Many of us at Idaho Public Television are sharing our fond memories and celebrating the life and music of Rosalie Sorrels. The Idaho singer, songwriter, author, and folk musician died Sunday at age 83. Sorrels was the subject of the 2006 IdahoPTV documentary Rosalie Sorrels: Way Out in Idaho, which is available to view for free through July 30. After that, the film will be available exclusively to IdahoPTV Passport members.
Dialogue host Marcia Franklin, who grew up in Washington, D.C., might not have settled in Idaho except for an inspirational encounter with Sorrels.
“Rosalie Sorrels was one of the reasons that I made the trek out to Idaho in 1989 on a wing and a prayer to find a job,” Franklin says. “I had heard Rosalie sing at a folk festival I was covering during graduate school and had been mesmerized. I saw it as a sign that I should follow my rather nutty whim. Only a year after arriving, I was pinching myself, as I was just a few feet away from Rosalie chatting with her. And 15 years after that original inspiration, I was privileged to work on the Idaho Public Television documentary about her.”
For Rosalie Sorrels: Way Out in Idaho, Franklin interviewed Pete Seeger, Nanci Griffith, Jean Ritchie, Bruce “Utah” Phillips, Terry Garthwaite, and others. “Traveling with Rosalie to New York to interview Pete Seeger at his house on the Hudson River will always be a highlight of my career,” Franklin says.
Those fellow musicians all speak of Rosalie’s unique talent. “It was fascinating to see how they all independently wanted to stress the same point — that Rosalie’s storytelling was as much about who she was as her singing,” Franklin says. “And they all talked about how Rosalie didn’t fit into any commercial ‘box.’ She was her own person, with her own inimitable style.”
Rosalie Sorrels: Way Out in Idaho showcases Sorrels in concert with friends — musicians from Idaho and across the nation — at the Liberty Theatre in Hailey in September 2005. The Divas of Boise add their voices to the songs; Rosalie adds depth with her stories. “Sometimes I sing in places where they don’t want me to tell stories, and I almost can’t do that,” Sorrels says in the film. “I can sing a bunch of songs but they don’t make any sense to me if you don’t have the stories.”
The portrait drawn by concert footage, interviews, and vintage photographs of Sorrels and her family is vibrant and uniquely Idaho.
“She was incredibly generous with other musicians,” says Bruce Reichert, the documentary’s executive producer. “She would never do a song without mentioning the songwriter’s name. It was important to her to give credit where credit was due. I met Rosalie in the 1970s, when she would come and play for her Idaho City fans in the library we had built. Back then, my favorite song of hers was ‘Apple of My Eye’; I would always request it, and she would always generously perform it. I made sure that song was in the documentary. To this day, when I hear that song, I think of Rosalie, the songwriter who loved her children dearly and spoke to them in song.”
Reichert adds that Sorrels also epitomized something that reflected her Idaho pioneer heritage — perseverance. “Her life was not easy, but she persevered. And she was gutsy. As a friend commented to me, she played those low notes. She went where others feared to tread.”
Paying tribute to the musician upon her passing, Franklin writes, “Rosalie was as strong and deep as the current of Grimes Creek, which rushed near her cabin. She was a feisty survivor who could find her way around innumerable dams. And like a river, her story-songs let us drift in and out of many lives. Those stories will live on in her amazing body of work, as will she.”
A Musical Tribute to Rosalie
IdahoPTV corporate sponsorship manager Kathe Alters says, “I first met Rosalie in 2003 when I was working for public radio in Boise. She had come to our studios to be interviewed for a national NPR story. I was familiar with her music and proud that she represented Idaho, so when she walked in, I introduced myself to her, gushing as one does when you meet a hero. She was gracious and took time to talk with me about her music and how she wasn’t planning on performing much anymore. Of course, that didn’t work out — she went on to record a Grammy-nominated album in 2004, perform for the IdahoPTV documentary in 2006, and record an album benefiting Utah Phillips in 2007, all the while continuing to perform and record as long as she could.”
Their paths didn’t cross again for more than 10 years. “At that time, my then-husband and I heard through a Facebook post that Rosalie wasn’t doing so well and might have to move from her beloved home in Grimes Creek,” Alters says. “Through a mutual friend, and then one of Rosalie’s daughters, we were introduced to the singer Rocci Johnson, who had a tribute album in the works to honor Rosalie’s music and her legacy. We stepped aboard Team Rosalie as volunteers more than two years ago. What started as a modest project is now a four-CD set of songs, most of which are written by Rosalie, performed by local and nationally known musicians in a loving Tribute to the Travelin’ Lady that we’ll be rolling out in early August.”
Though Rosalie didn’t live to see the final CD set, she listened to the tapes and saw the artwork for the CD box, inserts, and singers’ bios booklet, which is a design based on her famous traveling scrapbook Miscellaneous Abstract Record No. 1. She told Rocci that she approved. “I saw her on a brief visit last summer,” Alters says, “and while her dementia had progressed, she was still so cordial and kind to this fangirl. I’ll never forget her sitting on the couch next to her much-loved Dudley the Do-Right Dog, smiling, as the rest of us buzzed around her.”
Alters asked IdahoPTV graphic design specialist Jim Hadley if he would lend his talents to design the Tribute to the Travelin’ Lady CD packaging — and she introduced him to Rocci Johnson. “Seeing Rosalie’s beloved scrapbook, I instantly knew it would provide the design look for the project,” Hadley says. “It is a treasure trove of old photos, news clippings, concert announcements, handwritten song scraps, notes and drawings — everything I would need to help illustrate her amazing musical career. One of my favorite statements of hers was ‘I may leave one of my kids behind somewhere, but NEVER my scrapbook!’ Meeting Rosalie and her daughter Shelly, I knew that was probably not totally true!”
Renowned artist Ward Hooper also agreed to apply his talent creating the train illustration and picture of Rosalie that Hadley used on the CD case and booklet. “Ward has a way of taking images and giving them a new life, just as we have done with all of Rosalie’s songs on these four CDs,” says Hadley.