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Coffins and Cases

The first guitar that I bought I picked up from a pawn shop/second hand store just on the other side of the Bourne Bridge, on the Mass Maritime Academy end of Route 6. Someone or another had told me that they sold cheap guitars there and I headed off-Cape across the bridge to see what I might make out. The shop itself was a big closed door barn-sized swap meet at the beginning of the Route 6 commercial corridor, selling the second-hand detritus of a community. The kind of place where you went to find things you didn't know you were looking for before you could just search for them in an internet browser and order them like kid wizard magic.

True enough, the shop sold guitars, but the breadth of the selection was limited to one model—a 40 dollar heavy toneless Chinese made plywood box. The strings of the guitar rested about three quarters of an inch into the air over the two by four it had for a neck, or perhaps more appropriately evocative, over its arm, as they call this part of a guitar in Portugal. My left hand starts to cramp up at just the memory of that thing.

Back during the great depression, a WPA work project was initiated to provide land crossings for people and freight over the 17-mile expanse of the Cape Cod canal. The canal had been built in 1916, to help maritime traffic along the eastern seaboard to avoid coming aground on the hidden sandbars—the fate of thousands of (documented) ships over the years attempting to round the Cape in stormy weather.

Living on the Cape is already like living on an island, but during the twenty or so years that there was a canal and no bridge, the Cape really was an island. When he was a teenager, my grandfather worked to put up the last of the three art-deco, erector set castle bridges that one must cross to leave or arrive on the water locked peninsula: One is a majestic lift-bridge for trains that used to lower and raise to the ground transporting passengers and goods. The bridge still occasionally operates for freight, but the rails coming down into my town have been paved over and turned into bicycle trails. There are also two car bridges. The Sagamore Bridge leads along the north shore to Plymouth and Boston along Massachusetts Bay, and the Bourne Bridge is on the Buzzards Bay side, providing access to the Cape for those along the southwesterly progression, through the islands, bays and inlets across to Mattapoiset, New Bedford, Fall River and Providence.

Back in the day, the only way to cross over to my side of the Cape across the dangerously narrow Bourne Bridge was to drive along Route 6 through Wareham, which would choke with traffic during the summertime. For those of us who lived there and left the Cape on the weekend, the road was pretty clear, but for tourists coming on Cape on late Friday afternoon, Route 6 would turn into a parking lot during the drive. Restaurants and shops along the route made their lifeblood from the cars bringing incidental window shoppers. When the highway bypass was completed, the traffic left Route 6 and the shops that didn’t have a winter-time clientele mostly went out of business.

I haven’t been in that corner of Route 6 since well before I started living in Portugal, but I know that the pawn shop/second hand store where I bought the guitar survived the building of the bypass, and given the nature of the business they conduct there, I wouldn’t bet against it surviving the internet or the hard time depression that hit that region when it hit all the rest of us everywhere else, too. I learned how to play guitar chords on that first Chinese acoustic and had it for long enough to learn that I needed a better guitar if I wanted to learn more about playing the instrument.

There were musicians among my relatives, and I heard my first live music when my uncles and grandfather played guitar, mandolin and accordion at family gatherings where we all lived on what was once my grandparents’ strawberry farms. The three of them spoke a secret language through the songs they played, how they manipulated those machines with their fingers. One of my uncles, Gil, had a rare and beautiful collection of guitars, an appreciation deepened by the fact that he was an amateur luthier who had built several stringed instruments himself, including guitars, a violin and a mandolin. Among his collection were a 1970s Gibson Hummingbird with a custom made neck, a pre-war Dobro, a 1956 Les Paul electric with 1956 matching amplifier, a stable of Martin guitars—including a triple-O, a double-O, and a D-28—and a small Taylor backpacker, which he used after the arthritis seized his hands and eventually made it too difficult to finger chords on the bigger and heavier of his instruments for longer than fifteen minutes at a time.

His Dobro was one of my favorite instruments, a resonator, a heavy wood guitar fronted by a metal pan, that produces sound when the strings vibrate through a big cone of thinly coiled aluminum in the sound hole. Louder than a simple wooden acoustic, the resonator was invented in the 1920s in California to help the guitar be heard over the din of instruments in larger orchestra arrangements. The concept of the Dobro is similar to the thin paper cone that amplifies sound in a stereo speaker—though without the extra kick of power provided by the electricity.

The instrument’s inventor, John Dopyera had learned his luthier’s craft from his father in Dolna Krupa, Slovakia, before migrating to America and setting up shop in California. After engineering the resonator with the National Guitar Company, Dopyera had a rift over the direction of the business and the instrument’s design and left to found the Dobro Manufacturing Company with his brothers, calling the resonator guitar they made a Dobro, which means “good” in the Slavic languages of the Balkans. Later, the two manufacturing firms would merge before splitting again, with Gibson guitars eventually coming to own the Dobro trademark.

My uncle told me he got his Dobro in the late seventies, when a friend rescued it from the town dump and offered it to him as a gift. The instrument was in just horrible condition when he received it. The tin resonator pan cover was askew and falling loose from the body, while the neck was bent in a looping curve and broken at the headstock.

He took the thing apart, removing the pan and steaming off the neck, amazed that the paper thin metal resonator cone was yet in perfect condition, despite the trauma to the rest of the instrument. He then used the broken headstock as a model to create a modified replica of the original, which he cut and shaped, affixing it back onto a now straightened neck. He tightened braces, bridges, and screws both inside and out, making the guitar playable once again.

With the pan and cone taken out, and the guitar all open and in pieces, my uncle noticed a a small folded piece of paper that had been jammed into the junction between the heel of the neck that must have come loose when it was steamed off. The way the wood had been cut, he told me, the heel was not fitting cleanly, so someone had improvised a wedge from a double-folded, heavy square of card stock and jammed it into the joint to stabilize the angle and allow the neck to be glued flush into place.

He pulled out the paper and unfolded it, revealing it as a business card. When he read the card, he said the name printed along the crease was “John Dopyera” including a Los Angeles address.

A good story that never happened will tell the truth as much as a number, but as a phenomenologist my credulity was not won over.

“You have to show me the card,” I begged him, asking to see the chagas.

My uncle said it wasn’t possible, or at least not very easy.

“What happened to the card then?" I asked.

“Well, you know after I fixed up the guitar and tried to seal the neck back onto the body, the heel wasn’t sitting right, so I figured the only way to get it to fit would be to fold the card back up and put it back into the joint like it was to balance the angle. I could show you the card, but would have to open the guitar up and steam off the neck again in order to fish it out.”

My uncle also had a late 1960s Hummingbird, which he liked to say he got for a song up in Boston, as it was originally purchased on a two-year layaway by someone else, who, with two months remaining on his 24-installment payment plan, had flat out disappeared. In the shop they speculated that he had been drafted into the army and must have been killed or gone MIA in Vietnam; others surmised that the guy went to hide in Canada and stayed; or had tuned in and dropped out and had travelled across America to the west coast.

Whatever the reason, he had never come back and the Boston shop keeper had tired after years of waiting for the final installments. In a moment of spontaneous frustration he offered to sell my uncle the Hummingbird for a one-time payment of the outstanding balance.

I suppose it could have been sold at full price to someone else for whatever a Hummingbird was going for at the time, but I like to imagine that the shopkeeper’s old New Englander sense of square-dealing and belief in cosmic balance made him atone for giving up on the musician who never returned by disposing of his instrument in as fair a way as possible. He just wanted to clear the books of the balance of the promised sale and wasn’t interested in anything additional from the bargain.


My Uncle Gil grew up in the middle of the last century, and sure, he listened to the kind of Azorean folk music that migrants played at feasts among themselves that could be and can still be heard in the towns into which they had settled in New England. But he really came to play guitar when he was drafted into the US Army.

Whether he was training in the south, or serving along the West Berlin side of the Wall, he was always around a lot of guys from the southern part of the US. For someone who grew up in a New England town when he did, the southern United States may as well have been in Thailand despite being another region in the same country. World War II and its aftermath took America outside of itself and brought the country to the world, but the war, as all wars do everywhere, brought the world to reconfigure what the GI's called home when they returned. The deep south became an explored India for my uncle, with his interest in the culture centered around music, developing a taste for bluegrass and old time country. He even ended up marrying a distant cousin of Jesse James from Arkansas after the two met while she was spending the summer visiting her brother on the Cape, who was on active duty at an area military base.

While stationed down south and later serving in Germany on the front lines of his generation’s Cold War, my uncle played music in bands with fellow servicemen, most of whom were from the south and Appalachia.After his military service he continued performing some on the Cape, mostly in bars and at beach parties, and toward the end of his life, he played guitar and violin in some great town string ensembles. But once he got married and started raising children, he stopped playing music pretty much anywhere but at family gatherings.

Whether you are in New England or Europe, there are any number of preconceptions about hillbilly sonorities, but people who know anything at all about music in either place will recognize that many of the great string virtuosi of early and mid-twentieth century music (not to mention today) can be found playing this style of North American folk and roots, music spread out from a tree emanating in Appalachia. At home, my uncle was always plucking out catchy and jangly bluegrass chord changes and melodic lines—music rooted in the centuries, brought and nurtured by migrants from across the Atlantic, echoing older Irish, Welsh and English ballads, seasoned on African rhythms and tonalities. This mountain music from West Virginia and the Tennessee Hills made its way north to me in New England, in part, via a military base in Germany.

Whatever kind of music was being played on them, my uncle’s guitars produced some beautiful tones. Delicate and rare woods aged over time, deep body and unique personalities in the timbre, even the tonal quirks only made them the more distinctive. My uncle had a deep appreciation for the aurally aesthetic qualities of his prized possessions—appreciating them at the level of someone who played music, which as with any other art, is experienced at a different if not more profound level than by someone who only experiences art without knowing how to produce it. In my uncle’s case however, he also appreciated his instruments as one immersed in the knowledge and craft of the science and engineering behind their construction and how they produced sounds.

No doubt my uncle enjoyed his rare instruments for how they played, but what really got him buzzed, was that the quality and craftsmanship of his guitars, their provenance and the tones produced by them, made them worth a proper fortune—especially to a man of as reasonable means as he was. Given that his valuation of their aesthetic qualities could not be separated from their financial worth, he was ultimately tight-fisted about protecting the guitars from anything that would diminish their monetary value. Over his life he did what he could to keep his collection in still-in-the-package pristine condition, rarely allowing anyone to play his guitars, especially his children and nephew.

Even he rarely played the more valuable of his instruments, often muttering about scratches and worrying about damage. The very qualities that made them so rare and valuable, that made them such a joy to listen to and to play, was, for my uncle, a reason they should be left in their boxes.

He did eventually relax some about letting me play as he saw my skills improve, but on the rare occasions he would take one of his guitars out, the ritual was pretty much always some version of the same: he would make sure your hands were clean, he would caution you about your belt buckle hitting against the back of the body and would make you roll up your sleeve on your strum arm, so your shirt buttons wouldn’t clack against the wood and plastic scratch board. He was the one to open the case and take the guitar out, placing it in your hands while he locked eyes with you, a look admonishing delicate caution—like in the summertime blockbuster virus outbreak movies, when the famous actor in the hazmat suit hands over a clear corked test tube to that other less famous actor who you know isn’t going to make it to the end of the film.

Further, he would always have to be present when one was played, and would never let you take a guitar home or hold onto it for any amount of time. There were only a couple of occasions that this rule was broken. One occurred a few months before he ended up dying, when he loaned me his daily playing Martin, the triple-O, to play at my sister’s wedding, and I was able to keep it for a few days afterwards. Technically he was also at the wedding, but, as he left it with me when he went home and I took it out of the case myself and played it when he wasn’t there, it counts as a rare exception.

Exclusive to his usual caution, he was also pretty generous about freely loaning the Dobro, which I kept from time to time for months, and even played in a couple of shows. Given how much the financial worth of his guitars factored into how he treated them, the ease with which he loaned out the Dobro always made me a little suspect of that whole folded business card inside the body story. But who knows, my uncle was anything but an uncomplicated man, and it may well have been just like him to have the only guitar that he let loose be the most valuable one. On the other hand, it may just be the one puzzle piece that if I ever do work it out, will unravel my whole analysis about him here.

When he died at the end of a slow steady decline from a broken heart after losing his wife to cancer several years earlier, his children and grandchildren divvied up his collection of instruments among them. I suppose by not letting anyone touch them over the years, my uncle was able to leave a substantial herança to his kids. The guitars certainly would have gotten banged and dinged up, and god knows what else, had they been frequently played, because that’s what happens when you take an instrument out of its case.

But a guitar does no one any good laying in a box. Even my uncle himself would tell you that it's not even good for the guitar, because wood needs to resonate in order to open. The reason those pre-WW II American craft made acoustic guitars sound the way they do is in part materials and how they were built, but is as much because the heavy braces—to which the the thin veneer of wood on the top of the guitar is held and stabilized—have loosened up from time and the repeated vibration of having been played over so many years, allowing the guitar to breathe a richer tone.

Except for that daily playing guitar, however, my uncle sheltered his collection in cases, locked in his workshop down in his musty basement. Tucked away and snapped shut, so many velvet-lined coffins in the dark.

As it goes, it’s sure true, a guitar won’t get scratched lying in a case.

But then again, no one is going to dance to the music it makes either.

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