Author: Karsemeyer, John

Helen On Wheels

Bessie named her upright acoustic bass, “Helen.” This was done because of the fond memory of her great grandmother, who also was a bass player. So Bessie did herself proud by nurturing the musical branches of her family tree.

The diminutive, somewhat frail Bessie needed help. Being that Bessie was only five feet and no inches tall, a standard size 4/4 double bass was definitely a challenge. And to be perfectly blunt about it, in this case size mattered. So being a gal of wit and resource, Bessie made her own cart on which to move Helen the bass about. The cart in itself would not solve the problem, but the addition of wheels did the trick.

This was not her personal invention. Bessie had attended quite a few bluegrass festivals over the years, and the intermittent sightings of some folks carting around their basses on wheels did not escape her 20/20 vision. No, not her invention, but Bessie’s own personal design of her bass’s transportation was unique. Time does not permit detail at this particular moment, but on the front of the cart there was a carved-in-wood inscription, “Helen On Wheels.” It caught the attention of more than a few people.

Whether at music festivals or at other gatherings of bluegrass minded folks, Bessie liked to jam with other musicians. But it was difficult for Bessie to find folks of her same age that liked to jam for as long as she did. Jamming beyond midnight was a piece of cake for Bessie, and her usual behavior pattern resulted in jamming until the sun came up. So you see she usually left most people in her bluegrass dust regarding the length of time she jammed. At the age of eighty-five she enjoyed the status of being head and shoulders above all others (so to speak) who were even near the number of years she had spent upright on planet earth.

Yes, in fact most folks who were invited by Bessie to be in her moonlight, midnight, and beyond bluegrass jams would in one way or another say to her, “Bessie, if you want to jam that long you can go to Helen Waite! She’ll be glad to play along.” Bessie was ready for this insulting recommendation with her well rehearsed come-back, “You’ve got that wrong my friend. That would be Helen all right, but that’s Helen Highwater who keeps me jamming right till the end. ”

Be that as it may, Bessie would usually go out all by her lonesome to find some jammers whose endurance could come close to her own. And once in a while she would reach her goal.

At a recent bluegrass festival, one night not so long ago, Bessie stumbled onto a jam that was happening way away from all the other campsites. Even though it was dark, really dark, it actually was in the morning, around four o’clock to be precise. The jammers were all men, but that didn’t bother Bessie. She’d played with the best of men before, and she stayed right with these guys playing her trusty bass, “Helen.” During the middle of the tenth jam song a wild wind came whistling through the pines that made Bessie feel mighty uneasy. But that feeling soon passed.

It was still quite dark, and she couldn’t quite make out the faces of the jammers from the campfire’s dim light that reflected off of their instruments. In a strange way the faces were unrecognizably distorted. In spite of that they somehow did look familiar. Perhaps she had seen them in one of the many bluegrass jams in which she had found herself over the years. And the jam songs? They were all traditional bluegrass standards that had been created many years ago, and had withstood the test of time.

No Beatles on the banjo here. No Sam Bush “Newgrass” or David Grisman “Dawg Music” mandolin here. No Brian Sutton “hot rod” guitar here either. Pure bluegrass here. No big tent, no little tent, no pup tent “bluegrass” here. “Just bluegrass that was created as it was meant to be,” Bessie whispered as she and Helen kept perfect time with the other players. “This stuff is preserved in time. Just like the Ten Commandments.”

Later in the jam, just as the sun was about to come up, Bessie turned her back to the jammers and reached down to her glass jar for another sip of her favorite Moonshine that she had recently purchased at a large members only shopping warehouse. When she turned back around again all the jammers were gone. They suddenly disappeared without a sound or a hint that they had ever been there. “Well I guess I was longer at the watering hole than I thought,” Bessie remarked.

As Bessie went back to her campsite she realized that she was a little more tired than usual. “Guess I drank too much of the shine.” After entombing her bass into its protective hard case she put it into her vehicle and then crawled into her tent for one of the best sleeps she could remember. “Wow, I had the strangest dream,” she exclaimed upon awakening. “I dreamed that I had finally made it big in bluegrass!”

Bessie crawled out of her tent, and just before making her “Cowgirl Coffee,” she realized that she had left her jar of White Lightnin’ back at the jam site. “Better go get that. There might be just enough left to get me through another long jam tonight.”

Upon arriving at the former jam site she was glad to see that the campfire had safely burned itself out. Still puzzled about the last night late night jammers, she questioned out loud, “Who were those guys?” She spotted her half full (Bessie was an optimist) jar of potent libation, and as she walked toward it something else caught her eye.

Lying on the ground, about three feet apart from each other, were broken strings from a mandolin, banjo, and guitar. Bessie reached down, picked up all three strings, wound them up to fit into her jacket pocket, and said, “Might just as well keep these in memory of what was the best jamming of my life. Can’t think of any jams that I’ve been in that were better.”

The next day on her way home from the four day bluegrass festival, Bessie plopped a Fox Family Bluegrass Band CD into the new, hi-tech musical device in her old pickup truck. Somehow the CD started on the chorus of “The Dream,” being sung by Kim Fox. Bessie couldn’t believe her ears as she listened dumbfounded.

“It was Bill Monroe, Earl and Lester too
They were singing hi and lonesome bluegrass tunes
Earl said, ‘We get together now and then’
Lord, Lord, the Bluegrass Boys are back again!”
Posted:  11/9/2013

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