(page 5 of 7)
A LONG STORY PUNCTUATED BY SONG
The Tale of Fiddler Rosalie Sorrels
Though she’s often referred to as “The Travelin’ Lady,” there are few people who are more tied to their home state than folk singer Rosalie Sorrels.
She’s always been a pioneer, though she’d dismiss that description by pointing out all those who came before, walking the roads upon which she walked, singing and playing her beloved music.
But firstly, she’s an Idaho native—nearly 80 years old—who lives alone in a rustic cabin her father built at the end of a windy, rutted dirt road in a canyon deep in the mountains of Idaho. Her ancestry includes a family of readers, writers, singers and storytellers who have defined her approach to everything. Especially the art of storytelling. At school, Sorrels learned to read and write music and play piano to “see how it worked.” But she said she “really liked being a storyteller, which is what my performing style became—a long story punctuated by songs.”
Her mother’s family lived on a farm near Twin Falls, and her paternal grandfather, Robert Stanton Stringfellow, was an Episcopalian minister who settled his family of boys on Grimes Creek, near Idaho City. Among her father’s brothers, two were “card-carrying members of the Communist party.” One was a college professor, the other a newspaperman.
“They were open to all kinds of arts,” she said. “My father sang and played piano, and my mother was interested in theatre and poetry.” In fact, her mother, Nancy Stringfellow, ran the Bookshop on Main Street in Boise for decades.
“I lived in another cabin when I was little,” she said, pointing out an expansive front window in her cabin on a sunny winter day. “Then Dad and some friends built this one,” she said. “He made everything out of what was around. I’m very happy to be able to live here with my loud-mouth dog, Dudley. He’s a great companion. This is a mansion as far as I’m concerned.”
In the early 1960s, with husband Jim Sorrels, a fellow theatre and music enthusiast, Sorrels relocated to Salt Lake City with their family. They were at the center of a musical crowd who founded the Intermountain Folk Music Council, which encouraged the spread of folk music and the collection of Western folksongs.
After her marriage broke up, Rosalie and her five kids headed east to Saratoga Springs, New York, where she became a regular at America’s oldest continuously running folk music coffeehouse, Caffé Lena. A fixture on the scene, she became close to such people as Pete Seeger, Mike and Marge Seeger and Dave Van Ronk. The cream of the folk world passed through there in those days, she said.
“I went back and forth across country, performed a lot in San Francisco and was popular in Canada, also Mexico and Central and South America. I got around, considering the gaggle of people following me around everywhere,” she laughed.
In 1966, Sorrels played the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, cementing her reputation as one of the most important voices in the movement.
“I really like performing, and I’m good at it. I made 27 albums all together, but I’m just as interested in traditional folk music as much as what I wrote. I loved going to people’s houses and interviewing them over the course of a couple weeks,” she said.
Her final CD, “My Last Go Round,” was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009.
She learned even more about collecting folklore from Utahans Austin and Alta Fife, who collected Mormon history and culture. “They collected songs and stories, and taught me how to look for the seeds of these,” Rosalie explained.
In 1991, she wrote “Way Out in Idaho” for the Idaho Commission of the Arts. It’s a collection of songs and stories. Sitting in her cabin under a ceiling plastered with long-ago-held concert posters, she flipped through her own book, showing me photographs and telling stories about the photographs, songs, poems and singers on each of the pages.
“I had a marvelous time doing it. People loved telling me their stories. I would sing with them. They’re so tickled anyone gives a rat’s ass,” she said.
In the 1970s, Sorrels played at the Leadville Espresso in Ketchum (now The Picket Fence), owned by her friend, the late Millie Wiggins. Coincidentally, her grandfather, Reverend Stringfellow, used to preach in the same building when it was Ketchum’s only church. Over the years, she’s returned often to the Wood River Valley. In 1978, she and her old performing partner, Bruce “Utah” Phillips, played at the second annual Northern Rockies Folk Festival. She also loves the National Old-Time Fiddlers Contest & Festival in Weiser, but has all but retired now. Her live work is now the stuff of legend, the seeds of the stories she uncovered living on through music.
As the late John Wasserman, entertainment critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, once wrote about her, “She did something that only the best can ever do; she brought back memories that we never had. She’s one of the geniuses, Rosalie Sorrels is.” -Dana DuGan