Traditional American folk music recounts the stories of the people who built this country: the miners and loggers, the cowboys, factory workers and farmers. It's the great populist art form, one in which substance is valued over style and through which anyone with a story to tell and a guitar in hand has an opportunity to connect with people in a very personal way.
And there was a time not so long ago when folk music was at the forefront of progressive social and political change, championing (among other things) racial equality, labor, prison reform and women's rights. Supplanted by the deafening white noise of our popular culture at large, those voices, over the last 30 years, seem to have grown quiet. Or have they?
ROSALIE SORRELS is a genuine folk legend and a study in survival. Through her songs -- whether traditional or self-penned -- the richness of a well-lived life is shared with a poignancy and honesty that is rare. For Sorrels, it's the songs and the connection with her audience that matter. In this arena, nothing can take the place of real-world experiences and the simple pleasures of an unaffected human voice. And Sorrels has a lifetime of tragedy, triumph and adventure upon which to draw. She performs at the Mother Goose Coffeehouse this Saturday evening.
Sorrels was born and raised in southern Idaho. At age 19, she left home, got married and began raising a family. But domestic life proved unsatisfying, and so Sorrels sought refuge in music, specifically the regional folk songs she experienced as a child. In the mid '50s, the family moved to Salt Lake City, where she attended university classes and studied traditional folk.
"I would say that is was then that I really became truly involved in the music," she says from her home near Boise. "I got a tape recorder and collected a bunch of songs from Utah, because that's where I was living. The first album I recorded for Folkways [in 1958] was called Folk Songs of Idaho and Utah. It was some of my family's songs and songs I had collected. Then I did one for Prestige called Rosalie's Songbag that was heavier on the traditional Utah stuff."
She went on to teach an introductory class in American folk songs at the University of Utah with her husband and began to organize local folk music festivals.
"I brought in Jean Ritchie and Ramblin' Jack Elliot and a lot of different people for the concerts and festivals. I met a lot of people that way. And Salt Lake was sort of a crossroads anyhow, on the way to everywhere and everyone was travelling back and forth. I also met Pete Seeger and a lot of the people who were on the university calendar."
As she developed a network of like-minded performers from around the country, Sorrels' own notoriety grew. In 1966 she was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival.
"I was lucky enough to be from somewhere where nobody else knew the traditional songs," she laughs. "I had an interesting repertoire."
The next year, she released If I Could Be the Rain, a collection of mostly original material on the Folk-Legacy label. But even as her professional performing and recording career was taking off, her relationship with her husband was deteriorating. The eventual dissolution of her marriage left Sorrels with five children and only one viable way to provide for them.
"I had never thought of being a professional folk singer, but then I hadn't thought of my marriage breaking up, either. I had five kids, and I decided to be a folk singer mostly because I couldn't think of anything else to do."
Sorrels spent many years performing all over the country -- particularly the San Francisco Bay area and the East Coast -- with her children in tow.
"I sort of went back and forth between those two places looking for work and a mention," she says. "I beat a path across the country playing in concert halls and low dives, anyplace anyone would have me. It was incredibly interesting and a lot of fun. It was also very hard to do with a lot of children, but anything else I could have done would have been hard and not nearly as much fun. I think my choices were waitress in a truck stop and things like that. It was very unusual for a woman to travel like that, particularly if she was 10 years older than everybody else and had five kids. There were a lot of women who sang and who recorded. But there were very few who did that travelling part as a career. It was practically shocking." (Nanci Griffith memorialized Sorrels' traveling days in her song, "Ford Econoline.")
Sorrels' recorded output throughout her career has been steady but sporadic, appearing on various labels. Some of her more recent work includes Report From Grimes Creek (1991), a song collection recalling her childhood; Long Memory (1996), a collaboration with old friend, Utah Phillips; and No Closing Chord: The Songs of Malvina Reynolds (2000), a loving tribute to another female folk pioneer.
Today, Sorrels is 68 and lives 30 miles outside of Boise in the cabin her father built, on land that has been in her family for generations. Though still very involved in folk music, she's thinking about putting an end to the relentless touring that has been so much a part of her life. That is, if her friends and fans will allow it.
"I'm getting ready for this sort of farewell concert in March. They're having this big '40 years of Rosalie Sorrels' thing -- kind of a Rosalie-a-Rama -- in Cambridge on the Harvard campus. It includes myself and Jean Ritchie, Peggy Seeger, David Bromberg and Dave Van Ronk. I love to play, but I'm not going to do what I used to do, driving myself all across the country, playing in little places. It's just too hard on me."
This weekend, Sorrels is performing a benefit for a group working for Idaho prison reform. It's an example of how folk music, at a grassroots level, retains its potency as a force for progress -- and as the voice of the disenfranchised.
"It's for the friends and families of Idaho inmates," she says. "They don't really have the money to publish their newspaper, but their issues are real. Besides that, I have a son in the prison and so I'm personally involved.
"I don't have a real narrow vision of what folk music is," she elaborates. "I think Los Lobos makes great American folk music. I would also include the Band and people who have that same kind of visceral human voice. And the political viewpoint is there because it needs to be there. I think we're in line for that to start happening again pretty soon. If someone tries to shut the people's voice off, it usually just gets louder."
Deftly combining entertainment and education into a uniquely enriching and star-studded celebration, the University of Idaho's LIONEL HAMPTON JAZZ FESTIVAL (now in its 35th consecutive year) promises once again to transport the sleepy college town of Moscow, Idaho, into the very heart of jazz. Internationally recognized for its contributions to jazz education, the four-day festival draws thousands of elementary, secondary, high school and college-age students from around the planet for instruction, inspiration and feedback. But it also draws professional musicians -- some of the most respected names in jazz -- including, of course, the festival's patron saint, Lionel Hampton. It's truly a world-class event, and it's happening at the UI campus Feb. 20-23.
It is the close interaction between student and artist that makes the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival the big daddy of instructional jazz festivals. Students are given the rare opportunity to express their own skills and creativity in front of professional jazz musicians who are present not only to inspire but also to offer guidance and impart knowledge.
The days may be filled with instruction and competition, but the evenings are another thing altogether, glimmering with performances from the masters themselves. This year, the guest list -- in addition to Hampton and his fabulous New York Big Band -- includes the Ray Brown Trio, John and Bucky Pizzarelli, Ethel Ennis, Roy Hargrove, Jane Monheit and John Stowell, among many others.
Love is in the air everywhere I look around. Love is in the air -- in every sight and every sound...
Need a plan for a nocturnal Valentine's Day-related outing for you and your quasi-significant other that trades chocolate and champagne for cigarettes, Oly and Jager shots; that has less to do with pretty flowers and more to do with sweat and pheromones; that banishes sappy pop love songs in favor of horn-fired, bass-thumping funk/rock skank?
You do? Excellent.
This Friday night (yes, that's the day after that greeting card industry-sponsored holiday), Civilized Animal, Illusion 33 and the Morning After will hold court at Ichabod's North.
We all know about the seven (or is it eight?) piece ska/reggae/funk monster Civilized Animal and its much-publicized exploits (though rumor has it the band is currently working on album number three). But what about these other guys?
Illusion 33 -- Jesse Bennett (guitar, vox), KC Carter (percussion) and Jason Stoddard (bass, vox) -- traffic in a sonic narcotic that is complimentary to that of Civilized Animal but with a distinctly metallic edge. The Morning After? Well, all I know about this young band is that this performance will be its first -- and that they're totally stoked to play (hint: get to the show early).
You know, I can't think of a better way to say "I love you, baby. Now let's get down." Can you?