Monday, June 12, 2017

Rosalie Sorrels 1933-2017

I am deeply saddened today to learn that my old friend and colleague – and folk music legend – Rosalie Sorrels passed away last night at her daughter Holly’s home in Reno, Nevada. Her children – Holly Marizu, Shelley Ross and Kevin Sorrels – and I believe other family members were with her as she slipped away over the past several days. Rosalie would have turned 84 on June 24.

Rosalie was one of the great interpretive singers on the folk music scene. She sang traditional folk songs, cabaret songs and gave us definitive versions of the songs of so many songwriters – notably Bruce “Utah” Phillips and Malvina Reynolds, among many others. And, of course, she was a remarkable songwriter herself.

Rosalie began her folk music journey in the 1950s and early-‘60s, collecting traditional songs and performing locally in Idaho and Utah – and making an occasional trip east to perform at events like the Newport Folk Festival. She made several albums of traditional songs in those years and one of them, “Folksongs of Idaho and Utah,” originally released in 1961, remains in print to this day via Smithsonian Folkways.

In 1967, she made a lovely album, “If I Could Be the Rain,” in which she introduced her own songs for the first time. About half the songs were Rosalie’s and about half were written by her Salt Lake City friend, Bruce “Utah” Phillips. Rosalie’s guitarist on the album was Mitch Greenhill, who would go to work with Rosalie often over the years as a musician, record producer, and agent.

Around that time, Rosalie’s marriage broke up and she hit the road – five children in tow – to earn her living on the folk music circuit. Nanci Griffith tells Rosalie’s story in the song “Ford Econoline.” Lena Spencer of the legendary folk music venue Caffé Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York, gave Rosalie a home base as she began to travel to folk clubs, concerts and festivals – sometimes traveling by Greyhound Bus – in the U.S. and Canada.

Rosalie played in Montreal often. I was still in high school when I first heard and met Rosalie at the Back Door Coffee House in Montreal, sometime around 1970. The gig at the Back Door was four or five nights long and it was during that stay in Montreal that Rosalie wrote “Travelin’ Lady,” which became her signature song.

I began to produce concerts in Montreal as a college student in 1972 and my first booking with Rosalie was a double bill with Utah Phillips at Redpath Hall on the McGill campus in 1973. By 1974, I was running a Montreal folk club, the Golem Coffee House, and Rosalie played there often throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. Sometimes Rosalie came to the Golem as a solo artist and sometimes with musicians like Mitch Greenhill or Tony Markellis. Sometimes she came to the Golem on a double bill with Utah Phillips, and once as part of a three-woman show with Terry Garthwaite of Joy of Cooking and writer and storyteller Bobbie Louise Hawkins.

Rosalie was a quietly mesmerizing performer on stage and I have so many great memories of performances that I produced with her in Montreal – but also of concerts I saw her do in many other places in Canada and the U.S. In addition to her singing, Rosalie was one of the most masterful storytellers ever.

In the late-‘70s, I operated an independent booking agency for a few years representing a select roster of folk music artists and I was honored that Rosalie was one of my treasured clients.

In her song, “Rosalie, You Can’t Go Home Again,” Rosalie refers to lessons that she learned from her “teachers” – not referring to school teachers. Rosalie was one of my teachers. Rosalie taught me much about the endurance of the human spirit and that adversities and personal tragedies can be the basis for cathartic art. And she taught me how to recognize greatness in songs.

Rosalie Sorrels & Mike Regenstreif (1993)
A quick anecdote: I was at a folk festival with Rosalie – it could have been Mariposa or Philadelphia or Winnipeg or Vancouver, or maybe somewhere else, and Rosalie was in a multi-artist workshop. One of the other artists, a folkier-than-thou type who I will leave nameless, ranted on about how there were no good rock songs, that contemporary singer-songwriters starting with Bob Dylan were all terrible, and that traditional folk songs or songs that have lasted 50 or 60 years were the only ones that mattered. Rosalie responded by saying something like, “Yeah, you’re right, let me play you this song.” She proceeded to sing “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine/And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung…” When she finished the song, the folkier-than-thou guy said something like, “Now that was a great song! Where did you collect it?” Rosalie turned to him and said, “It’s by the Grateful Dead.”

The memories of times spent with Rosalie – in Montreal, Saratoga, Vermont, Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto, etc. – are flooding back tonight. I remember the performances, for sure, but I also treasure the times around her kitchen tables in Ballston Spa or Burlington or in bars and friends’ living rooms all up and down the road, sitting up late and sharing songs, stories, drinks and memories.

I’m listening tonight to Rosalie’s 1972 album “Travelin’ Lady.” It was her most recent album the first time I produced a concert with her and it remains one of my favorites of Rosalie’s albums. One of the most inspiring songs of Rosalie’s original songs on the album is “Postcard from Indian (Keep on Rocking).” It’s a kind of existential, secular prayer song:

“If I should die before I wake
There’s nothing here I’d want to take with me
I’ve had the best, I’ve had the worst
I’ve been last, I got into the line first
I’ve been hungry, I’ve been satisfied
I’ve seen the carnival, I’ve taken every ride

If I should wake before I die
I’d never stop to wonder why
I’d grab the day, take it and run
Naked, reaching for the sun
I’d run like a rabbit, fly like a dove
All around the world, searching for love…sweet love

And yet here I lie, afraid to sleep
Afraid to look inside too deep
Just want to climb outside this skin
I’ll find out who it is that’s in there
Oh, friends and lovers, keep me afloat
Keep on rockin’…It’s a beautiful boat.”

That’s a message I think Rosalie would want to leave us with: “Keep on rockin’…It’s a beautiful boat.”

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--Mike Regenstreif


  1. I am convinced that great artists recognize great art. Great artists do not waste time comparing and compartmentalizing detail. Great art is a splash, not necessarily chaos, but a vision that exists for an instant and must be captured or lost. Rosalie provided a clear and powerful voice for that vision. Thank You Mike.

  2. Thank you for sharing your memories of "the Travellin' Lady" Rosalie touched many hearts, including mine, and thoughts of her keep streaming through my mind since I heard of her passing. The Bells of Ireland, Waltzing with Bears, Nevada Moon, If you love me, if you love, love, love me, Rock Salt and Nails, My Last Go Round, and her wonderful book Far Out in Idaho. She was such a treasure and we all were lucky to be touched by her!

    1. Correction her book was Way Out in Idaho. there is also an audio disc, and a DVD of a T.V. special by that name, and that was the name of Rosalie's web site, too!