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Arts & Culture

Idaho Folksinger Rosalie Sorrels Will Be Remembered For Her Voice And Laughter

The Idaho Statesman
1999 photo of Rosalie at Grimes Creek.

Idaho music icon Rosalie Sorrels passed away Sunday. Known as the “Travelin’ Lady,” she drove around the country for decades, singing folk music and recording more than 20 albums. But she always came home to Idaho.

I met Rosalie in the early 1990s when a friend asked me to help produce a CD of union folk songs. Until then, I only knew her through her songs broadcast on KBSU radio. Many people knew her through her music, which spilled out of her, night after night, as she toured the country constantly.

When we finally met, it was at the time she released the CD that would be later called “The Long Memory.” We struck up a friendship that looked like a dotted line. After the CD “Worker’s Doxology,” later renamed “The Long Memory,” came out, I would see her here and there, usually unexpectedly at some event or gathering. Invariably we would come together in a quiet corner, get re-acquainted, laugh over something, and then we’d part. We once spent 20 minutes at The Cabin (the literary center in Boise), trying to identify an odd item of food at a buffet table.

We never said goodbyes because we always knew there would be another visit. Like the time I interviewed her during a concert rehearsal.

“Actually my voice is in terrible shape right now and I’m apologizing a lot because it won’t work. I now sound like a frog and in a couple of hours maybe I’ll sound like a handsome prince,” Rosalie said.

This was 2005 in Boise. Rosalie was 72 and still going strong, though maybe not as fast as she once had.

“You want to sit down? No I just did that and it really hurt. I was just comparing notes about the parts that hurt when you sit on a stool. And they’re different when you get to be 72, all that padding doesn’t do a bit of good. It’s the joints, I’ve been in too many joints and my joints hurt," she laughed.

That laugh was infectious. And it survived, despite a lot of years of trouble. In the 1960’s Rosalie left her husband, threw her five children into a car, and started touring. She performed in coffee houses, bars, and festivals. She survived the death of her son – and breast cancer – and a cerebral aneurysm. “My brain blew up,” is literally how she described it. Through it all, though, there was that laugh, every time we met.

By 2016, we learned she had dementia. She had stopped performing. Friends got together to sing her songs on a CD to raise money for her care.

Monday, Rosalie’s family announced her passing on Facebook, with a link to her singing the song “Ashes on the Sea.” Back in 2005, she described what that song meant to her.

“To me, it’s about memory. It’s a great song about memory and how important it is. I don’t think it’s that sad myself. But then I have distributed the ashes of my mother and my father and my son and my two uncles and my dog and I intend my ashes to go there too, and it seems like a pleasant song.”

She talked easily about death with her a natural candor, resigned, but not yet ready.

“I mean everybody has a beginning and a middle and an end and a lot of people really do try to dress that up some way so it’s not what it is, but that’s why I celebrate the Day of the Dead. They just invite the dead to come back and have a party with you every year and that seems remarkably sensible to me also."

The last time I saw Rosalie was at a friend’s birthday party a few years back. Rosalie wandered in from her old cabin on Grimes Creek, late as usual, closely trailed by her dog. Soon we were laughing again. And that’s how I’ll remember her, laughing, smiling, swearing and surrounded by friends.

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

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