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Idaho folk singer and legend Rosalie Sorrels dies at age 83

UPDATED: Wed., June 14, 2017, 12:05 a.m.

Rosalie Sorrels, photographed in 2004, has died at age  83. The legendary folk singer first made a name for herself at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966. The Idaho native was a two-time Grammy nominee. (File)
Rosalie Sorrels, photographed in 2004, has died at age 83. The legendary folk singer first made a name for herself at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966. The Idaho native was a two-time Grammy nominee. (File)

BOISE – Rosalie Sorrels – an Idaho singer, songwriter, storyteller and folk music legend with a career that spanned more than 50 years – died late Sunday night at her daughter Holly Marizu’s home in Reno, Nevada, where Sorrels lived for the past two and a half years.

Sorrels, 83, had a history of health struggles. In 1988, she suffered an aneurysm; 10 years later, she had breast cancer. In recent years, Sorrels struggled with dementia and was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016. She had been under home hospice care since February, according to her daughter Shelley Ross.

The news of her death sparked an outpouring of grief and fond remembrances for the two-time Grammy nominee.

“Rosalie lived a life as rich and poetic as the folk songs she loved and collected,” said Boise-based jazz singer and musician Curtis Stigers. “Idaho has lost a treasure and so has the world of music and storytelling.” The family is planning several memorial services in the places where Sorrels lived and loved. The first one will be held in Boise later this month, probably close to her birthday. Sorrels would have been 84 on June 24.

“Every five years she would have a big bash up at the cabin (at Grimes Creek near Idaho City),” Ross said. “She wants to have her ashes scattered there.” Known as the Travelin’ Lady, Sorrels lived life on her own terms, famously leaving her husband, Jim, in 1966 and traveling from gig to gig, driving the back roads with her five children, a lifestyle that singer and songwriter Nanci Griffith captured in her song “Ford Econoline.” Later that year, Sorrels made her national debut at the Newport Folk Festival.

The song will appear on a forthcoming four-CD collection “Tribute to the Travelin’ Lady: Rosalie Sorrels.” It includes 40 tracks of Sorrels’ original songs as well as other songs she loved to sing and a few songs that she inspired.

Rosalie Stringfellow grew up in Boise. Her mother, Nancy, ran The Book Shop, a cultural touchstone in downtown. As a child, Rosalie absorbed the words of Thomas Wolfe, William Butler Yeats and other great writers. Her dad, Walter, an engineer with the Idaho Transportation Department, played piano and loved musicals. He built the cabin at Grimes Creek that would become Sorrels’ home for many years.

It became a must for musicians and old friends to make the pilgrimage to the cabin. Americana singer and recording artist Tom Russell wrote his song “Pork Roast and Poetry” about one such night he spent 20 years ago at Sorrels’ place.

“And the sun went down, through my glass of Tempranillo; And the candlelight drew shadows on her cheek; Oh, holy night, of pork roast and poetry; With Rosalie Sorrels, up on Grimes Creek.” “Rosalie Sorrels was a master folksinger,” Russell wrote in an email from Switzerland, where he was performing. “I sang with her in Belfast, New York, and ate her finely served pork roast in her cabin outside of Boise as she recited poetry from a dozen books. She will be sorely missed. One of a kind.” She also was known for her ability to spin a yarn and hold an audience in the palm of her hand.

Eric Peltoniemi, retired president of Red House Records in Minneapolis, worked on four albums with Sorrels – including “Strangers in Another Country” and “My Last Go Round,” the two that received Grammy nominations – and several other projects, such as her contribution to “A Nod to Bob,” a tribute collection to mark Bob Dylan’s 60th birthday.

“She didn’t just sing a song, she embodied it,” Peltoniemi said. “She was a totally unique artist. She was one of the most passionate performers I’d ever seen. When she recorded something it was an event. People like Bonnie Raitt and Kate McGarrigle would come and play.” Sorrels was as well known as a folk historian as she was a performer.

“My mother always said she was a song collector,” Ross said. “Then she became a folksinger and then she became a writer. She wrote songs that were real. She would get to know people, sit with them, eat with them so she could tell it like it is. She could tell a story like nobody else.” “She lived in Idaho but she belonged to all of us,” said Rita Bottoms, retired head of special collections at the University of California Santa Cruz’s McHenry Library. Sorrels donated papers, clippings and other ephemera, including a peace quilt, to the archive. Bottoms met Sorrels in Ketchum in 1996 and formed a friendship that continues with Sorrels’ family.

“When she would perform at the university, people would come from all over,” Bottoms said. “It was always a big event.” Sorrels had a big life. She knew Jimi Hendrix and jammed with Jerry Garcia at Woodstock and was a regular at the legendary folk-music hot spot Caffé Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Sorrels and her kids often lived. She performed at the top folk festivals, wrote a book, recorded several albums and received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and an honorary doctorate from the University of Idaho.

Sorrels moved seamlessly in the worlds of major music and literary figures of her day, including “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ironweed” author William Kennedy and folk music legends Malvina Reynolds, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.

She got involved in causes that were important to her because she felt that her music could be used to change the world for the better, said her longtime friend and fellow singer Rocci Johnson, who is producing the tribute CD collection.

“She wove her commitment to bettering humankind into her songs, into everything she did,” Johnson said. “The one thing she taught me is if you have gifts, you can use them to make things better. You can take your audience with you and show them a bigger picture. She was one of the first strong women out there back in the 1960s, saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t right, we need to fix it.’” Sorrels wrote about and supported a litany of social justice issues from prison reform to suicide prevention to women’s reproductive rights, and never turned down a chance to perform for a cause she believed in.

She lived a robust life and loved hard. She had a tempestuous relationship with country rocker Jerry Jeff Walker and was reported to be a sometime lover of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote the liner notes for her 1972 album “Travelin’ Lady.” She also had a lifelong connection to folk musician Peter Rowan, for whom she wrote the song “Go With Me.” “She had appetites, and she was well-known for them,” said her longtime friend and singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, who met Sorrels in 1969 at Caffé Lena.

“In my mind Rosalie acted as a kind of twisted den mother to a group of us who lived in Saratoga back then, a gang which included her pal Utah Phillips, Frank Wakefield, Kate McGarrigle and myself. The Thanksgiving, Christmas and Sunday dinners Rosalie whipped up for our scruffy bunch are the stuff of legend,” said Wainwright.

But travel and fame had their downsides as well.

Life on the road with their mother wasn’t always easy, and Sorrels wasn’t always around, Ross said. Sorrels would sometimes leave her five children in the care of friends, such as Lena Spencer, owner of Caffé Lena.

“Mom always made sure we were in a safe place with people who cared for us,” Ross said. “We’ve had some really great people in our lives who helped. We spent a lot of time at Caffé Lena. I think Lena influenced me as much as my mother did. She helped form the person I am today.” When Sorrels was around, “there was always a house full of music,” Ross said. “And when we traveled, we always took the back roads, the long way around into the canyons and the woods. We’d stop at museums and have picnics in a forest. We made up stories and sang songs. There was a lot of fun.”

Sorrels often incorporated family life into her songs, revealing that it was both a difficult and adventurous life. There also was tragedy. In the summer of 1976, her son David, then 22, committed suicide while the family was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her heart-wrenching song “Hitchhiker in the Rain” was her attempt to cope, Marizu said.

“His suicide completely changed family life. It was hard on Mom,” she said.

Sorrels returned to Idaho in the late 1980s, settling in the Grimes Creek cabin. She would play occasionally at the open mic at Pengilly’s Saloon or a concert at the Idaho Botanical Garden. She performed in the Spokane area as well, most recently in 2010 at Spokane Community College. In 2002 she was at Auntie’s Bookstore for a performance, and she performed at the Panida Theater in Sandpoint in 1998 and 1995.

In 2004, Sorrels recorded “My Last Go Round,” thinking that would be her last big musical effort. For Johnson, Sorrels’ own lyrics are a fitting epitaph: “When my wandering soul shall rest, and my last song gets sung I’ll find the brightest and the best; On my way back home, all my long lost friends and lovers, once again they will be found; And I’ll kiss all their shining faces on my last go round.”