I was looking for an exact quotation from Utah Phillips when I discovered, within 24 hours of his passing, that our old friend had spun his last yarn, and as another old friend, editrix par excellence admitted to me later, the announcement arrived here in Korea first, where our broadband knows everything almost before it happens. It made me sad. I get these cheap phone cards that encourage me, when I have a question Mr Google chokes on, to just phone up this or that old pal or personage to get the straight stories. I don’t mean the likes of John McCain’s has-been/wanna-be fakery, but the genuine article that can be trusted only when they issue from the mouths of poets and folkies of my acquaintance.
It was one of Utah Phillips’s simple jokes I wanted; something like, “When snakes drink too much and get the DT’s, they see Dick Cheney.” So I fo to Utah’s blog, and there’s the obit, and it makes me blue, and I’m thinking, “Hell, if it makes me blue, and I never spent more than a few hours with the man, including attending his gigs, I reckon Rosalie can definitely stand a little cheering up about now”. It being eight years since the last time I lived in Idaho, her phone number had retired and moved to Florida, where, I hoped it might still occasionally be found scrawled at standing eye-level under the words, “For a good time, unless you’re as dull as most men, call…..”.
Instead, I called Dennis DeFoggi. I’ve always counted on him; he often knows some of what’s worth knowing that I don’t already know, and I’m pretty sure he’s already heard that Utah had caught his last “Katy”. To my surprise, he doesn’t know yet, illustrating my earlier point about being on top of the news out here on the frontier of the so-called “Free” world (Free? Hell, it ain’t even cheap!). Rosalie’s got a cell phone now, but Dennis doesn’t have that number, so he gives me the same one I have, the one for “Querencia” (“The place where the heart dwells”), the home on Grimes Creek that Walt and Nancy Stringfellow built together, and where they lived the rest of their lives; where their kids, Rosalie and her brother Jim, grew up into two of the finest performers and teachers of folk singing and dancing, respectively, that the USA has the right, (if not always the good sense) to claim and proclaim.
So I hung up on Dennis and dialed the number he gave me. After a couple of rings, a voice that sounded almost too weak to be Rosalie answered. It was her, and she was weary, and a little disbelieving and glad when I told her it was me in her ear. Since I sometimes have the opposite effect on people when I call, I was gratified that, once she accepted that it was me and I was calling from Seoul, her voice filled out, spilling into the one that all who know her regard to be one of the clearest, strongest, most sensitive and pure brass instruments anywhere. She said, “I’m kind of surprised I answered the phone, because I came up here to get away from all the people calling my cell phone. I just feel like shit, and all these radio and TV and journalist types that I usually never hear from when I’m trying to get word around of a new album or a public performance. Now they want me to talk about Bruce. They have no sense or sensitivity for the loss I feel. That’s why I came up here.”
I imagined her, then, sitting on the fold-out sofa that she and Nancy sat on when I took the only photograph I have of them together, in ’76, looking out the big picture window and smiling at me, as I wandered around the incredible Eden of plantings that appeared under Nancy’s skillful hands after she retired from her job appraising libraries for The Book Shop in Boise. I had met Nancy before Rosalie, while I had work as an editor for a short-lived Boise periodical that was improved by anything Nancy submitted. When I met Rosalie, we got each other right away, becoming fast friends, in part due to my familiarity with the history of the US Labor Movement, the IWW, and the sizeable posse of characters we both had known for some time. Those included her brother-in-law, “Whitewater Bill” Stringfellow. Bill and I stopped drinking about the same time, and as part of that same secret brotherhood, would snake around the North End in his old brown step van, sharing roaches and yarns. Bill had been for some years persona non grata at Querencia from his enduring role as Walt’s main drinking partner for most of that career, with its Irish dimensions. Rosalie was touring at the time I met Bill, and we already had a lot of the same Bohemian friends, so we were dead certain to meet when next she visited Boise. I hadn’t long to wait.
That was then; this is now, and I’m thinking all of it over as I chatted with Rosalie about Bruce, and Gino and Ray and Ed and the rest of that cantankerous crowd drawn to her voice and persona over the years, like as moths to a candle. She had been especially dismayed by a recent encounter with a journalist who had the extraordinary, if not to say typical poor taste, of observing to Rosalie that, now that Bruce had left the stage, it marked the end of that era of old-timers. As you might expect, if your bodily orifices are lined up properly, this came as something of a surprise to Rosalie, who not too many hours before had appeared live, telling her stories and singing her songs on National Public Radio, including some of the same ones that she had taught to Bruce “Utah” Phillips back when, several years his senior, and already a veteran folk circuit performer, she had taken him under her wing, and other places, and taught him some of the most important things he would need to know, if he wanted to become the man he did eventually become, and to have people love him for it.
We talked some more about how, when you reach a certain age, in some people’s minds, you’ve already died, or at least become a walking ghost, unseen and unheard. This is hard news for someone who’s still wanted on NPR, (if few other places, which betrays a lot about modern media). Someone allowed, this time, to perform without any restrictions on the amount of storytelling you do before you play a song, and letting you play a song from beginning to end, without interruption by lame commentary from people who think what they have to say is more desirable to listeners than the performers who make it possible for them to have the job to begin with.
I told her about my recent visit with Ray Obermayr, one of the most humane and honest of men, and how he was still painting and studying and writing with a vigor artists two generations younger might envy. His wit, always sharp, had not been at all dulled by his 85 years, his army experiences in WWII, when he was landed on a Normandy beach on D-Day-plus-one, or by his three marriages. I told Rosalie the story about Ray that Glen told me he’d witnessed on the occasion of a poetry reading at Will Peterson’s Walrus and Carpenter Books in Pocatello, where Ray was a regular featured reader. After he read, a woman emerged from the crowd and made a beeline for Ray beaming as she came. “Hi, Ray. You look and sound wonderful!”, she gushed, before wrapping him in an embrace that he shrugged away from after a moment, out of deference to the feelings of his beloved Maggie, who was present.
Ray thanked her for the compliment, and after the woman had withdrawn, having a chance to ask someone standing nearby, sotto voce, “Who was THAT?” The reply, “Ray, that was S_________” (his second wife). With but a moment’s hesitation to consider the import of that discovery, came his snappy rejoinder, “Well, I guess I’m over HER”.
At that, Rosalie laughed the familiar, lusty, knowing and thoroughly genuine laugh that so many recognize is inseparable from her stage persona, and in good and normal times is never too distant from the real person, and we reluctantly let each other go, both of us feeling a little better for having shared this long-distance grieve together. After I hung up, I started pawing through my stuff, looking for some of her recorded disks; I knew I had at least four of the twenty or forty she’s cut over the years. I was thinking all the while about Rosalie, and Stan, and Whitewater Bill, and Jim and Nancy and Rosalie’s daughters and sons, and my own genetic family. I marveled at how the lines between blood and spirit wash into and overlap each other, braiding together until the lines become indistinguishable parts of the whole. I thought about my dad, who died in ’04, and how, on his and Mom’s 50th wedding anniversary I, the downright least competent and unaccomplished a cappella crooner in two hemispheres, had gathered my courage to sing one of Rosalie’s songs, unaccompanied, as my part in the anniversary program. It went okay, I guess, but I’ve always been glad the salad bar had been removed by the time I finished.
So, thinking of that time, I took the song Rosalie made for Nancy, called “A song for Daughter-Mama“, and pulled together some of the snapshots I took at Rosalie’s 65th birthday party (and 75 was just around the corner at the time of this writing), and I added some stock shots of Idaho skies and mountains and people we know (or knew), and I made this video on this date to remind all who stumble across it that Rosalie is alive, and she is strong and she is going out on tour again soon. She’ll be releasing an album of Bruce “Utah” Phillips songs she has recorded, and she is enjoying one of the truly most favored little corners of wild and cultivated nature to be found, somewhere up on Grimes Creek, in Idaho.