Obituaries

Rosalie Sorrels, 83, folk singer who transported her audience

Ms. Sorrels initially drew on the Mormon music traditions of her native Idaho and Utah.
Associated Press/file 1999
Ms. Sorrels initially drew on the Mormon music traditions of her native Idaho and Utah.

NEW YORK — Rosalie Sorrels, a singer and storyteller who drew on her own tempestuous life in songs of struggle and heartache that inspired a generation of rising folk musicians in the 1980s, died Sunday in Reno, Nev., at the home of her daughter Holly Marizu. She was 83.

Marizu said that the cause of death had not been determined but that her mother had been suffering from dementia and colon cancer.

Ms. Sorrels first came to widespread attention at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival, where she performed traditional songs from Idaho, her native state, and Utah, where she lived with her family.

Advertisement

She soon began writing her own material, about life on the road, her marital difficulties, and the challenges of raising children. She then broadened her scope to include social issues including prison reform, suicide prevention, and women’s rights.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

As a singer, Ms. Sorrels was influenced by Billie Holiday, and her jazz-inflected phrasings often perplexed her accompanists. But she delivered her songs with a throbbing intensity that came straight from the folk tradition.

Critic John Rockwell, describing her voice in The New York Times in 1979, wrote, “It’s full and rich, with a plaintive vibrato that thins out delicately on top, unless she’s pushing for volume, in which case it becomes — if such a thing is possible — an evocative, stirring bray.”

Ms. Sorrels developed a storytelling approach, surrounding her songs with tales of her childhood, her parents and grandparents, and the early settlers of the West. The effect could be incantatory.

“It’s usually a big dark room, and there’s this woman onstage with this beautiful, rich, velvety voice who’s telling you this story or singing you a song, and then she stops and she tells a little story, and then the song continues, and she stops,” the singer Christine Lavin told NPR in 2003. “It’s like you’re sitting around a campfire and there’s this great wise shaman. And it completely transports you out of yourself.”

Advertisement

Although she performed before multitudes at Woodstock in 1969 and the Isle of Wight Festival in 1972, Ms. Sorrels didn’t break through to fame and fortune. She once estimated that she had never earned more than $20,000 in a single year. She spent most of her career in small clubs and often performed, gratis, at benefits for a variety of social causes.

But her personal songwriting style and intimate way with audiences influenced younger folk artists including Lavin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Nanci Griffith, whose song “Ford Econoline” paid tribute to Ms. Sorrels’ travels around the country with five children in tow.

“I think she’s influenced a lot of people who don’t even know her name,” Lavin told The Boston Globe in 2003.

The music historian Elijah Wald, writing in The Boston Globe in 1985, called Ms. Sorrels “a legend in folk music circles,” adding: “She traveled around the country while raising five children. She drinks strong men under the table and is the first one up in the morning, bright and cheery and planning one of her famous dinners. And she can make the noisiest barroom crowd shut up and listen when she sings.”

She was born Rosalie Ann Stringfellow on June 24, 1933, in Boise, Idaho. Her father, Walter, was an engineer for the state highway department. Her mother, the former Nancy Ann Kelly, ran the Book Shop in downtown Boise.

Advertisement

Both loved song and poetry. Rosalie, capitalizing on her father’s offer of 50 cents for each “chunk” of poetry she could recite, once pocketed three dollars by memorizing Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake.”

She played leading roles in high school productions. At 16 she ended a pregnancy with an illegal abortion. After being accepted to the University of Idaho on a drama scholarship, she was raped and became pregnant again. Sent to a home for unwed mothers in Los Angeles, she gave birth to a daughter, whom she put up for adoption.

While performing at the Boise Little Theater, she fell in love with a fellow actor, Jim Sorrels, a telephone lineman by trade. They married in 1952 and moved to Salt Lake City, where their house became a magnet for visiting artists, singers, and writers.

Ms. Sorrels began tuning in to the folk-singing traditions of the West. She took classes with the folklorist Wayland Hand, learned to play the guitar, gathered folk songs from quilting bees sponsored by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, and studied folk songs that her grandmother had pasted into a scrapbook.

“I got myself a tape recorder and started accosting perfectly nice old folks who were minding their own business, asking them for their old songs and stories,” Ms. Sorrels told the folk-music magazine Sing Out! in 2004. “I collected a couple of hundred old Mormon songs.”

The Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage recorded her performing a selection of Western folk songs, accompanied by her husband on guitar, and released it in 1961 as “Folk Songs of Idaho and Utah.” That year she also recorded “Rosalie Sorrels Sings Songs of the Mormon Pioneers,” accompanied by her husband and the Singing Saints.

Turning manager, Ms. Sorrels brought Joan Baez and Jean Ritchie to Salt Lake City. Ritchie returned the favor by inviting her to sing at Newport.

It was a pivotal moment. That year she left her husband and recorded the album “If I Could Be the Rain.” Released in 1967, it included six of her own songs and six by the folk singer Utah Phillips, whose career she revived.

She made good on the record’s promise in 1972 with the album “Travelin’ Lady,” whose title song, about leaving her husband and heading out on the road, became her signature. Its personal, urgent songwriting reflected the influence of Malvina Reynolds, the writer of “Little Boxes” and other songs, whom Ms. Sorrels sought out in San Francisco.

“There was really a sense at the beginning of the ‘60s revival that it was the province of the male society to write the songs; that Judy Collins and Joan Baez were very fine, but basically girl singers using male songs,” Ms. Sorrels told the Globe in 2000. “Malvina helped teach us how to take our personal feelings into our songs; that you recognize what’s funny or meaningful about you as a woman singing about these issues and put that into your songs.”