The founding director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, and its famous child, the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Hal Cannon has published a dozen books and recordings on the folk arts of the American West. Cannon also produces public television and radio features on the culture and folklife of the American West. Cannon, a musician himself, first met Rosalie in Salt Lake, where he grew up.
Q: Do you remember when you first met Rosalie?
A: I was really young. I think I was about 12 years old when I met Rosalie. She lived in Salt Lake City, had five young children and I went over there every Saturday morning and took (guitar) lessons from her husband Jim Sorrels. I babysat for them. I sort of idolized Rosalie. Utah Phillips lived there in town then too. I have to say that Rosalie and that group sort of opened up the world for me.
Q: In what way?
A: I grew up in a pretty conservative Mormon family and I was sort of hankering to appreciate the world in a larger way and particularly musically. Rosalie not only had me babysit but she would bring in folk performers like the Georgia Sea Island Singers or The New Lost City Ramblers, John Jacob Niles. And she'd have parties at her house afterwards and I was just a little twerp but she'd invite me to come. People were cavorting and talking about things I'd never heard about and being funny. I have to say she had a lot to do with forming the person I am today.
"She's very much her own person and refuses to be pigeon-holed."
Q: What makes Rosalie a folklorist?
A: She is a popularizer. She's not an academic particularly. First of al,l she's done a lot of collecting. She collected early on, folk music from Utah when she lived in Utah. She took course work from folklorists, so she sort of understood the methodology of field work. What she does, she does preserve it but she makes it pertinent for today. I saw her perform recently and I was amazed that she just has this ability to present things as though they are really pertinent right now even though they may be very old. She just mixes her own personal experience in so much into her performance that it's sort of seamless.
Q: Where does Rosalie fit in the panoply of folk musicians?
A: She's part of a folk revival in the '60's that was not as commercially based as "The Kingston Trio" or "Peter, Paul and Mary." She wasn't really part of that. She really aligned herself with a more gritty, more rough and ready, more politically active, more left aspect of folk music. And the fact is that kind of folk music was really an eastern United States phenomena. And so she was isolated from the center of this folk music revival and she was sort of like the hinter-land western ambassador of folk music.
Q: What do you think her legacy will be?
A: I think the recordings will stand up for a long time. I think that her collecting of folk songs will stand up. I'd hope that she could do some more writing. She's just such a great story teller I could imagine her narratives being put into book form.
She has created - this sounds crass, but it's sort of the "Rosalie Sorrels corporate identity." She's very much her own person and refuses to be pigeon-holed. To build a community of people around you and still be able to have that individuality I think is a tough thing and she's done it.