Rosalie Sorrels – Singing through the rain
“I’m gonna sing you a song about an alley cat.” Rosalie Sorrels nods in time to the boom-chick pattern she’s strumming — a simple two-chord progression seasoned with feathery upstrokes and occasional off-meter punctuations — and surveys her audience with an expression of regal affection.
Over the course of the evening, she’ll spin vintage tales from her home state of Idaho, quote from friends Ken Kesey and Hunter Thompson, and sing politically charged anthems from the pen of Bruce “U. Utah” Phillips, another longtime ally. But she begins with a few well-chosen words from a long-deceased, largely forgotten cockroach.
Her brow is wrinkled, but her eyes sparkle with impish delight as she unfurls her narration:
“This alley cat is a character in a book called The Life And Times Of Archie And Mehitabel, which was written by this cockroach named Archie…Mehitabel had a whole lot of interesting philosophy to which I subscribe. I’m gonna lay a little of it on ya now.”
Rosalie-as-Mehitabel mewls like a vaudeville tart from the Lower East Side; then, assuming the character of Percy, Mehitabel’s tomcat paramour, she descends into a deep-chested, Brando-like rasp:
“Archie! The other day I was walking down Shinbone Alley, and I met this big, black-hearted tomcat. And he sez to me, he sez: ‘Mehitabel! Be mine!'”
People have begun to clap along, and peals of laughter ring through the room.
” ‘Be mine, Mehitabel,’ he sez…’and I will offer you a lifetime of open iceboxes, fish-heads, and cr-r-r-reeeam!’…
“I rustled grub for that low-life bum for about three months, and when the kittens came, he left!…
“I am always a lady, Archie, always a lady — I did not do anything vulgar. I simply removed his right eye with my left claw.”
Picking up the melody, Rosalie begins to sing in a whiskey-toughened soprano that sounds as if she’s fusing the voices of a pioneer homesteader, a ’30s-era showgirl, and Patsy Cline channeling the spirit of Billie Holiday:
“Freeze, you bloody December,
I never could be a pet —
Ah, but I am a lady in spite of hell,
and there’s a dance in the old dame yet!”
In the final verse, snarling with spitfire glee, she slows her cadence to an ominous slink and delivers the coup de grace:
“Just be somebody’s tabby-tame if you want to,
Be somebody’s pussy and pet!
But the life I lead is the life I want —
After a breath of silence, the room explodes into a clamor of shouts and applause.
It’s a characteristic Rosalie Sorrels moment. The Archie and Mehitabel stories date back to 1916, when Don Marquis began them, first in his daily column in the New York Sun, then in the Tribune, and then in Collier’s. Archie, the cockroach-poet, favored neither capital letters nor punctuation. In 1954 the unlikely duo spawned a Broadway production, written by Joe Darion and George Kleinsinger, called Shinbone Alley (and, in 1971, an animated feature by the same name); Mehitabel’s role was originated by the soprano Mignon Dunn, then revived by Carol Channing, then Eartha Kitt. And, tonight, Rosalie Sorrels.
Unusual fodder for a folk singer, perhaps, but Rosalie won’t be constrained — musically or otherwise. On this night, she’ll also weave musical portraits of barflies, hell-raisers and wine-soaked backstreet savants; she’ll share fond memories of boundary-defying souls such as Beat poets Jack Michelene and Lew Welch. She’ll segue from a fiercely articulated proclamation of support for a woman’s right to choose abortion into a tender rendition of Malvina Reynolds’ “I Cannot Sleep For Thinking Of The Children” — demonstrating, without preaching, that a pro-choice position is also pro-child.
Before the show is over, Sorrels will offer material as diverse as “Baby Rocking Medley”, her a wickedly subversive melange of “benevolent” and “hostile” lullabies; Shel Silverstein’s acerbic “You’re Always Welcome At Our House” (“I learned this,” she says, “to get even with my children”); and a lipstick-on-shotglasses a cappella rendition of “Falling In Love Again”, in which she tempers her reedy Idaho drawl with the timbral and rhythmic suppleness she adapted early on from listening to Holiday, who was one of her childhood idols.
She’ll read an excerpt from “Song For Daughters”, a poem written by her mother, the late Nancy Stringfellow, then segue into “Mama”, the song Rosalie wrote in response (“Mama, you were right when you said no one could ever hold me…Nobody ever bought me, mama, nobody ever sold me/And my friend the wind is teaching me to fly”). She’ll silence the room with “Hitchhiker In The Rain”, a song from her 1995 CD Borderline Heart that melds her anguish over her son David’s suicide in 1976 with her outrage over “the death of the generous impulse in America” — an almost Hebraic fusion of personal sorrow and global concern. And she’ll sign off with a lilting re-creation of “Ripple”, the Grateful Dead’s hippie anthem from American Beauty.
All in all, the set is an aural tour through a career that’s spanned over four decades and includes more than twenty albums. Her live recording My Last Go Round, released on Red House in 2004, garnered a Grammy nomination — her first ever — in the traditional folk category; she’s recently started her own label, Way Out In Idaho, on which she’s reissuing most of her earlier material as well as some current projects.