Folk songs and stories come directly from the people and they flesh out the bare bones and add a human element to the historical record. They tell us about the kind of people who lived here before us, and they also reflect our current concerns and their continuity with the past. These songs and stories and the music that accompanied them are an important part of our state’s oral history.
Rosalie Sorrels is the matriarch of Idaho folk music. For over 50 years, Rosalie wrote, recorded, collected, traveled, performed, and taught stories she knew firsthand and those she learned from others. The daughter of an Idaho Transportation Department engineer, she lived a life on the road. She also lived a life deeply rooted on family property in a cabin her father built. Both rooted and free, Rosalie described herself in a 2005 Idaho Public Television interview: “I’m an actress. I’m a troubadour. I take the news from place to place. I do it with music. I do it with poetry and stories and I try to connect. I think we need to be connected and that’s my mission. That’s what I think I am. I’m a connector.”
Rosalie connected her life, the people of Idaho, and the citizens of the world through music and storytelling. In doing so, she participated in and perpetuated a living tradition, a constant, continuous arc that begins in time immemorial and lives in perpetuity. In short, folklife. Or, in the words of Rosalie, “the homemade, hand-wrought stuff of memory—not history, but color—the blood and breath of then and now.”
In the summer of 1987, Rosalie Sorrels, Jean Terra, John “Johnny Shoes” Pisano, Gary Grimm, Katy Flanagan and Michael Cordell traveled the state with a mission to “collect for the historical archives traditional folk songs and music sung and played by Idahoans.” The extended road trip was known as the Idaho Folk Song Project and was conceived in conjunction with the Idaho Centennial Commission and the Idaho Commission on the Arts as a way to document the state’s folklife traditions in honor of its 100th birthday.
The songcatchers stopped through 23 towns on their tour and reached most corners of the state. At each stop, a concert was prearranged where Rosalie Sorrels played and recounted memories of life as an Idahoan. Then the microphone would turn to the audience. In 23 separate and unique communities, audiences were given their own chance to sing songs about the state or those that sparked distinct memories. These events were known as Song Swaps. Many of the shared songs and stories were later supplemented with more formal interviews and photographs and made their way into the book, Way Out in Idaho: A Celebration of Songs and Stories, published in 1990 for the Idaho centennial by Confluence Press in association with the Idaho Commission on the Arts.
Since the concerts, the Song Swaps have never been heard or used in any way other than for reference in the book. The collection presented here represents the entirety of the fieldwork documentation known as the Idaho Folk Song Project that went into the publication of Way Out in Idaho. It includes not only the Song Swaps but also galley proof sheets, correspondence from primary participants, section and chapter notes, miscellaneous annotations, photograph proof sheets, and supplemental information that made Way Out in Idaho the one-of-its-kind resource for state-specific traditional cultural expressions.
Way Out in Idaho is the story of the Gem State. The collection of documentation that went into the publication is as much about Rosalie Sorrels and her traveling fieldworkers as it is the citizen subjects themselves. The material offered here is the vision of Rosalie as she experienced it while driving around the state for a year. More than an end product, the Idaho Folk Song Project and the associated Song Swaps exemplify the process of creation. As an Idahoan, these are the stories Rosalie experienced and learned firsthand and these are the stories she told that prompted Idahoans to participate in the process of their own storytelling. These are the notes, the scribbles, the edits, the unseen photos, and the testament to the hours and months and years of work that went into the final publication.
Way Out in Idaho still stands as a singular, essential, and relevant testimony to the rich and varied traditions that created and maintain Idaho’s cultural heritage. The collected material and hard work that went into the Idaho Folk Song Project and Song Swaps adds breadth and depth to the project and its legacy.Community Connections Guide