[2 October 2008]
There was a time when folk songs about labor unions, hoboes, trains, and the beauty of the American landscape were the lingua franca of the radical musical underground. Beat poets, Bob Dylan, and others tapped into this rich vein of lore brought a renaissance of riches into the mainstream of the national culture. The great folk scare, as Pete Seeger calls it, happened over 40 years ago, but the original subterranean stream never stopped flowing.
Rosalie Sorrels and Bruce “Utah” Phillips were two of the most consummate practitioners of this genre, with thick roots in the past. They steadily wrote, captured and recorded the songs and stories of an earlier era and brought them to life through thousands of concerts and dozens of albums during the past five decades. These two were great pals who sometimes performed together, but mostly traveled down different paths that went through the same road of life.
Phillips died last May, and the 75-year-old Sorrels has come out of semi-retirement to record one more album, this one a tribute to her old comrade comprised of all-Phillips material.
Strangers in Another Country showcases the range of Phillips talents. As an old friend, Sorrels offers some of Phillips’ best known material as well as songs he had never published or recorded. There are heartbreaking tunes, like the one about the contrast between the dangers of coal mining and the magnificence of the landscape, “Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia”, and rough and rowdy odes to drinking, like “Don’t Go Home”. At times, Sorrels makes Phillips’ words sound as if he’s an Old Testament preacher. She knows how to pause and point fingers with her voice when she sermonizes. “Oh god, we have been in exile in our own country and a stranger in another land,” she states on the introductory incantation from “Starlight on the Rails”. And Sorrels brings out Phillips’ lilting poetry in his rant against death, “I Feel Drunk All the Time”.
Phillips was a lifelong member of the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and his songs are imbued with the communal spirit of we’re all one big union against the workers. Sorrels’ interpretations of his songs show the attraction of such a movement. We all want to be brothers and sisters against the big bad bosses. We all want to join together in the glory of struggle and resistance to authority. Phillips had a strong sense of humor and delivered his messages with a smile. Sorrels shows the love behind the grin. Her voice may be gritty with experience, but the warmness of her feelings for Phillips and their shared passion for a better world comes off clear and strong.
Sorrels is aided by some top-notch talent. Special guests include such legendary members of the folk world as Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Peggy Seeger, Bryan Bowers, Jay Ungar and Dakora Dave Hull. The disc also includes a 16-page booklet with lots of information, pictures and commentary from Sorrels as well as photos and drawings from her personal collection. While this disc is meant to honor Phillips, it also reveals how important Sorrels has been to the modern folk movement as a performer and as a carrier of traditions.