It was nineteen fifty-eight A D when it all started. Assigning blame is easy enough: My sister had no malice in her heart when she did it. She even asked me what I thought about the idea. I agreed to it. The question was wonderful for all it promised. I can remember it even today.
“ If I bought you a guitar would you learn to play it? “
It was a Christmas present. It was beyond my wildest expectations. There is no way to explain what this meant to me. It changed my life I fell in love with the life at that particular point was chaotic. I had a severe case of excitement addiction along with typical adolescent lack of control. I had all the judgment of a typical sixteen year old: that of a mature hamster. Too much is not enough was my motto. My grades were terrible, I combed my hair into a D A, wore my pants “falling off my ass” (my father’s phrase), couldn’t dance, had trouble talking to girls, was convinced that I was a loser, had criminals for friends and had only escaped being arrested and incarcerated due to the grace of an incredibly loving Heavenly Father who had seen fit to protect me.
Still, the prospect of an actual musical instrument was enough to wake me up. When I was eleven or so I heard Carl Perkins play “ Blue Suede Shoes “ When I heard the hook during the intro, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It was way cool. Carl Perkins. He was the man. Growing up my family listened to lots of country music except that back then it was called “ Hillbilly Music” not “ Country and Western”. This was in the days before political correctness. Lefty Frizzel, Hank Snow Hank Locklin, Gene Autry, Vernon Dalhart, Hank Williams, Pie Plant Pete, The Missouri Fox Hunters, we knew ‘em all. Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, I mean ALL of them. Green back dollar, I’m a Bum, The prisoner’s song, Lovesick Blues, Red Wing, Letter Edged in Black, plus assorted Irish ditties learned at my grampa’s knee and other low joints. I mean music.
I loved music even as a child but this was something different. When I was in kindergarten I heard something similar when a duo of bell ringers came in to entertain us. The tinkling of the bells was wonderful! I had the same feeling listening to a guy play the guitar. It was a new level of experience.
I also listened to James Burton who played with Rick, (don’t call me Ricky I’m grown) Nelson. I read somewhere he lived on the Nelson ranch. My sister bought me a guitar. I didn’t know where to start. I was in ecstasy. I wanted to be a rockabilly juvenile delinquent but my parents weren’t having a bit of it. Well, they tried. There is just something about listening to Gene Vincent that makes me want to steal hubcaps even today. That’s not to mention the Burnett brothers who used to write for Rick Nelson. Peggy Sue, Buddy Holly, and a whole list of one hit wonders. My dad sang all the time. Mostly hillbilly music from the thirties along with wonderful hymns. There was lots of music in that house.
America was still in the death grip of the bread man back in those days and we had one. He worked for Wonder Bread and once told my mother he was going to make ten thousand dollars a year delivering bread. This at a time when a tool and die maker made about half that. Crazy or not he helped me tune that gem. The first thing I learned was to play a boogie-woogie riff in the key of F. The rest of it came slowly. Very slowly.
I soon found that learning to play the guitar was as good an escape as reading. I was not good at much with the exception of causing lots of trouble. I felt like I lacked social skills with girls. I had a first class case of testosterone poisoning. I was obsessed with girls but could not talk to them without making an ass of myself. At least that’s how it felt.
I didn’t bother with books or any niceties like that. I just went into my bedroom and proceeded to whack away at the poor guitar. I eventually sold it for money. The neck had come loose and there was no one to fix it for me. I then bought a genuine Silvertone with money I earned working one summer. I got it in the catalogue department. I took lesions at the local fine arts center and learned that some guys play with picks and some guys play with their fingers and fingers are better at least for me. I needed a capo and didn’t know where to get one so I made one out of a muffler clamp and some plywood. It was slow to change but very effective. I needed a 5/16 wrench to change the position of it. This is all my sister’s fault, mind you.
Music was all such a mystery back then. How could the Everly Brothers get that sound out of the instrument? I went into Simon’s music store and played his expensive Gibsons and he didn’t even throw me out. Thirty five years later his family asked me to play at his funeral. I cannot tell you all that that man did for me over the years. I used to listen to his records and then learn the songs on his guitars. I remember taking an album by Joan Baez into a listening room and almost crying when I heard her voice. I listened to Leadbelly and Eddie Cochrane. I listened to Duane Eddy and well all those guys. I listened to the folk groups and the banjo players. I listened to Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe. It was great. This was all my sister’s fault.
A terrible thing happened about 1959, I heard and saw a 12-string guitar. A guy came on a local TV show and played “ Nobody knows you when You’re Down and Out”. It knocked my socks off. I loved the roar of that instrument. My slide to the bottom was now in overdrive or freewheeling. I had to have one. It took a while and some more stuff but it finally happened.
I discovered the blues and ragtime and Mexican music and Tejano and Norteno and western swing and I was off and running.
I found all kinds of guitar players but the ones who affected me the most were the ragtimers who played finger style. The style was called grand standing. It was something, let me tell you. This was all my sister’s fault. Without her I never would have discovered Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Robert Johnson, Mance Lipscomb, Jesse “ Lone Cat “ Fuller, Dick Rossmini, Dave “ Snaker “ Ray, or my personal hero, Blind Willie McTell. The list could go on forever. I played a Gibson 12 string in Edsel Pfabe’s music store one day. My brother and I had dragged my mother to Cleveland to look through pawnshops and she went! Willingly! I still remember how it smelled and felt and most of all sounded. The smell of a new guitar case is something I can never forget. It had that Gibson pink interior. It had power and finish and was strung all wrong. Today it would not meet my standards but my synapses were fresh and unjaded. I loved it. As I write this I am overwhelmed. There is a joy in music which we cannot put into words. It is what the religious folks call pietism. This internal experience. This is why music is called the highest of the arts. It is sound but stands mute when we try to describe the internal feeling that it stirs. This is also my sister’s fault, this beautiful memory.
I’ve spent lots of money on musical instruments and never gotten any of it back. Vega, Gibson, Goya, Banzer, Harmony, Kay, Washburn, Stella, Silvertone, Nameless imported junk, Epiphone, Yairi and a few more names I cannot currently recall. Heck, I even owned a Martin or two.
Mandolins, banjos, fiddles, mandola, penny whistles, assorted harmonica, a couple of drums and various sound reinforcement systems, finger picks and capos along with lots of strings. I even owned a lap steel Supro at one time. I paid a whole ten dollars for it. Never could play a lick on it. Sometimes my family would ask, “ Why did he spend all that money on that guitar? He could have bought a nice suit or something.” My sister’s reply was, “ Because he has his priorities in order." I loved them all but I only have a few of them now. You get the point. They come and go but I like them all.
I have had several guitars made for me and now no longer feel the need to have that done. I just want a good instrument to play. If I could find a model with built in talent I would buy it.
Don Banzer was a guy from Wichita, Kansas who moved to Ashtabula because the National Guard unit here didn’t have new equipment and therefore was unlikely to be called up to go to Vietnam. His unit in Kansas had lots of new shinny stuff. He had the feeling they were going and he liked life in the States. He had fallen in love with the guitar a few years before this and eventually turned to making them. He started with classical guitars and then talked me into letting him build one for him. What does this have to do with my sister, you might ask? I’ll tell you what.
When Don was building this guitar I learned a good bit about Hungarian cooking. You see, he had married a girl from Hungary and I spent so much time at their house that Agi started feeding me like I was the family cat or something. They fed me so much, he could have claimed me on his income tax. It was “ nem yo “ as the Hunkeys say. Not good. This is also my sister’s fault as he fed me so much that he couldn’t have made any money on the deal.
He got the wood from a local guy who had some black walnut from a tree on the family property. He bought an axe handle that was hickory and used it to reinforce the mahogany neck. He got the wood for the top by going through an entire load of redwood boards at a local lumberyard. It had lots wrong with it cosmetically but it had soul. Lots and lots of soul. I wrote my first song on that guitar. It was full of angst. I am embarrassed at the sentimentality in it when I think of it today. He built me three more but today I only have the one. It is enough, I think. I love that instrument as much for the man who built it as for the instrument itself. I took it with me to Nova Scotia. I was a hero up there. A hero, I tell you! But not for long. I came back from vacation and all was normal.
I’ve met lots of interesting people due to music. I lived in Frisco back in the sixties and didn’t have the brains to go meet Jesse Lone Cat Fuller. Nuff said. I missed the one guy who was my hero. Well, Blind Willie McTell is really but most musicians won’t go to a séance and I would have to because he’s dead.
I finally found a way to get even with the help of my friend Don. He had access to lots of instruments and got me a tremendous deal on an auto harp. It was an Oscar Schmidt as I recall. I got it for my sister. It worked, too. Like a wino is attracted to port or Thunderbird (an aperitif wine if there ever was one) my sister has been drawn into the world of wooden containers with strings on them into which you pour money which you will only get back if you live to be Methuselah and it becomes an antique. She has also started hanging out with dulcimer players. She now has three instruments. She has traveled great distances to spend money on these instruments. She goes to festivals. She knows what it is like to struggle with technique and tuning and an instrument that needs to be exorcised or decontaminated. I am certain she has looked at an instrument and considered throwing as one would a discus, being careful not to step outside the ring and hoping the trash container would not tip over when the beast landed in it. But then the ultimate happened.
Her most recent instrument was built for her. I don’t know what you call guys who make autoharps (and don’t say Oscar Schmidt, either) but she had discussions about chords and where they should be and major and minor and all kinds of Autoharp stuff.
I just know they sound like a cross between bells and harps and grand pianos. I reckon she is having about as much fun as a person can without breaking the law but we are still not even.
There is no way I could begin to approximate what she did for me. Music will get you through tough times and loneliness and fear and joy and what ever might ail you at any given time. I got to play at George Simon’s funeral at his family’s request. I got to play at Don’s going away party too. When we were leaving the cemetery one of the other pallbearers said to me “ Well, there goes my lifetime guarantee on that guitar he built me.”
How could there be more than that? I’ve played at weddings and the results were mixed. Sometimes there is a divorce, sometimes not. But it is all thanks to my sister with whom I shall never be even when it comes to the joy she inadvertently brought me.
Sitting in my mother’s kitchen about two years before she died, I was playing “ The Fields Behind the Plow”, a song about planting crops. My mother said to me, “ I’m glad you have had music in your life because it is such a source of comfort to you.” I didn’t think to tell her all this but I am certain she knows.
Thanks, Kay. Thanks, Mom.