Freeman Vines’ unique guitars reclaim rural Southern memory

NADINE MATTHEWS | 12/3/2020, midnight
In a recent panel with noted artist Lonnie Holley, musician and artist Freeman Vines explained that a mysterious, almost otherworldly ...
Freeman Vines and Teardrop (2016) Timothy Duffy photo

In a recent panel with noted artist Lonnie Holley, musician and artist Freeman Vines explained that a mysterious, almost otherworldly note from a fellow musician’s guitar decades ago was the unlikely genesis of his passion for making guitars. “Ever had that sensation when your elbow hits something?” he asked Holley, whose own work has been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of Art, High Museum and MASS MoCA. “Well I had that sensation all over my body and my whole body felt like it was music and then at the end of the music, I heard a sound. It was the most comfortable sound you ever heard. If I could have crawled into that sound and not come out I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

Musician turned folk artist and guitar maker Freeman Vines specializes in making hand carved guitars created exclusively from found materials in his hometown in eastern North Carolina. Each uniquely beautiful piece is strongly infused with a sense of place; subtly but firmly reclaiming history, and stealthily calling forth memory.

Doing double duty as both pieces of art and functional instruments, they are a multitude of shapes. Some are adorned with varnish, but little else. Some boast etchings, some are carved into likenesses of African art. Most aren’t painted. Each is haunting in its own way, representing a reincarnation at Vines’ fingertips.

Part photography book, part loose biography told in brief bursts of revealing prose, images of Vines’ guitars and him at various stages of the process of making them, have been collected in the recently released book, “Hanging Tree Guitars” by Zoe Van Buren. The photographer, Timothy Duffy (who also founded the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which provides aid for aging musicians) and Vines became acquainted with each other through their mutual connection to blues musician Lightnin’ Wells.

Although he doesn’t hesitate to use wood from old troughs or mule carts, speaking to the Amsterdam News, he says emphatically that commercial wood is totally off limits. “Commercial wood has no character at all. You just sand it and cut it out. There’s a totally different feeling from the wood that I find and use.”

The septuagenarian considers himself just as much an artist as a musician, and continues to experiment, including the use of types of wood not normally used for musical instruments. He explains, “Sugar maple has never been used for musical instruments. Before you can even use it, you have to brush all the sugar crystals off of it, but it’s magnificent wood.”

Four of his over 100 guitars were made, he says, from a tree once used for lynching. He explains, “When I bought the wood from an old fellow and he told me that a man had been hung from a tree on it, I didn’t even believe it.”

Vines doesn’t explicitly admit it but it’s clear that while making those four guitars, he processed some of his own childhood trauma inflicted by Jim Crow. As an adult who still lives in the rural Deep South, signs and laws have changed but hearts and minds have not. Hardly a sentence goes by where Vines doesn’t remind you of those facts in one way or another. “I don’t want to get into white people’s business,” was a running theme during our interview.

The mystery of whose blood had been shed on that tree burdened him, and intrigued Duffy. Still, Vines was reluctant to ask too many questions. “I told Tim I gotta live down here, and this place hasn’t changed a lot. You go digging, you don’t know if you’re gonna find earthworms or snakes. I told Tim, ‘Don’t tell me no more.’”

In the end when Duffy, then Vines, finally found out the truth behind the wood, it stretched even the bounds of horror. The victim was 29-year-old Oliver Moore. He’d been abducted at midnight Aug. 11, 1930 by 209 white men, hanged from a tree and shot 200 times. Vines emphasizes that some of the people with direct knowledge of the murder are still living, and still in the area where he resides.

His handling of the wood, Vines feels, transforms it into a source of power regardless of how it was previously used. “The wood has three characteristics to me: the good, the bad and the ugly. It depends on how you look at it,” he begins. “What it was used for, and what it was made into, is totally different. It’s hard to explain but if you picked up one of those instruments and played it a little bit, you’d know what I’m talking about. You have to touch them, you have to become connected with them.”