever giving into it. She always found a way to fight back—against suicide, against poverty, against injustice, against oppression, and when she had a life-threatening brain aneurism thirty years ago, and survived breast cancer ten years after that, against death itself. How sadly ironic that someone who treasured what Phillips dubbed “The Long Memory” the title of their final album together in 1996, with an introduction by Pete Seeger—would wind up with dementia, and have to face watching—like Charley in Flowers for Algernon—her precious memories disappear.
Nonetheless, she celebrated life to the utmost. I still recall vividly when Dot Harris, who coordinated the Barn Folk Club at UC Riverside, told me that Rosalie had been diagnosed with this aneurism and was fighting for her life. We spoke about her health updates a number of times and celebrated when Rosalie was able to begin performing again. Of course Dot booked her at the Barn immediately and she gave a comeback concert that had a sense of both urgency and fragility about it—a sense that we could not take her music for granted—she might not always be there. It was a heroic effort and reminded me of the last record Cisco Houston made—when he—like Rosalie in time—was dying of cancer and knew he might not live to make another. Rosalie sang her heart out—like it was now or never. She went back to Boise, Idaho—where she was born—and left her fans with an appreciation for the connection folk music makes with the whole community that embraces it.
When she could no longer perform—like Hemingway who also came from Idaho—she went back home with “grace under pressure”—Hemingway’s definition of courage—to Grimes Creek, near Idaho City, and lived in the colorful log cabin her father had built as a young man. She made it colorful, with an amazing overhead peace quilt she received from the Boise Peace Project in 2001 and attached above her bed, illustrated with photos, quilt patches, paintings and favorite sayings. The largest such illustration is in the center, from which the others radiate out, her inspiration as a folk-jazz singer, Billie Holiday.
Every time she lay down, like Toulouse Lautrec in the final scene of the movie starring Jose Ferrer, she was able to watch a gathering parade of figures from her former lifetimes come to say farewell~ including Jean Ritchie, Jerry Jeff Walker, Malvina Reynolds—who influenced her as a songwriter and whose songs Rosalie performed in a one-woman show dedicated to her memory after Malvina passed away in 1976—the same year she lost her oldest son David to suicide at only 22—and folk-country singer Tom Russell, who wrote a song for her called Pork Loin and Poetry, after a memorable visit to Grimes Creek; it will be on a four-CD boxed Tribute to Rosalie Sorrels now in the works.
In 1966 she got her first major booking for a national audience, at the Newport Folk Festival. Perhaps not coincidentally it was the same year she left her husband, with whom she had recorded a number of albums (all now available on Smithsonian Folkways) of traditional songs from Idaho and Utah, including Songs of the Mormon Pioneers she had painstakingly collected in those southern mountains. And that is where she and Utah parted ways—intellectually speaking. Rosalie had a profound respect for Mormon culture and was steadfast to its folk music contributions, whereas Utah tended to refer to it only in satiric and comic terms—“The only place you can get virgin wool in Utah is from the sheep who can outrun the Mormons.”
Rosalie’s first albums were recorded with Jim Sorrels accompanying her on guitar, and remain standards of folk song collecting with brilliant annotation by Austin Fife, who edited one of the first books of cowboy songs. It was only after Newport that she began to add her own songs into the mix. That is why I treasure her as a folk singer/songwriter and not just as a singer-songwriter. Her songs—like Phillips’ and Bob Dylan’s—grew out of a deep understanding of traditional music.
Most importantly in terms of revealing and appreciating who she was as both a person and an artist who would come to embody the women’s movement, she may have left her husband but she never left her children. She carried all five of them with her as she toured across the country—in a Ford Econoline. Nanci Griffith paid tribute to in her song for Rosalie:
She drove west from Salt Lake City to the California coastline
She hit the San Diego Freeway doing sixty miles an hour
She had a husband on her bumper
She had five restless children
She was singing sweet as a mockingbird in that Ford Econoline
She’s the salt of the earth
Straight from the bosom of the Mormon church
With a voice like wine
Cruising along in that Ford Econoline.
Polly Stewart made a memorable observation in the interview I conducted for FolkWorks in 2011—available on our website. “After leaving Salt Lake City at separate times in the late 1960s, each fell into professional folk singing more by catastrophe than by design. Sorrels was suddenly a single parent with five children to rear and no job; Phillips was an out of work labor organizer, unemployable in Utah because of his high-profile politics.”
Later in the interview Professor Stewart recaptures the moment when their hybrid folk singer-storyteller performance style grew out of a theatre production created by Rosalie: “From the artistic perspective, probably the defining moment in the lives of both Sorrels and Phillips was in March 1963, when the two of them performed in a full-length production at the University of Utah, scripted and staged by Sorrels, called Face of a Nation, a spoken collage of prose and poetry by Thomas Wolfe, Woody Guthrie, Nelson Algren, and John Dos Passos, interspersed with songs by Woody Guthrie, Bruce Phillips, and others.19 A local radio announcer, Willy Lucas spoke the poems and narrative portions and Phillips and Sorrels sang the songs.”
Call it a portrait of the artist as a young woman—and it is well worth keeping in mind next to the late and gripping photo of Rosalie Sorrels in the throes of dementia and colon cancer that took her life—without her glorious hair, and yet at peace and almost Buddha-like in her sense of having left nothing unsaid or undone. It was such a privilege to have her grace the national stage for so long, and to have been able to recognize the real thing. She gave us the real music and stories of a nearly forgotten America—the country that has been nothing if not caricatured by its current leader so ignorant of American history. If you want to remember America at her best, remember Rosalie Sorrels; bound for glory.
To my friend Ellen Sway for breaking the sad news to me, and encouraging me to write this obituary, this remembrance is gratefully dedicated.
Rosalie’s children are planning a memorial for her in Boise, Idaho. Her ashes will be scattered on Grimes Creek
Rosalie is survived by her daughters Holly Marizu and Shelley Ross, her son Kevin, her brother Jim, five grandchildren and two great-grandsons. Her daughter Leslie died in 2016.
Folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; he belongs to Local 47 (AFM); Ross may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org