Sarah Elizabeth Campbell — Former Californian, Songwriter, Performer, & Strawberry Festival Icon
Songwriter, performer, and Strawberry Music Festival icon Sarah Elizabeth Campbell died on December 26, 2013 in Austin, Texas from cancer that developed from a rare form of Hepatitis C to which she had been exposed as a child. She was 60 years old.
She lived in Columbia, CA during the 1970s and 1980s and was a member of the band Fiddlestix, along with Cactus Bob Cole, Chris Stevenson and Dave Cavanagh. The band enjoyed national television success in 1978 on Chuck Barris’ “Gong Show” (and other Barris productions) and was the host band at the Strawberry festival near Yosemite during that event’s first decade. Once, Sarah played the Sunday morning “Revival” at Strawberry as a solo act, first announcing that she “didn’t know any gospel, but here are some good songs you will like.”
Sarah also performed as Sarah Elizabeth Campbell And The Banned, and as a duet with Nina Gerber. Her earliest California band was Deep Water.
Before moving to California in 1972, she lived for a short time in Boston, where she saw two older homeless women on the street. She later penned her song “Geraldine and Ruth Mae” based on that experience. Her most famous song was “Mexico.” Her many songs were recorded by Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum, Jim Messina, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Blue Rose, and others.
“Sayra Liz” was an active participant in early Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society concerts, annual meetings, and other events. Even after her move back home to Texas, she regularly performed at and attended Strawberry and toured and visited friends in California.
In her most memorable Strawberry performance, she appeared on the main stage singing John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” complete with onstage fireworks that briefly threatened to catch her elegant and elaborate angel costume on fire. Her final Strawberry show was on Memorial Day weekend in 2013, when she joined Prine onstage for a duet performance of “Unwed Fathers.”
Since the early 1990s, the writer of many sad, slow songs famously hosted weekly “bummer nights,” starting on Tuesdays at Marcia Ball’s La Zona Rosa club, then on Mondays, first at Artz Rib House, and later at the El Mercado Restaurant, all in Austin. The most recent version was known as “Mystery Monday” With Sarah Elizabeth Campbell & Christine Albert. Her last performance was this regular Monday gig at El Mercado three days before she died, when she performed with mystery guests Butch Hancock & Slaid Cleaves, plus Albert and regular bassist David Carroll.
“The Queen,” as she was known to her music friends, was appreciated for her sometimes bawdy humor, for her enthusiastic enjoyment of life, and for having plenty of fun. Her many good friends have many good stories that are not appropriate for publication here.
Campbell overcame extreme shyness to become a professional performer who cared little for the business of music. A regular feature of her SCBS concerts were not-so-gentle reminders to Sarah from her friends to go ahead and tell the audience about the CDs she had for sale. She released two recorded products “A Little Tenderness” (1986) and “Running With You” (1994).
Her long battle with Hep C and the resulting cancer lasted well over a decade. NCBS held the first of many benefit concerts around the country for her medical bills at the Brookdale Lodge around 2000; the final three such affairs were held over the past month by her friends in Austin, Berkeley, and Columbia.
Sarah Elizabeth Campbell’s mother Sudie Campbell died in 2011. Sarah is survived by her brother Bill Campbell, an Austin-based blues guitarist, and by her sister Marge Morton, the former personal secretary to Lady Bird Johnson. We know that Sarah grew up in Austin as the baby of the family, but her actual birthday is a mystery — since she slyly claimed that it was her birthday at every performance in the belief that her tips would be better.
Campbell’s band will gather on Monday, December 30 at El Mercado for a musical remembrance. A formal memorial will be held in Austin in January.