Author: Zuniga, Nancy

Everything Must Change
“The young become the old
And mysteries do unfold
For that's the way of time
No one and nothing goes unchanged.”
~from “Everything Must Change” by Bernard Ighner

Although I had been attending bluegrass concerts and festivals sporadically for five years, I didn't get around to joining the CBA until 1992. The first people to make me feel truly welcome in a jam when I didn't have a clue what I was doing were Paul and Ruby Dorris. Always the gracious hosts, they welcomed all comers to their camp, regardless of musical style or skill level. A few years ago, Paul and Ruby retired to Oregon. Perhaps it's no coincidence that an official “slow jam” wasn't initiated until after Paul and Ruby stopped attending FDF. Paul and Ruby had fulfilled that need for so many years, encouraging timid novice musicians. Not surprisingly, their camp always claimed several accomplished pickers alongside the beginners, as the Dorris camp was simply a comfortable place to be. After making the rounds of other jams around the festival grounds, it felt like coming home.

Two other couples were among the first to reach out to me in friendship when I was a
newcomer to the CBA. These welcoming folks were Hugh and Sadie Portwood, and John and Alice Bass. I don't know that I ever saw either Hugh or Sadie play an instrument, but they were active as volunteers at every festival I attended over the next few years. Then one year, Sadie was noticeably thinner, and she told me that she had cancer. She was working at a CBA booth when she gave me this sad news. After Sadie passed, Hugh's smiling visage continued to light up the campgrounds for five years until he joined his beloved wife. At some point, he was appointed the CBA's Goodwill Ambassador, the first time I had heard this title bestowed upon anyone.

John and Alice Bass were two of the dearest people I ever met. John took an immediate shine to my son, who, putting it mildly, was something of a rascal. While others including myself threw fits over Jesse's shenanigans, John laughed that Jesse was “being a boy”, and affectionately called him “The General.” Alice was known for her flowery hats and bonnets and bright gingham dresses, as well as the popular workshops she gave on the mountain dulcimer. In 1993, when I purchased my first camping trailer, a tiny 1963 Scotsman, Alice presented me with a “housewarming” gift: a dishcloth tied with yarn in the shape of a pair of britches, with an accompanying poem written in Alice's own hand:

“Now don't get excited and don't be misled
These aren't for you but for your trailer instead
So when you've read this and had my good wishes
Just rip out the yarn and go wash the dishes.”

Alice loved to laugh, and she loved to clog. In her mid-seventies, she was known to kick off her shoes and kick up her heels when the music got good. Somewhere, I have a snapshot I took of Alice Bass, clogging with Walt Beck to an old-time tune.

I first met Walt Beck when he struck up a conversation with me at an early (pre- L. & S.) Plymouth festival. Walt (who reminded me a lot of Will Geer in his role as Grandpa Walton) offered to play a song for me. As he sat there with his shock of long white hair, guitar in hand, and harmonica holder fastened around his neck, I was treated to his spirited rendition of “I Am My Own Grandpa”. Walt left us sometime in the mid-'nineties for that great band in the sky.

The last few years that John Bass attended the festivals with Alice, he was tethered to an oxygen tank, while his faithful wife lamented how John lacked the stamina to get out and about among the festival-goers but couldn't stand the thought of missing Grass Valley. When John became too sick to attend festivals, Alice came to the Plymouth festival from their home in nearby Mokelumne Hill, bedecked in her trademark calico and sunbonnet, to give a dulcimer workshop. John passed in 2001. The last time I saw Alice, at the Fathers Day Festival in 2003, I barely recognized her. She told me that she had been ill. Her voice, once strong, was weak and raspy. Alice succumbed to cancer the following spring.

I'm struck by what a relatively short time it was that these memorable folks and I crossed paths, yet they so endeared themselves to me with their warmhearted goodness, as well as their love for bluegrass music. Hugh, Sadie, John, Alice, Walt, Paul, and Ruby, were all involved in the bluegrass scene for many years before I came on board. I've missed seeing them at festivals, but their legacy of friendship, kindness, and camaraderie remains. One could say that the torch has been passed to those of us who now find ourselves among the older demographic at the festivals. It's understandable that many people feel most comfortable jamming and visiting with longtime friends whom we've come to know over years of attending bluegrass festivals. But I would like to offer a suggestion to everyone as you head out for Grass Valley. Remember how you felt as a “newbie”, and welcome someone new into your picking circle. In doing so, you may be making treasured memories for someone else.

“There are no strangers, only friends you haven't met yet.”
Posted:  6/4/2009

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