Declarations of Independence – Chicago Reader

Rosalie Sorrels

Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, March 24

By David Whiteis

Heroes ain’t born; they’re cornered.

–Redd Foxx

The Lunar Cabaret felt somewhere between intimate and claustrophobic as folksinger Rosalie Sorrels took the stage on a Sunday evening two weeks ago. Earlier that weekend she’d joked that it might be a kick if there were a “riot” to see her; by show time people were eyeing the wall-to-wall crowd and making nervous wisecracks about fire codes and Who concerts. But in vintage folkie style the patrons made do with unflagging goodwill–they saved seats, passed cups of coffee down rows, patiently waited their turn at the counter. Sorrels’s appearance was part of an ongoing cross-country tour (“I drove 20,000 miles in four months–hell, truckers don’t even drive that much!”) to support her current CDs: Borderline Heart on Green Linnet and The Long Memory, with Bruce “U. Utah” Phillips, on Red House. She’s shaken off the worst effects of a cerebral aneurysm that threatened to end her career in 1988 (“when my head blew up”), but life on the road has become increasingly wearying for this staunch individualist who proclaimed her footloose independence on such LPs as Traveling Lady and Traveling Lady Rides Again. “Let ’em try this for 30 years and see if they still think there’s anything ‘romantic’ about it,” she says. “I think of myself as a migrant worker.”

Sorrels was born and raised in Idaho, but her cultural roots are diverse. Her mother, Nancy Stringfellow, managed a bookstore in Boise, entertained visiting literati and artists, and wrote in her spare time: a collection of her memoirs and poems, Report From Grimes Creek After a Hard Winter, edited by Sorrels, was published in the early 90s. Her father was a highway engineer and craftsman with a roguish bent, a passion for wilderness and solitude (“The man got physically sick when there were more than five people in a room”), and an abiding affection for the Irish trinity of music, verse, and whiskey.

Young Rosalie–named after her father’s mother–grew up surrounded by poetry and song, and by her teens was infatuated with Billie Holiday: “I don’t think there was a song [Holiday] had recorded that you’d play the first two bars and I wouldn’t recognize it right away,” she says. “I really knew everything she’d ever sung. I knew every word Lenny Bruce ever said; I knew every word Lord Buckley ever said. I never got to see Charlie Parker, but I had all his records–his 78s.”

The dreamy young bohemian found herself sidetracked, however, by a combination of personal misfortune and the puritanical ferocity of Eisenhower-era America. She en-dured a gruesome illegal abortion at 16; a year later she gave birth to a baby girl, whom she gave up for adoption. In the process she lost the four-year drama scholarship she’d earned in high school as well as, by her own account, “my desire to be an actress, my self-respect.”

She married at 19 and moved to Salt Lake City with her husband. “He did a real job of convincing me that I was damaged goods, that I could never leave him and do anything on my own. I had five kids by him; he made it very clear that he didn’t want me to have those kids, but he waited until I had ’em to tell me.”

She did, however, stay involved in arts and music. She took folklore classes; she took acting lessons for three years from a teacher who had worked with Camus’ theater in France; she attended poetry readings; she saw everyone from the Temptations to Kitty Wells to Duke Ellington at various venues around town.

In 1966, at the Newport Folk Festival, she met guitarist Mitch Greenhill and in a whirlwind three days recorded the album If I Could Be the Rain for the Folk Legacy label out of Connecticut. Back home, her husband’s response was less than positive.

“He listened and he sneered at me: ‘That sucks! You sing flat!’ He absolutely forbade me to ever leave the house to sing. He hit me, and he hit my kids. I left. I knew if I didn’t a death was going to occur. I had five kids, ages 4 through 14. I was in my 30s–no practical skills, no education, and no credentials. Everyone told me I was too old to start a new life alone.”

Sorrels and her children ended up in San Francisco, where she began to break into the coffeehouse circuit. Wary of relationships, she eventually met a new boyfriend. “We were talking about living together, which was a great idea because he was a sailor and he’d be gone all the time!” After that affair ended, she says, “I had some wonderful relationships with men, but I never lived with anyone again.”

She did, however, have a gift for making friends. Malvina Reynolds, composer of “Little Boxes” and one of the most venerated figures in folk, introduced her around town and encouraged her with a kindly, tough-minded ethic of survival: “I used to go to her when I was troubled. She’d find someone who was more troubled than me and tell me to go help that one. Pretty soon I’d begin to see that my troubles were little and not very interesting.”

Leaving the children with members of her newfound extended family, Sorrels began to bring her personalized mixture of prairie ballads, children’s songs, and hard-edged slices of counterculture idealism to folk audiences around the country. “I lived like a homeless person a lot of the time. I slept on people’s floors; I slept in New York on the Staten Island ferry. But my kids always had a place to stay, they always had enough to eat, they always had good clothes. The money would always go back to the kids.

“They were mad a lot. They’d run away. People would tell them they were ‘poor little things’ because I was gone so much, but actually I was home more than a lot of people with straight day gigs.”

The strain was hardest on her sons. Her youngest got into trouble early and has spent most of his life in correctional institutions; in 1976 her older son David, 22, committed suicide, plunging her into a miasma of confusion and torment that lasted most of the next decade. “He went to a great deal of trouble to let me know that it had nothing to do with me,” she says now. “I couldn’t stand it. I still can’t stand it, but I had to. I had four other kids to take care of.”

Sorrels kept touring, and her network of friends continued to take her in and help her nurse herself back to health. Some wrote songs and poems for her son: poet Gino Sky’s “Kid Shooting Way” is in the liner notes to her 1991 CD Be Careful There’s a Baby in the House on Green Linnet. She poured her own grief into tunes such as “Delia Rose” on Then Came the Children, recorded live in Canada in the early 80s, and “Sing Like the Rain (Last Song for David)” on Be Careful There’s a Baby in the House. By the late 80s she’d regained most of her equilibrium and become something of a folk elder stateswoman in the process.

Today, with over 20 albums to her credit, Sorrels concedes that her single-minded ways (“my eccentricities”) have probably cost her, at least as far as career security is concerned (“[a friend] tried to manage me one time, but I’m unmanageable”). Remembering her confrontation with the owners of a label she claims misappropriated her publishing rights, she growls: “They had two cars and their kids went to private school. I lived in my car and my kid went to jail. I don’t want to hear about it.”

Still, her enemies list is nothing compared to the “beloved community” she’s established through the years. “I keep finding people who have that generous spirit–I never would have made it without them. When I don’t have that kind of contact I feel cut off from the world–it’s almost like your blood runs out. I have this bunch of oases who are people, and I have to get from one to another–they’re life sustaining.”

The ghost of Billie Holiday continues to sing to her as well: “I aspire to sing from the place she comes from. I call it the ‘heartfelt tone.’ Billie had it. Patsy Cline, Hank Williams–all those people who sing from that spot inside of them, the spot that makes everyone feel as though you’re singing their own personal life story. I’m not a consummate artist yet, but I’m a lot closer than I’ve ever been.”

At the Lunar Cabaret Sorrels started her set as she usually does, with a rambling spoken introduction–this time about her longtime musical partner, the gruff-voiced proletarian raconteur U. Utah Phillips. Her first song was Phillips’s “I Think of You,” a western-tinged lament that’s been a staple of her repertoire for years (dedicated, she said, to “the people who come out after midnight in New York City”).

Like the jazz singers she admires, Sorrels often sounds as if she’s thinking in terms of triplets when she phrases. Rather than lock into a stereotypical “boom-chick” folkie rhythm, she’ll ease into a verse on the upbeat or even a few beats early, then pause an extra breath before beginning the next one. On guitar her feathery technique fuses the melodic intricacy of fingerpicking with the propulsiveness of strumming, creating an arid dreamscape for her lyrics. She sings in a reedy drawl, and her ascending soprano wail is deepened by a heart-tugging country lonesomeness and a dose of bluesy grit.

Sorrels followed “I Think of You” with “Eddie’s Song,” Phillips’s eulogy for the late Ed Balchowsky, a pianist and artist who lost his right arm fighting the fascists in the Spanish civil war and was a living legend to several generations of Chicago hipsters. Phillips actually wrote the song prematurely, in response to a rumor that Balchowsky had died–in her introduction Sorrels remembered the fun she’d had singing Balchowsky’s own epitaph to him over the phone. Characteristically, it’s both a tribute to a noble soul and a lament for a time of strong idealism and faith.

After a few more Phillips tunes–a jaunty children’s song that roused the room into a hootenanny-style sing-along; “Jesse’s Corrido,” a politically charged portrait of a young Mexican-American on death row; “If I Could Be the Rain,” which dates back to Sorrels’s first LP and contains the signature lines “If I could hide the way I feel / I’d never sing again”–she switched to her own, more personal, material.

Sorrels reminisced a bit about her San Francisco days, making her struggles sound like a bohemian adventure, then narrated from a letter, sardonic and tender in turn, that her mother wrote to her during that time: “I know there are times when you wouldn’t change your life for any other; certainly not for the well-fed, well-coifed hausfrau with a weekly bridge game….They don’t even know what wings are, and they’d try to put a girdle on them if they ever felt them.”

She followed that with her mother’s poem “Song for Daughters,” another ode to independence and letting go, then segued into the song “Mama,” her response to that poem. If Sorrels is aware of the irony in lines like “Mama, you were right when you said no one could ever hold me” she doesn’t acknowledge it, preferring to let her song stand as an anthem of freedom rather than a cry of loneliness: “Nobody ever bought me, mama, nobody ever sold me / And my friend the wind is teaching me to fly.”

“Mehitabel’s Theme,” the centerpiece of Always a Lady from the mid-70s on Philo as well as Sorrels’s set at the Lunar, is a riotous tale of a hard-bitten alley cat with a gimpy leg who dances defiantly across the alley stones into the teeth of a bitter wind (“I am a lady in spite of hell / And there’s a dance in the old dame yet”). As Mehitabel, Sorrels mewed her lines like a vaudeville tart from the streets of the Lower East Side; she then deepened into a Brando-like rasp when she assumed the character of the “four-flusher” tomcat who seduces Mehitabel into marriage. The song is both a feminist anthem (“Marriage is marriage, and you can’t laugh off that curse”) and yet another affirmation of Sorrels’s driven independence.

Everything seemed like prelude, however, to her two closing numbers, both from Borderline Heart. “Hitchhiker in the Rain” melds Sorrels’s anguish over her son’s suicide with her anger about “the death of the generous impulse” in America, an almost Hebraic fusion of personal sorrow and global concern. Praising the 60s in her spoken intro as “a generous time when everyone seemed to be awake,” she said the era ended for her when she realized she no longer felt safe giving rides to hitchhikers. “What have we done to ourselves,” she asked, “when we’ve become afraid of our own children?”

In the song she spots an “aging innocent” hitchhiking and finds herself visited by David’s spirit “like a dark angel, riding memory’s ark.” She remembers how he used to tell her never to pass up a hitchhiker–“I’d spoil your hitchin’ karma, and you’d never get a ride”–and the song ascends into a wail of grief: “You took yourself away, my son, for anger and for pride / You just spun out one night by the Pacific Ocean side.”

Rather than pick up the hitchhiker, she speeds past him while “you and love and fear and memory tangle in my brain….I leave the aging children standing in the rain.” Sorrels’s voice was as true and powerful here as I’ve ever heard it; she evoked the “heartfelt tune” as if staring into the abyss, with a naked courage that was both humbling and inspiring.

Her closing song, “My Last Go Round,” had an autumnal, almost elegiac tone despite its tricky intervals and sing-song melody. Steadfast in her faith that the unfettered human spirit can find redemption and sanctuary (“I have stumbled, lost and wild / On to sacred ground”), the singer looks back over a life defined–and sometimes buffeted unmercifully–by her relentless hunger for both independence and love, and declares that it’s been good: “We drank the rivers, we rode the twisters, we tumbled to the ground….all my long lost friends and lovers, once again they will be found / I’ll kiss all their shining faces / On my last go round.”

After the set the crowd filed out as Sorrels greeted well-wishers and signed autographs. She’ll be touring until mid-June; after that she’ll be able to get back home to the cabin it took her father from the late 1940s through 1965 to build by hand in an idyllic canyon about 30 miles outside Boise. There she’ll be nearer to her three daughters, her grandchildren, and a new great-grandchild; this time, if she’s lucky, Rosalie Sorrels will be able to stay home until the end of September.

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