Queen Of Folk

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

If there was an award for First Lady of American Folk music, Rosalie Sorrels would definitely be a strong contender.  With a career spanning over 40 years, she was there at all of the seminal musical events of our recent history, including the Newport Festival in ’66, Woodstock in ’69 and the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970.  She has lived on the road, some years driving over 90,000 miles to play concerts, and released over 20 albums.  Now aged 70, whilst she admits to slowing down a little, Sorrels still has the musical passion and vitality of a woman half her age, and she will be bringing it to Henflings Tavern in Ben Lomond this coming Wednesday.

Rosalie Sorrels was born in Idaho, where she still lives in a log cabin built by her father 30 miles from Boise.  As a child, she would listen to her father singing, and spend hours reading through a scrapbook of folk songs that her mother compiled as a hobby.  The young Sorrels dreamed of being an opera singer.  “At 10, I was exchanging babysitting for voice lessons,” she said, “At 14, I went to Los Angeles to see ‘La Boheme’.” As a teenager, she was introduced to jazz, and soon began to develop her own distinctive voice as a singer.

Sorrels was married at age 19 and moved to Salt Lake City, where she spent the next 14 years as a housewife.  During this time, she continued to build the collection of songs and stories started by her mother, and sang with her husband as a hobby.  When she was 33, however, everything changed.  Her marriage broke up, and she packed her belongings and her five children into a truck and hit the road.  Eventually, she ended up at the Newport Folk Festival, where she was offered a gig.  “I never really thought about becoming a performer,” she recalled,” My marriage broke up, and I had to do something… I tried to get a job, and I just couldn’t find one.  Then, somebody offered me a concert that made me more money than anybody would pay me for working a whole month.  I thought I’d try it.  It’s all I’ve done ever since.”

Since those beginnings, Rosalie Sorrels has left her indelible mark on the folk music of America.  In addition to her recordings of music and spoken word, she has written three books, including “Way Out In Idaho,” a collection of songs, stories, recipes and pictures published in honor of Idaho’s centenary as a state.  The University of California at Santa Cruz has set up a Rosalie Sorrels Archive in recognition of her contributions to American culture in the second half of the twentieth century.  Last year, she celebrated 40 years in the music business with a special concert featuring many of folk music’s top names including Jean Ritchie, Peggy Seeger and Loudon Wainwright III.  Her most recent CD release, “Learned by Livin’ – Sung By Heart,” features a collection of songs spanning her career from 1967 to 1995.

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, January 1, 2004

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