Idaho Arts Quarterly » Character Sketch

Still Human After All These Years

Rosalie Sorrels voices the sounds of ordinary folk


"My love is a river where the white waters pour /

I've hunted and trapped her through the Gates of Ladore. / She sings through a curtain of cold mountain rain / Where I dug her bright silver in the high Coeur d'Alene.

She'll never be mine / She'll never be mine / I won all her treasures so simple and fine / I guess she'll never be mine."

—"She'll Never Be Mine" by Utah Phillips

The trip to the cabin crests the summit of Lucky Peak Dam and soars through winding passes, past tall, ancient trees that cast long shadows across the highway. The rutted dirt road, dotted with "No Trespassing" signs, runs between the mountains on one side and Grimes Creek on the other. Past copses of deciduous trees and conifers, many of them planted when the land was purchased nearly 80 years ago, the road opens onto a large garden among the trees and a two-story log cabin. Living in that log cabin off Highway 21, way out in Idaho, surrounded by books, art and music, is 76-year-old folk music icon Rosalie Sorrels.

Sorrels' father built the cabin for her mother, and the two-story building, the garden out front and Sorrels herself are as much a part of the landscape as the creek that flows nearby. On a sunny Sunday morning, in the tiny kitchen-slash-bathroom on the second floor of her home, the world-renowned musician mixes up a batch of homemade corn muffins and scrambles eggs with milk for her aging, longtime companion, Lenny Bruce.

His hips are causing him problems and he needs to take medication. "It's the only way I can get him to take his pain pills," Sorrels says. As she scoops the eggs into a bowl, the dog heaves himself up off the floor and ambles over. He hesitates briefly, then shoves his nose in the pale yellow pile.

"Now where is the baking powder?" Sorrels asks. She looks through a couple of drawers and cupboards but doesn't find it. Sounding like any person who's taken care of herself for a long time, she adds, "I don't mind when someone comes up to help me clean or whatever, but I wish they'd put stuff back where they found it." Concerned but not deterred, she pours the muffin batter into a tin and puts it in a shiny, white oven to bake.

As the muffins cook, Sorrels opens the door so Lenny Bruce can go outside and then reaches for two coffee cups from a slew of them hanging from hooks in the ceiling. Many are handmade, souvenirs from her travels and tours. She explains where this one came from and how she got that one. She pours rich, dark coffee from a silver and black coffeemaker and settles in to visit.

"I love being here," she says of her home in the mountains, a sentiment echoed by the sound of Lenny Bruce barking in the background. "The more I'm here, the more I love it. And I'm really loving it this year. This is the first year in three years I'm able to put in a really good-sized garden."

Sorrels lives in the mountains because she wants to, not because she has a point to prove. She doesn't cook over an open fire or eschew electricity or indoor plumbing. She has a phone; she has a radio; she has a TV; she has a computer. Sorrels and her surroundings are in some ways a metaphor for how the rest of the world seems to view Idahoans in general and, in many ways, how we view ourselves: We're a part of the modern world but refuse to give up the pioneer spirit that got us here in the first place.

Sorrels' home holds images and items that define, describe and divulge a woman whose history is the stuff legends are made of, including her friendship with Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson described their first meeting, to the best of his recollection, in the liner notes for her 1971 album Travelin' Lady: "I forget exactly how I first met Rosalie Sorrels, but I think it was a night in California when I almost killed myself on a motorcycle ... I was too full of pain to sleep, so she made me a pot of tea that was half Wild Turkey, as I recall, and then she sang for me until I finally passed out around dawn ... Some of Rosalie's songs are so close to the bone that I get nervous listening to them."

Books, records, CDs, posters, fliers, art, family photos and small tableaus of Dia de los Muertos figurines fill Sorrels' living room without crowding it. It's a space in which a visitor could spend days perusing and uncovering hidden treasures as Sorrels' tells the stories behind them, but even if a visitor were left alone inside, a respect for Sorrels would compel them to sit quietly with hands folded and wait for her return.

Much of the ephemera that surrounds Sorrels is related to her own musical career, which spans six decades and includes performing before crowds of thousands. She received her second Grammy nomination last year for her Strangers in Another Country, an homage to her friend, Utah Phillips, and received critical accolades for her debut performance at South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, this year.

"There were 700 cowboys all jumping around, and then I got on stage and some guy stood on his chair and yelled, 'Sing somethin' about Texas, darlin'!' I said, 'Oh, honey, I'm from Idaho and we have a panhandle, too.' They just cheered and proceeded to show me how sweet they could be."

Shortly after Father's Day, Sorrels headed to play the Kate Wolf Festival in Northern California, taking Boise musicians Bill Liles and Ben Burdick with her.

"I love playing with them," Sorrels says of Liles and Burdick. "They're so much fun to play with and they're so aware of what I do. I was a jazz nut before I started singing folk songs. My concert set is with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, one of the only people I know older than I am who's still alive," she laughs heartily.

But like the long, rutted dirt road that leads from the highway to her cabin, the path that led to Sorrels' success was not always a smooth one. After her divorce in the mid-60s, she packed her five children into the car and traversed the country as a touring musician.

"NPR did a story on me," says Sorrels. "They did extensive interviews, talked to a lot of people. I was listening to it on the radio and they got to my daughter and asked, 'What was it like traveling around?' and I said [to the radio], 'Don't tell them!'

"She went on, saying, 'Oh, we had a lot of fun. We met a lot of interesting people and went to a lot of interesting places.' I thought, 'Fun? What fun? I remember when the transmission fell out on the highway and you were all crying!'"

As she and the children traveled the United States, Sorrels found that while she enjoyed writing and singing folk music, her passion lay in collecting it. She became fascinated with the idea that folk music was its own kind of history.

"You could take a song and trace it back a thousand years," Sorrels says, the excitement she still feels evident in her voice. "You could go through the periods it went through, how it came from England to the United States, went to the southern Appalachians and all these different places. You could see all the changes it went through and you could still see it was exactly the same song. And what made people keep those songs. All of that was amazing. I was obsessed. I drove people crazy saying, 'Give me your old songs.'"

Sorrels' hunger for collecting music was further fed in the late '80s when, to celebrate Idaho's Statehood Centennial in 1990, the Idaho Folk Song Project was born. With a fund from the Idaho Centennial Commission and a grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, the purpose of the Folk Song Project was, according to the foreword by Robert McCarl, the ICA's folk arts director at the time, to "begin the process of collecting and building an archive of folk songs and music sung and played by the people of Idaho as they went about their daily lives before and during the course of the last century."

After years of collecting and singing Western folk music, who better to visit the far reaches of Idaho for the state's history than Sorrels? The result of her search is the 250-page book Way Out in Idaho. Sorrels traveled across the state meeting men, women and children, some who were born here, some who settled here, and some who were brought here. She looked at their photos, listened to their stories and collected their songs, unearthing a history as rich and loamy as a forest floor.

The first lines in the book are her own: "Ever since I was a little girl, I've believed that the name of my state was taken from a Nez Perce phrase that meant, 'See how the morning sun is shining on the mountains.'

"When I have been on a long journey and I return in the morning, I say those words over and over to myself—calling back my grandmothers and grandfathers, calling back faces and rooms, places and times so long gone by. That's what folklore is—the homemade, hand-wrought stuff of memory—not history, but color—the blood and breath of then and now."

Sorrels' own life is the stuff of folklore. Her mother ran a bookstore for 20 years, a primary factor in her life-long love affair with learning. Her father was a politically active Idaho road engineer. Sorrels was a part of counter culture before she was even old enough to understand culture. Throughout her music career—which spans six decades and more than 30 albums of her own or on which she was a featured performer—she has kept company with songs and stories of tragedies and triumphs as well as with performers much like herself who voice the words of American social-consciousness and collective memory. Sorrels' contemporaries, peers and friends include social activists and musicians such as Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, Sandy Bull, Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips and Malvina Reynolds and authors such as Thompson and Studs Terkel, to name but a smattering of the people who have influenced and been influenced by Sorrels.

As she walks through her garden, pointing out various wildflowers, she recalled a particularly cogent story about Thompson.

"I thought he was an incredible writer. He had a place close to Aspen, and I went over and took my kids. [He said to someone], 'Rosalie Sorrels was over for several days with all those children ... she's not making any more money than she ever did, but she's still excessively human.'"