Quick Q and A with Sally Rogers

Sally Rogers is a woman of many talents. She’s a singer-songwriter, a music educator, a collector of stories, and as though that’s not enough—she is a painter and a quiltmaker. Sally’s website is sprinkled with all kinds of quotes from the media, teachers, parents, and audience members. Imagine being the recipient of this message: “Whenever I wonder why I should keep living, I listen to your music and hope keeps me moving.” It sure seems to me that Sally is quite good at her chosen profession to elicit such a response from a fan. Music is indeed a vibrant channel into people’s hearts and souls. This is proof.

You can read more about Sally on her website.

Here’s the audio of Sally’s song “Lovely Agnes.”
Here’s a fun video of some school children singing “Circle of the Sun.”

ImageAfter reading about your background, it sounds like you grew up in a pretty musical household. What are your fondest memories having to do with music when you were small?

My fondest memories are sitting under the grand piano while my mom played Aaron Copland’s “The Cat and the Mouse.” I would pretend I was a cat and looked through a knothole in the floor into the basement looking for my prey… My sister and I also danced around the living room to Beatles’ songs. When my parents had parties, my Dad would get out his cornet and play Purcell’s Voluntary March. We lived in Brazil when I was 13 and all I wanted to be was a Bossa Nova singer, and join the Sergio Mendes band.

What’s the first instrument that you learned?
I tried to learn piano, but my mom was a piano teacher and interfered with my learning :). So I sang. I remember being in church as a little person and looking up at a very tall man who said to me, “You have a lovely voice!” I’ll never forget that one early comment. I don’t even know who it was. I started playing guitar during the folk boom in high school because it was the cool thing to do.

How did you become interested in the Appalachian dulcimer?
My neighbor’s grandmother had one of Jethro Amburgy’s very simple dulcimers hanging on her wall. When I was in high school I was introduced to Jean Ritchie’s music and remembered seeing that dulcimer. I was able to borrow it until I bought my own: a 3-string made by Thomas Deason in Corydon, Indiana. The sides were maple that came from a fence post.

Tell us the story about how Stan Rogers encouraged you to become a touring musician. (By the way, there’s no relation to you and Stan / Garnet Rogers, is there)?

No, we are not related.

I met Stan through folk festivals and running the Ten Pound Fiddle Coffeehouse in East Lansing Michigan. We invited Stan and band to perform there and they stayed at our house. After hours, Stan told me about an audition for all the Canadian Folk Festivals that was happening in a few weeks in Toronto. He told me I should go and was quite insistent about it. They were specifically looking for women to perform, as they were in short supply (there were plenty of them, but the men running the festivals were blind). I took him up on the offer, borrowed a car and went to the audition in the Spring of 1979 and got hired at four major festivals, including the Winnipeg Festival.

Your career was given a big boost after your appearance on Prairie Home Companion. What was your experience like when you performed on that show?

It was a great experience and one I’m proud to have had. It happened because Lisa Null learned my song, “Lovely Agnes” which I never intended for performance (it was written for my grandmother’s 92nd birthday). She taught it to Claudia Schmidt who I had not yet met, Jean Redpath and Helen Schneyer who were all on the show in 1980. After hearing the song, Garrison wrote me a note praising the song and inviting me on the show whenever I was passing through. I took him up on the offer and was on the show regularly for about four years.

Your song “Love Will Guide Us” is very familiar to Unitarian-Universalists and Quakers since it’s in their hymnals. It’s a congregation favorite for sure. What’s the history behind that song?

I learned the original song, “I Will Guide Thee’ from Helen Schneyer’s Folk Legacy recording. But the song was a little too religious for me. So one rainy afternoon in Nevada City, CA, while I was on the road, I penned the new more secular lyrics. The Unitarians printed it in their hymnal, but they left off all but the first verse and chorus!

You have written a lot of music for children and have been a music educator for some time. What’s the most challenging thing you need to think about when writing children’s music and performing for them?
When writing for children, you can’t dumb down the message. It helps to have a singable chorus, as it does writing for anyone, if you want them to sing along.

What’s the most rewarding thing about working with children?

There is nothing more rewarding than having them honor me by singing something I wrote. I have sung “Circle in the Sun” in schools where students knew the song already. They said to me, “Who wrote that song?” My answer was , “I did.”. Their response? “No, you didn’t!” Lovely.

I’m interested in hearing about the various folk operas that you have written. Do you like doing the research for these types of projects? How have they been received?

I am passionate about oral histories and used them to create the songs for the four Mennonite folk operas I composed with dramatist Jo Carson. They were all performed in Newport News, Virginia in a theater that had been the last Mennonite Dairy barn (The Yoder Barn) in the region. I learned a great deal about their community and was honored to be included in their lives. Working with Jo Carson was more fun than I knew you could have. Kind of like being on a roller coaster of words and music. I have used what I learned to teach kids how to collect oral histories and transform their stories into songs.


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