Rosalie Sorrels

Green Linnet GLCD2100

Rosalie Sorrels combines a folksinger’s sweet-voiced clarity and populist ideals with the worldliness of a hard-living blues chanteuse. She’s channeled the joys and sorrows of her own courageous, sometimes chaotic life into a personal canon that’s affirming in the same way the blues are: without preaching or righteousness, her songs and tales encourage us to carry on even when the picture they paint is bleak.

Sorrels strides bravely into areas where many other folksingers fear to tread. She thus avoids the notorious folkie pitfalls–earnestness and preciousness. The expected children’s songs and prairie ballads are vital to her repertoire, but so is an unblinking acknowledgment of the limits of optimism in the face of life’s cruelties. Her gallery of heroes extends from the usual valiant proletarians and pioneer women to street hookers and irascible old barflies, and she makes it a point to avoid judgment. She celebrates the human spirit in all its flawed beauty, and she’s not bound by preconceived notions of musical authenticity or political correctness.

In some ways her latest recording, Be Careful, There’s a Baby in the House, is vintage Sorrels. Traditional numbers and contemporary folk standards share the stage with unexpectedly noir-ish observations on life in desperate late-20th-century America and bare-bones autobiographical revelations. As she’s done since her first recording, Sorrels has written the liner notes, which include a short introduction to each number. If you read as you listen, you’ll get a feel for her live performances–narratives and music woven together, the prose setting the scene for each song and providing continuity.

There are a few new wrinkles, however. Sorrels’s music and writings have always celebrated life and survival largely by evoking her own experiences and friendships, as well as tradition; but the populism that’s integral to folk music was usually more implied than proclaimed. This time, the political message is up-front: her notes start off with a manifesto on abortion. Characteristically, it’s interwoven with a harrowingly honest telling of her own story–including the tale of a bloody illegal abortion at age 16 at the hands of “the midwife from hell in a dirty motel.” Sorrels raised five children pretty much on her own (“I really know I did the best I could. . . . Goddamn, it was a hard row to hoe. . . . no one can take care of five children by themselves”); both the love and bitterness of that experience permeate the notes and the recording.

Sorrels has built much of her career on tough-minded, bittersweet paeans to single motherhood. She returns to that theme here with added urgency. With a political fighter’s passion and the grace of a poet, she brings equal conviction to her love songs to children and her demands that women be allowed to choose when to have them–along with some brutally vivid accounts of what happens to both mothers and children when those choices are unavailable.

Don’t worry, though: you’re not going to be assaulted by slogans. Sorrels makes her point through vivid music and lyrics. She immediately defines her turf with the opening, title cut, by Loudon Wainwright III, sung a cappella so the listener has to work a bit harder than usual. There’s no beat, no fancy musicianship, nothing but the words and melody to keep you interested. If you’re going to dig this stuff, Sorrels seems to be saying, you’ll have to meet her at least halfway. Sorrels’s voice doesn’t have Wainwright’s razorlike cynicism–she gives tenderness to his vicious trashing of nuclear-family romanticism. Where he seemed intent on destroying parents’ illusions, Sorrels sings as an advocate of the baby.

Continuing the theme is “Baby Rocking Medley,” a reprise from her Always a Lady LP (released on Philo in 1975). This is one of Sorrels’s signature tunes–a typically tough/tender meditation on the joys and stresses of child rearing. It merges a “benevolent” baby-rocking song with a “hostile” one, the latter to be sung at “5:30 in the morning [when] that lousy kid has not quit howling now for six hours.” The crystalline harmonies and singsongy lilt of “Baby Rocking Medley” and the cozy, familial gaiety of the tune that follows–a deliciously bent Shel Silverstein children’s song, “You’re Always Welcome at Our House”–are obviously intended ironically. They represent what a lot of people don’t like about folk music, though, and the unconverted may cringe.

“Mehitabel and Her Kittens” returns Sorrels to a favorite source of inspiration, Don Marquis’s tales of Archie and Mehitabel. Mehitabel, the hard-bitten alley cat with a gimpy hind leg, dancing defiantly over the cobblestones through the swirls of a bitter wind, is Sorrels’s most enduring heroine and alter ego.

Previously Sorrels has woven Marquis’ story line into a rollicking musical portrait of Mehitabel (“Mehitabel’s Theme,” on Always a Lady); this time she simply reads straight from his text. Whether one thinks such spoken narratives work on record is a matter of taste, but to me it’s appropriate. The words amplify her themes, and her delivery is both hilarious and uncompromising. Marquis’s image of the kittens living in an abandoned garbage can is frighteningly current: “Sometimes I think the kindest thing to do would be for me to carry the sweet little things over to the river and drop them in myself,” Mehitabel says. The sign-off–“Always a lady, too, in spite of hell”–could serve as Sorrels’s personal motto.

The high points of the first side, to me, are the final two cuts. “Lost Children Street,” a Malvina Reynolds tune, is a perfect vehicle for Sorrels’s tough romanticism. The music creates a landscape of rain and mystery for Reynolds’s lyrics, about dispossessed 60s-era Haight-Ashbury waifs, and R. Bruce Carver’s electric guitar weaves its tubular way through the imagery, providing a whiff of gypsy melancholy. Sorrels’s voice maintains a relentless tenderness, unsentimental but compassionate. As in the second side’s “Rim of the World,” another Reynolds ode to the lost children of the Haight, Sorrels treats the song’s subjects as heroes, not victims, telling their stories with the same disarming openness with which she bares her own soul.

“Right to Life,” a gripping reading of a Marge Piercy poem, closes out the first side. It continues the prochoice theme of Sorrels’s liner notes; whether you like it or not will probably depend on where you stand on this issue. To me it’s one of the most on-target, wrenching feminist testimonials ever recorded. Sorrels’s great strength is that she speaks her political piece with the stark immediacy of a confession; the line between the personal and the political disappears.

The poem’s iron refusal to accept second-class reproductive citizenship for women (“Now you legislate mineral rights in a woman / you lay claim to her pastures for grazing / fields for growing babies like iceberg lettuce”) segues fiercely into a savage portrayal of botched illegal abortions and tortured children. It then broadens into a prophetic vision of the inevitable moral collapse of a society that doesn’t value its women and children (“a child screams, a woman falls, a synagogue is torched”), and the final verse delivers the clincher: “This is my body / If I give it to you I want it back / My life is a non-negotiable demand.” Sorrels spits out these lines with a trembling, dead- eyed venom, and when it’s over the silence itself sounds like applause.

The centerpiece of the second side–and for me, the entire LP–is a masterful combination of another spoken narrative and a song. The narrative is “1972–New Hampshire (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail),” a reading from the Hunter S. Thompson book. Characteristically, Sorrels finds the wounded idealism behind Thompson’s apocalyptic fury, and she reads his tale–which begins with a biting slash of Thompsonian bitterness and ends in a compassionate and tormented meditation on human frailty and neediness–with intimate ease. If it weren’t for the liner credits, you’d think she’d written it.

“1972–New Hampshire” sets the stage for Roland Mitchell’s “L.A. Nights”; together they create a riveting vignette. “L.A. Nights” is a dark, kaleidoscopic portrayal of southern California hookers and their johns and street buddies–a desolate midnight carnival of the alienated and broken. The irony is relentless; the song wafts along in three-four time, even turning the lilting nonsense singing of folk tradition against itself: “Lai, lai, lai la-lai, yeah you lie and you lie and you lie . . .” This hard, shimmering jewel succeeds with such effortless power that it entirely obliterates genre barriers. Nonfolkies as well as the faithful will have their breath taken away.

You’re still shaken by “L.A. Nights,” and Sorrels hits you with one more shot–her brief recitation from Yeats’s “Two Years Later,” a brooding bit of Irish existential gloom. Then she breaks into another reprise from a previous LP (If I Could Be the Rain, recorded on Folk Legacy in 1967), Bruce Phillips’s “Jesse’s Corrido.” It’s a portrait of a young outlaw awaiting execution, and Phillips’s lyrics humanize the prisoner (a convicted murderer) without romanticizing him. The political message is clear: Phillips’s guest commentary in the liner notes indicts “the things that have made [Jesse] what he is.” But in the song itself the young man simply tells his story, allowing us to reach our own moral conclusions. Sorrels, though, is hardly objective: “If I could not feel compassion for every mother’s son,” she writes, “how could I deal with the fact that my own son is in prison?”

Sorrels’s other son committed suicide in 1976. “Sing Like the Rain (Last Song for David)” on this album is one of several tributes she’s sung for him. It’s another vintage performance–with its shatteringly intimate subject matter, sung again in that three-four C & W cadence but with Sorrels’s voice cutting sharply through the mournful backing, defying despair with its very exuberance. Sorrels obviously turns to music for its healing power, and the celebratory brilliance of her timbre here–laid over Carver’s somber lower-register lead guitar and the dreamy sadness of the tempo–expresses this eloquently.

The last cut, “I Cannot Sleep for Thinking of the Children,” is yet another Malvina Reynolds meditation on the lost and hungry little ones. If you’ve listened this far, you’re obviously in tune with Sorrels’s aching love affair with the vulnerable and dispossessed; she again takes what might have been overly sentimental and redeems it with her affirming power. In her hands, this lightly flowing song becomes almost a flag-waver, a feminist “women and children first” anthem. I can think of no other way to put it: Sorrels makes it hip to care.

Not everything here will be savory to all tastes. I’ve commented elsewhere that, like a combination of Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday, Sorrels fuses her country timbre with sophisticated phrasing. But this LP’s a cappella rendition of Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” in Sorrels’s reedy Idaho twang, is audacious even beyond her usual icon-busting bravado. Most lovers of the original will probably gnash their teeth; folk fans will applaud Sorrels’s bringing this high-art classic down to a “just folks” level. Sorrels has said that “people who are purists are usually too young to know any better”; if nothing else, “God Bless the Child” puts her aphorism to its toughest test yet.

But Rosalie Sorrels hasn’t survived all this time, as an artist or as a woman, by capitulating to others’ complaints about her risk taking. Sorrels’s message on this LP–that raising kids is a hard and demanding job, life is rough, and you’d better be well armed with both power and luck to be successful at either–transcends any limitations she might impose on herself by staying primarily within the confines of a relatively simplistic musical style. Like the cast of characters who populate her songs, Sorrels is determined to prevail, and her music makes us feel that maybe we can do the same.