Wednesday, July 15, 2020

For The Late Rosalie Sorrels-To An Old Unrepetant Wobblie- Rosalie Sorrels' Farewell To Utah Phillips

For The Late Rosalie Sorrels-To An Old Unrepetant Wobblie- Rosalie Sorrels' Farewell To Utah Phillips

If I Could Be The Rain I Would Be Rosalie Sorrels-The Legendary Folksinger-Songwriter Has Her Last Go Round At 83

By Music Critic Bart Webber

Back the day, back in the emerging folk minute of the 1960s that guys like Sam Lowell, Si Lannon, Josh Breslin, the late Peter Paul Markin and others were deeply immersed in all roads seemed to lead to Harvard Square with the big names, some small too which one time I made the subject of a series, or rather two series entitled respectively Not Bob Dylan and Not Joan Baez about those who for whatever reason did not make the show over the long haul, passing through the Club 47 Mecca and later the Café Nana and Club Blue, the Village down in NYC, North Beach out in San Francisco, and maybe Old Town in Chicago. Those are the places where names like Baez, Dylan, Paxton, Ochs, Collins and a whole crew of younger folksingers, some who made it like Tom Rush and Joni Mitchell and others like Eric Saint Jean and Minnie Murphy who didn’t, like  who all sat at the feet of guys like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger got their first taste of the fresh breeze of the folk minute, that expression courtesy of the late Markin, who was among the first around to sample the breeze.

(I should tell you here in parentheses so you will keep it to yourselves that the former three mentioned above never got over that folk minute since they will still tell a tale or two about the times, about how Dave Van Ronk came in all drunk one night at the Café Nana and still blew everybody away, about catching Paxton changing out of his Army uniform when he was stationed down at Fort Dix  right before a performance at the Gaslight, about walking down the street Cambridge with Tom Rush just after he put out No Regrets/Rockport Sunday, and about affairs with certain up and coming female folkies like the previously mentioned Minnie Murphy at the Club Nana when that was the spot of spots. Strictly aficionado stuff if you dare go anywhere within ten miles of the subject with any of them -I will take my chances here because this notice, this passing of legendary Rosalie Sorrels a decade after her dear friend Utah Phillips is important.)

Those urban locales were certainly the high white note spots but there was another important strand that hovered around Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, up around Skidmore and some of the other upstate colleges. That was Caffe Lena’s, run by the late Lena Spenser, a true folk legend and a folkie character in her own right, where some of those names played previously mentioned but also where some upstarts from the West got a chance to play the small crowds who gathered at that famed (and still existing) coffeehouse. Upstarts like the late Bruce “Utah” Phillips (although he could call several places home Utah was key to what he would sing about and rounded out his personality). And out of Idaho one Rosalie Sorrels who just joined her long-time friend Utah in that last go-round at the age of 83.

Yeah, came barreling like seven demons out there in the West, not the West Coast west that is a different proposition. The West I am talking about is where what the novelist Thomas Wolfe called the place where the states were square and you had better be as well if you didn’t want to starve or be found in some empty arroyo un-mourned and unloved. A tough life when the original pioneers drifted westward from Eastern nowhere looking for that pot of gold or at least some fresh air and a new start away from crowded cities and sweet breathe vices. A tough life worthy of song and homage. Tough going too for guys like Joe Hill who tried to organize the working people against the sweated robber barons of his day (they are still with us as we are all now very painfully and maybe more vicious than their in your face forbear)Struggles, fierce down at the bone struggles also worthy of song and homage. Tough too when your people landed in rugged beautiful two-hearted river Idaho, tried to make a go of it in Boise, maybe stopped short in Helena but you get the drift. A different place and a different type of subject matter for your themes than lost loves and longings.  

Rosalie Sorrels could write those songs as well, as well as anybody but she was as interested in the social struggles of her time (one of the links that united her with Utah) and gave no quarter when she turned the screw on a lyric. The last time I saw Rosalie perform in person was back in 2002 when she performed at the majestic Saunders Theater at Harvard University out in Cambridge America at what was billed as her last go-round, her hanging up her shoes from the dusty travel road. (That theater complex contained within the Memorial Hall dedicated to the memory of the gallants from the college who laid down their heads in that great civil war that sundered the country. The Harvards did themselves proud at collectively laying down their heads at seemingly every key battle that I am aware of when I look up at the names and places. A deep pride runs through me at those moments)

Rosalie Sorrels as one would expect on such an occasion was on fire that night except the then recent death of another folk legend, Dave Von Ronk, who was supposed to be on the bill (and who was replaced by David Bromberg who did a great job banging out the blues unto the heavens) cast a pall over the proceedings. I will always remember the crystal clarity and irony of her cover of her classic Old Devil Time that night -yeah, give me one more chance, one more breathe. But I will always think of If I Could Be The Rain and thoughst of washing herself down to the sea whenever I hear her name. RIP Rosalie Sorrels 


Farewell To An Unrepentant Wobblie

Strangers In Another Country, Rosalie Sorrels and various artists, Red Barn records, 2008

The first paragraph here has been used in reviewing other Rosalie Sorrels CDs in this space.

“My first association of the name Rosalie Sorrels with folk music came, many years ago now, from hearing the recently departed folk singer/storyteller/ songwriter and unrepentant Wobblie (IWW) Utah Phillips mention his long time friendship with her going back before he became known as a folksinger. I also recall that combination of Sorrels and Phillips as he performed his classic “Starlight On The Rails” and she his also classic “If I Could Be The Rain” on a PBS documentary honoring the Café Lena in Saratoga, New York, a place that I am also very familiar with for many personal and musical reasons. Of note here: it should be remembered that Rosalie saved, literally, many of the compositions that Utah left helter-skelter around the country in his “bumming” days.”

That said, what could be better than to have Rosalie pay musical tribute to one of her longest and dearest folk friends, her old comrade Utah Phillips, someone who it is apparent from this beautiful little CD was on the same wavelength as that old unrepentant Wobblie. Here Rosalie takes a wide scattering of Utah’s work from various times and places and gives his songs and storytelling her own distinctive twist.

For example? Well, right from the first song “Starlight On The Trail” about being adrift in America in the later part of the 20th century with its prologue taken from some thoughts on the writings of author Thomas Wolfe (of “You Can’t Go Home Again” fame). Or the stirring “He Comes Like The Rain” a fair description of Utah himself if one thinks about it. Or to get political (and worry about the next generations) “Enola Gay”. And political memory about the forgotten “pre-mature anti-fascist” heroes of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades that fought in Spain when it counted in “Eddie’s Song”. Finally, how about the appropriate ‘Ashes On The Sea” complete with Kate Wolf/Woody Guthrie story. If there were more than a five star spot here I would click it. Utah, rest easy, Rosalie did good, she did very good by you here. Adieu, old working class warrior.

If I Could Be The Rain-"Utah Phillips"

Everybody I know sings this song their own way, and they arrive at their own understanding of it. Guy Carawan does it as a sing along. I guess he thinks it must have some kind of universal appeal. To me, it's a very personal song. It's about events in my life that have to do with being in love. I very seldom sing it myself for those reasons.

If I could be the rain, I'd wash down to the sea;
If I could be the wind, there'd be no more of me;
If I could be the sunlight, and all the days were mine,
I would find some special place to shine.

But all the rain I'll ever be is locked up in my eyes,
When I hear the wind it only whispers sad goodbyes.
If I could hide the way I feel I'd never sing again;
Sometimes I wish that I could be the rain.

If I could be the rain, I'd wash down to the sea;
If I could be the wind, there'd be no more of me;
If I could hide the way I feel I'd never sing again;
Sometimes I wish that I could be the rain.

Copyright ©1973, 2000 Bruce Phillips

(Bruce Phillips)

Let me sing to you all those songs I know
Of the wild, windy places locked in timeless snow,
And the wide, crimson deserts where the muddy rivers flow.
It's sad, but the telling takes me home.

Come along with me to some places that I've been
Where people all look back and they still remember when,
And the quicksilver legends, like sunlight, turn and bend
It's sad, but the telling takes me home.

Walk along some wagon road, down the iron rail,
Past the rusty Cadillacs that mark the boom town trail,
Where dreamers never win and doers never fail,
It's sad, but the telling takes me home.

I'll sing of my amigos, come from down below,
Whisper in their loving tongue the songs of Mexico.
They work their stolen Eden, lost so long ago.
It's sad, but the telling takes me home.

I'll tell you all some lies, just made up for fun,
And the loudest, meanest brag, it can beat the fastest gun.
I'll show you all some graves that tell where the West was won.
It's sad, but the telling takes me home.

And I'll sing about an emptiness the East has never known,
Where coyotes don't pay taxes and a man can live alone,
And you've got to walk forever just to find a telephone.
It's sad, but the telling takes me home.

Let me sing to you all those songs I know
Of the wild, windy places locked in timeless snow,
And the wide, crimson deserts where the muddy rivers flow.
It's sad, but the telling takes me home.

(Bruce Phillips)

I can hear the whistle blowing
High and lonesome as can be
Outside the rain is softly falling
Tonight its falling just for me

Looking back along the road I've traveled
The miles can tell a million tales
Each year is like some rolling freight train
And cold as starlight on the rails

I think about a wife and family
My home and all the things it means
The black smoke trailing out behind me
Is like a string of broken dreams

A man who lives out on the highway
Is like a clock that can't tell time
A man who spends his life just rambling
Is like a song without a rhyme

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