Hanging Tree Guitars: The Wood's 'Not Good, Not Bad, Not Ugly — Just Strange'

Sep 13, 2020
Originally published on September 13, 2020 12:26 pm

A new book and museum exhibition celebrate the work of North Carolina luthier Freeman Vines. His handmade guitars are crafted from found materials and hunks of old wood, including some from a tree once used for a lynching.

"There was something about that wood that was mental, spiritual," Vines says.

It made him uneasy working with the black walnut – acquired from an elderly white man, something that had likely been passed down as a memento.

"Working with that wood was a spiritual thing," he says. "Not good, not bad, and not ugly. But just strange."

Photographs of the guitars and Vines' story are the subject of the book Hanging Tree Guitars which features photographs by Timothy Duffy, president of the Music Maker Relief Foundation – a group that provides aid for aging musicians.

Duffy spent five years visiting Vines, now 78, and taking pictures of the artist and his guitars.

"These are modern, contemporary art sculptures, hidden as guitars," Duffy says.

Duffy uses a style of photography that was popular in the late 19th century – the tin-type, which uses chemicals on a sheet of metal to capture an image. The technique yielded a striking cover photo for the book. Vines is sitting in a field with some of his guitars strung on a frame overhead.

"Every image means something," Duffy says. "There's a guitar African mask, a death mask guitar. There's a guitar that looks like a leaf. There's a guitar that looks like a teardrop."

Freeman Vines' Death Mask guitar.
Timothy Duffy

Vines works from a drugstore turned studio in downtown Fountain – a 3-block stretch tucked amid tobacco fields in rural eastern North Carolina. On my visit, the gray-bearded Vines was wearing a surgical mask and struggling with a flareup of gout in his foot.

His latest project is a guitar made out of wood from a 100-year old piano.

"That wood has a life in it," Vines says. "And when you recreate an instrument on it, it comes alive."

He cleans the wood with a wire brush, shapes the body of the guitar, and scoops out portions to get high and low tones.

"I toned the wood with sound chambers," he explains, tapping on the wood to hear the result.

Timothy Duffy's enlarged photo of Freeman Vines' unfinished guitars hanging in Vines' workroom.
Debbie Elliott

Vines plays guitar himself and started making instruments in the 1950s, selling them to other musicians around the South. He peppers his conversation with "John Brown" this and "John Brown" that as a euphemism.

"I used to be a bad cursing guy — had what they call a foul mouth," he says. "I have substituted words like that there."

Like when he describes how he brings out the wood grain in his "hanging tree" guitars:

"That was already in the wood. All I did was complement it. Scrape the John Brown dirty bark and stuff around it and there it was."

He could begin to see the outlines of what the guitar should look like.

"The more you scraped it off, the more you could see the design in there," Vines says. "They don't sound exactly like nary instrument I ever messed with. Not an eerie sound, not a comfortable sound, but just a sound. Hard to explain. Won't get into that though because it's too deep."

Born to a sharecropping family, Vines says he was rough as young man desperate to escape the tobacco fields. He worked at times as a bounty hunter, a job he describes as "harvesting people." And, as a bootlegger, for which he did time in the penitentiary. There he learned to read starting with a Captain Marvel comic book, having no formal education beyond the third grade.

In the Hanging Tree Guitars book, Vines says, "The college I went to is spelled C-H-A-I-N G-A-N-G."

In his studio, Vines tells the story of how he first learned to play guitar as a child – not altogether a pleasant memory.

"Old white guy used to make me tote his fishing poles and his shotgun. I didn't have but one choice - whooped to death or whooped to death," he recalls.

"Scared of him. Then one day he brung a raggedy guitar down there — a Martin. He made me call it Mr. Martin."

The man taught him to play "Wildwood Flower," the old folk song made famous by the Carter family. Vines says his friends laughed and called it hillbilly music but he says it was not that far from the blues, playing a riff he says is nothing but "Wildwood Flower" slowed down.

Freeman Vines is full of stories but he clams up when pressed on the one behind the hanging tree.

"Don't want me hear nothing else about it," he says, shaking his head. "I don't want to know no more about it because I live around here."

Vines says there's a certain side of the fence you know not to go on, even today nearly 90 years after that lynching.

Fear lingers, according to Timothy Duffy.

"That's the culture of silence when you don't talk about it. That keeps it invisible, keeps it in the past."

Duffy and his colleagues looked deeper into the story of the wood. It led them to rural Wilson county, down a gravel road amid soybean fields.

"If you look back that way, where we turned in by the road, is where Oliver Moore's house was," says Aaron Greenhood with Music Maker Relief Foundation, taking shade under a sprawling tree branch in the sweltering summer heat.

"That's where the lynching tree was: just out front of his house," he says.

Oliver Moore was a Black tenant farmer and shoe repairman who was accused of raping the white landowner's daughters. He was arrested but a white mob abducted him from the Tarboro jail and took him back home.

"They hung him from the tree in front of his house," Greenhood says. "His family was supposed to be inside." Moore's hanging body was then riddled with bullets.

The lynching was reported in North Carolina newspapers in 1930, but since then the details have been buried.

Now they're included in the new exhibition, "Freeman Vines: Hanging Tree Guitars," at the Greenville Museum of Art.

Freeman Vines' guitars hanging in the Greenville Museum of Art.
Debbie Elliott

Vines guitars are displayed on the walls, along with interpretive material about rural African-American life in North Carolina under Jim Crow, including the Moore lynching.

"People are still being killed today," says museum executive director Trista Reis Porter. "So you can kind of see that immediate, that direct connection of history to current life."

At the center of the room, Vines guitars hang from rafters in the ceiling.

"Sometimes people need to be shocked," says Reis Porter. "I think that that's kind of a role that museums and art can really play in kind of helping people really be confronted with the reality of something so, so difficult and traumatic."

She hopes it helps people reflect on how that trauma continues to affect people today.

Freeman Vines' sculpture in tribute to Oliver Moore, though Vines has inscribed "Alvin."
Debbie Elliott

Freeman Vines, who rarely leaves his studio, got to see his guitars on display at the museum before the show opened to the public. It made him feel good he says, but he didn't let on because he didn't want anyone to think it was going to his head.

"I tried to not let folks know really how happy I was cause then they'd say, 'he's winking and dying, getting weak looking at a museum,'" says Vines. "So I kept my front up, hid behind it."

The "Hanging Tree Guitars" exhibition, which also includes some of Freeman Vines' sculpture, has just opened at the Greenville Museum of Art and runs through December. Shows are also planned in Winston-Salem and Portsmouth, Virginia.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now we're going to meet an artist who is having his first museum exhibition and accompanying book at the age of 78. NPR's Debbie Elliott took a trip down to North Carolina and sent us this story.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Freeman Vines makes guitars from found materials and hunks of old wood, including some from a tree once used for a lynching.

FREEMAN VINES: There was something about that wood that was mental, spiritual.

ELLIOTT: Vines says he was uneasy working with the black walnut acquired from an elderly white man, something that had likely been passed down as a memento.

VINES: And working with that wood, it was a spiritual thing. Not good, not bad and not ugly but just strange.

ELLIOTT: Photographs of the guitars and Vines's story are the subject of the new book "Hanging Tree Guitars" featuring photographs by Tim Duffy, president of the Music Maker Relief Foundation - a group that provides aid for aging musicians.

TIM DUFFY: These are modern contemporary art sculptures hidden as guitars.

ELLIOTT: Duffy spent five years making tintype pictures of Vines and his guitars. It's a style of photography that was popular in the late 19th century using chemicals on a sheet of metal to capture an image. The technique yielded a striking cover photo for the book. Vines is sitting in a field with some of his guitars strung on a frame overhead.

DUFFY: It's his whole life work. Every image means something. There's a guitar, African mask, a death mask guitar. There's a guitar that looks like a leaf. There's a guitar that looks like a teardrop.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vines works from a drugstore-turned-studio in downtown Fountain, a three-block stretch tucked amid tobacco fields in rural eastern North Carolina.

VINES: Might not be able to get too close in there.

ELLIOTT: On my visit, the gray-bearded Vines was wearing a mask and struggling with a flare-up of gout in his foot.

VINES: I ain't know where I put it at now.

ELLIOTT: He shows me his latest project, a guitar made out of wood from a 100-year-old piano.

VINES: Let's see now - oh, her daddy go right there (ph). That wood has got - it has a life in it. And when you recreate an instrument on it, it comes alive.

ELLIOTT: He cleans the wood with a wire brush, shapes the body of the guitar and scoops out portions to get different tones.

VINES: And I tone the wood with sound chambers. If you listen, you can hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING WOOD)

VINES: That's the light side of it, so we had to go with the heavier side now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING WOOD)

ELLIOTT: Vines plays guitar himself and started making instruments in the 1950s, selling them to other musicians around the South. He peppers his conversation with John Brown this and John Brown that as a euphemism.

VINES: I used to be a bad cursing guy, had what they call a foul mouth. And I have substituted words like that right there.

ELLIOTT: Like when he describes how he brings out the wood grain in his hanging tree guitars.

VINES: Yeah, that was already in the wood. All I did was complement it. Scrape the John Brown dirty bark and stuff around it and there it was.

ELLIOTT: Vines says he was rough as a young man, working at times as a bounty hunter and a bootlegger, for which he did time in the penitentiary. There, he learned to read, having no formal education beyond the third grade. He tells the story of how he first learned to play guitar as a child, not altogether a pleasant memory.

VINES: Yeah, a white guy used to make me tote his fishing poles and his shotgun. I didn't have but one choice, whooped to death or whooped to death. Scared of him. Then one day he brung a raggedy guitar down there, a Martin. He made you call it Mr. Martin. Later on, he learned me how to play "Wildwood Flower."

ELLIOTT: The old folk song made famous by The Carter Family.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CARTER FAMILY SONG, "WILDWOOD FLOWER")

ELLIOTT: Vines says his friends laughed and called it hillbilly music. But he says it was not that far from the blues.

VINES: I heard a guy when he hit this chord right here. (Playing guitar). I said, dang, that's "Wildwood Flower" slowed down. Then I learned - later on, I go and learned this right here then. (Playing guitar). I said dang. Then added it up. Heard Jimmy Reed one time. (Playing guitar).

ELLIOTT: Freeman Vines is full of stories, but he clams up when pressed on the story behind the hanging tree.

VINES: Don't want to hear nothing else about it.

ELLIOTT: Vines says there's a certain side of the fence you know not to go on, even today, nearly 90 years after that lynching. Tim Duffy says fear lingers.

DUFFY: And that's the culture of silence. When you don't talk about it, that is not a good thing. That's what keeps it invisible, keeps it in the past.

ELLIOTT: Duffy and his colleagues looked deeper into the story of the wood. Aaron Greenhood with Music Maker Relief Foundation led me to rural Wilson County, down a gravel road amid soybean fields.

AARON GREENHOOD: And if you look back that way, where we turned in by the road is where Oliver Moore's house was. And that's where the lynching tree was - just out front of his house.

ELLIOTT: Oliver Moore was a Black tenant farmer and shoe repair man who was accused of raping the white landowner's daughters. He was arrested, but a white mob kidnapped him from the jail.

GREENHOOD: And they brought him down to in front of his house. And they hung him from the tree in front of his house. His family was supposed to be inside.

ELLIOTT: The lynching was reported in The Raleigh News and Observer in 1930. But since then, the details have been buried. Now they're included in the new "Hanging Tree Guitars" exhibition at the Greenville, N.C., Museum of Art.

Executive Director Trista Reis Porter.

TRISTA REIS PORTER: People don't just forget that lynchings happened or that people were killed. People are still being killed today. And so you can kind of see that immediate - that direct connection of history to current life.

ELLIOTT: At the center of the room, Vines' guitars are hung from above.

PORTER: Sometimes, people need to be shocked. I think that that's kind of a role that museums and art can really play in helping people really be confronted with the reality of something so difficult and traumatic and think about how that trauma continues to impact people today, that it's still resonant there.

ELLIOTT: Freeman Vines, who rarely leaves his studio, got to see his guitars on display at the museum before the show opened to the public. It made him feel good, he says. But he didn't let on because he didn't want anyone to think it was going to his head.

VINES: I tried to not let folks know really how happy I was because then they'd say he's winking and dying, getting weak looking at a museum. So I kept my front up, hid behind it.

ELLIOTT: The "Hanging Tree Guitars" exhibition, which also includes some of Freeman Vines's sculpture, opened at the Greenville Museum of Art last week and runs through December. Shows are also planned in Winston-Salem and Portsmouth, Va. The book is out now. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Greenville, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.