Having spent a year in the higher altitudes just south of the Oregon border, on our last trip north to Portland we made a spontaneous turnoff through the sleepy Mennonite settlement of Scio, OR, nestled in the foothills of the Cascade mountains. Where the gently rolling farmland begins to give way to a dense uniformity of conifers, Hungry Hill filters into view, a sight that evokes a wave of happy remembrance. As we drove up the narrow track to the farm, I half-expected Jane—the working border collie who once ran the place—to spring from her command center under the front porch and thoroughly vet the credentials of each and every visitor with military precision. But Jane has done her life’s work, and the place showed every sign of having endured despite her absence.
To the average city-slicker, the farm at Hungry Hill seems like 180 acres of park-like splendor, perhaps just a little tattered around the edges. But it’s still a working sheep farm and the home of a sizable chorus of sheep ready and willing to lament their condition in a characteristically deep basso profundo. Sally and John White moved here in the 1960s and spent the best part of their lives raising four children and living off their land with the reluctant cooperation of the sheep—and their byproducts. This endeavor was not without its trials and troubles, but social music helped them through some of the rough patches, sustaining them as both nourishment and reward.
I first met John & Sally in the late 1970s while they were staffing their stall at the Portland Saturday Market, an open-air market operated by craftspeople for the purpose of selling their wares directly to an appreciative public. Sally and John were the very image of the sort of people I wanted to grow up to be: dressed in richly colored handspun woolen sweaters and caps, surrounded by skeins of beautifully-dyed yarn and hand-woven fabrics, and busily indulging in their folk arts while shoppers were eating it up. At their market stall, John would sit quietly at a spinning wheel making yarn while Sally beamed at passers-by in such a way that you knew stopping in, handling the woolens, and paying good money for something, anything, was simply the right thing to do.
John was the self-contained and calmly quiet type, and you might think he had no opinion to offer until you looked into his deep-set, penetrating eyes that conveyed quite enough confidence for six or seven people. Spinning yarn seemed like the logical and productive thing for him to do as long as they were sitting still in one place for the duration. Spinning the other kind of yarn seemed like an unnecessary use of breath and wear and tear on the vocal cords, but if there was something you wanted to know about the way things worked, you only had to ask and he would answer clearly, concisely and respectfully.
Sally, on the other hand, was one of those rare people who could make you feel as though what you had to say was the most important thing she had heard that day, and the world was a much better place for whatever nonsense you were spewing. Possessing an attractive angular jawline, when Sally smiled the entire sphere around her was illumined by the warm glow. And Sally smiled often, particularly when there was a fiddle tucked under her chin.
A real violinist by training until she quit, either to pursue other interests or to spite her professional-musician father, Sally had all the chops necessary to play whatever she chose. And she chose to play fiddle music, by ear and with people she liked being around. I was lucky enough to be one of those people, and Sally was kind enough to put up with a youngish self-taught fiddler trying on different styles of music. Early on, she kindly asked where I had studied and learned harmony so thoroughly, and I had to respond that I had no training at all. That changed and I eventually pursued a music degree, foolishly thinking it would add substance to my musical intuition. Sally was even kind enough to drive a few hours and perform violin-viola duets with me for my final recital.
Sally enjoyed playing a variety of fiddle music, mainly good tunes that offered opportunities to improvise harmonies. We wound up playing in different ensembles with different people but two constants were Sally’s warm, round violin tone and John’s accompaniment, either his sparsely dependable banjo playing or his archaic, charming and wholly appropriate parlor-style guitar. For several years running, we played a regular restaurant gig, countless weddings and occasional dances. Later, the focus was concentrated almost exclusively on dance music after Sally caught the bug to play Scandinavian fiddle tunes.
David Lamb, a composer of some renown and John & Sally’s long-term friend, was the source of the Scandinavian bug. David is mostly known for his delightful music for saxophones but, having spent some time in Sweden, he took up the fiddle, began collecting traditional tunes, and eventually composed quite a fistful of miniatures in the traditional idiom. Being in the right place at the right time, I was fortunate to imbibe in David’s fiddle tunes nearly before the ink was dry, and performed many of these quirky gems for a monthly Scandinavian dance with Sally and John, who had taken up the fiddle himself.
David’s dedicatory tune, “Sally’s Waltz” (#1) was a favorite that was played nearly every time we cracked open the fiddle cases and rosined the bows. You can hear a snippet of the tune in a recording of fiddle duets David made a few years ago with his daughter, Barbara. I simply cannot think of Sally, her beaming smile and her warm tone, without this charming tune as a soundtrack mind-worm.
Time marches on and all things change. I finished school, moved away and lost touch with John and Sally. In 2004, Donna and I were making that trip from south of the Oregon border to record our first CD, Divine Amarillis, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to make an unannounced detour to Hungry Hill for a last short visit before heading east. Jane, the highly-efficient border collie, had long since gone to her reward, and John’s health had declined to the point that he was in care by then. But Sally was just as warm and hospitable as ever, and she dusted off a spare instrument so we might play a few fiddle duets for old time’s sake. She politely inquired about the current preoccupation with early music, and when I played some atmospheric French lute music and Donna sang a few choice airs, she beamed and made us believe it was truly the most important thing she had heard that day.
John White (1934 – 2005)
Sally White (1937 – 2013)