Q&A with Bernie Waugh ’74
An interview with Bernie Waugh, Dartmouth alumnus and musical guest of many First-Year Trips
On my First-Year Hiking Trip this fall, my group was happily surprised by the visit of Bernie Waugh ’74. Waugh has been playing fiddle for lucky First-Year Trip students for forty years, starting 10 years after he graduated. He came to our cabin and asked us if we would like it if he played the fiddle and guitar for us, even providing us with “Bernie Waugh Songbooks” so we could sing along as we listened to him play or dance the Salty Dog Rag. He is a representation of what the Dartmouth community is like at its best: fun, tight-knit and long-lasting. After decades of proximity to and perspective on the Dartmouth community, Bernie had a lot to say on what the College means to him today.
Tell us a bit about your background, both professionally and in terms of the fiddle.
BW: I grew up mostly in the West: Colorado and New Mexico. Then I came here for school and really have never left, except to go to law school. I am now retired, but I was a municipal lawyer for a long time. For the first part of my career, I was working for a statewide nonprofit group that was made up of all the towns in the state. I did things like teach courses to local officials about how to be a selectman, how to be a planning board member — that kind of thing. Then in the latter part, I've been in a small firm in Lebanon.
In terms of fiddle-playing, I have taken violin lessons since I was in fifth grade. When I was [at Dartmouth], a classmate of mine who was from Amherst, N.H. had done contra dancing and was trying to start a contra band here at the College. I started playing for this guy in the basement of the Church of Christ over on College Street, which is when I really got into fiddle playing.
What was your First-Year Trip like?
BW: We started at the Sawyer Pond Trail. It's on the far side of the Kancamagus Highway, and on the second day we went over the top of Mount Carrigain and camped at Desolation Shelter. In fact, Desolation Shelter is the first place I did one of these musical raids on a trip. Ten years after graduation, I had learned that a trip was being led there by two chemistry professors that I knew — one of whom I had for class and the other one I knew because he played the piano and I’d been playing chamber music. So I went in there — which was quite a ways, it’s a good 12-mile round trip. They were astounded that I wanted to do that. Anyway, it was fun. And I have been doing it ever since.
Do you always have a good experience doing these raids?
BW: I would say almost always. Well, I’ll give you two exceptions. One was maybe four years ago. I just went up to Moose Mountain Shelter. It was pretty obvious that whoever the leaders were were not being very successful at being leaders. They couldn’t get their group to start fixing their dinner. I think they were trying to be more sergeant-like about it. Anyway, I finally did announce why I was there, but I ended up not even playing anything because they were just a little disorganized.
Then the other one was very strange. I went up to Franconia Brook campsite, which is maybe two and a half miles in, and the group had gone over to Franconia Falls, because that’s a nice place to swim. They had left their backpacks in the place they were going to camp. There was somebody else at that campground who was just incensed at the fact that they had left their backpacks, because it was attracting bears, according to him. For some reason he got the idea that I was some kind of chaperone. So he started angrily confronting me about all of this, and he wouldn’t let up. I did end up playing some music when they returned, but I got out of there pretty quickly afterwards.
What drives you to want to keep doing these music raids all these years?
BW: Oh, I don’t know, it’s fun. I think that first-year students on their trips are probably more open-minded than almost any other time in their lives. They’re up for anything. I really believe in folk music, and by that I mean music that is performed by people who have no expectation of either being paid or applauded. In other words, it’s a group thing, and you don't have to be good enough to be on TV or whatever. I’ve always gotten positive reviews.
Have you noticed any changes in Dartmouth students over the years?
BW: When I first came here as a student it was the early ’70s, we had just gone through a period of civil rights movements, the civil rights laws being passed, all the anti-war crusades during the Vietnam era and so forth. There was this overall sense that real equality was right around the corner in society — and I don’t think that’s there anymore. The wealth gap has just kept getting worse instead of better. So I don't think that there’s this underlying sense of optimism.
Here’s an example from when I was a student. There was a lot of social pressure not to wear clothes that showed off your wealth, you know? Everybody wore cutoffs, jeans and stuff like that. Then in the late ’70s, that started to change. I don’t know what it is now, because I don’t talk to students that much. But I sense that from what I read in various things, that there is still this concern about students who come from wealthy backgrounds versus those that don’t.
Why do you think you are always so welcomed on these trips?
BW: This college has a very long tradition of having alumni as part of the community. And undergraduates are usually fairly open to that. I think that’s great. When I was a student, I was playing chamber music with members of the faculty who were all over sixty. I had a great time. I think one of the things that distinguishes Dartmouth from a lot of other places is that the social environment in the Upper Valley is different from the social environment of, say, Yale or Princeton. I’ve always tried to do things that encourage students to get out into the community, you know, to go contra dancing and stuff like that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
This article was updated (Oct. 12, 12:22 p.m.).