FAI Feature Interview – Freeman Vines and Dom Flemons Talk “Hanging Tree Guitars”
Folk Alliance International hosted a Feature Interview on Friday, May 20th, featuring Freeman Vines and Hanging Tree Guitars in conversation with Dom Flemons. The interview was facilitated by Ashley Shabankareh. Freeman Vines is a North Carolinian, African American sculptor, luthier, and artist with the Music Maker Foundation and Dom Flemons is with 72 Music Management, and is an African American Grammy Award-winning Folk artist known for covering over 100 years of American music and co-founding The Carolina Chocolate Drops before doing solo work.
One of the reasons for the interview is that a new photo-essay book has been released by the Music Maker Foundation featuring Freeman Vines’ sculptural guitars with photos taken via historic tin-type methods by Timothy Duffy. The book is titled Hanging Tree Guitars because several of the guitars which Freeman created were built from wood which came from a tree once used for lynching. The book contains not only the photos but a “compilation of folkloric conversations” between Duffy and Vines about guitars, artistry, and history, as Flemons later explained.
Freeman Vines opened the discussion by laying out his central idea behind crafting guitars, that “wood has a character” to it and that the more you work with wood, the more you pick up on the character of the particular wood you are working with. For Vines, that makes the guitar sound different, btu it also means that different tools will be needed when working with the wood. He concluded meaningfully, “Wood doesn’t lie.”
Dom Flemons asked Vines about his quest for a special sound or “tone” in making his guitars, attempting to recapture a sound he once heard as a younger man. Vines agreed that this has been part of his motivation, a sound that once struck him with the same unusual feelings you might have when you hit your elbow or “funny bone.” Vines commented that it was more a sound he was searching for than a tone, which he considers a different thing.
From Flemons’ own work as a musician, he shared his quest for a banjo with a special tone to it, resulting in playing a larger size banjo than is commonly seen. His large banjo has a particular story to it, too, since the luthier behind it was trying specifically to create a more “mellow tone.”
Getting into the subject of Vines’ work on the Hanging Tree Guitars, Flemons explained to the audience that some years ago Vines had begun working with “unique pieces of wood” that were the center of “communal legends” about these trees having been used for lynching. Vines explained that he has a “bad habit” of buying scrap wood and getting “intrigued” by it. In this case, he actually didn’t know the wood was associated with lynching when he first came across it, picking the old wood up from storage in a barn where it has been since 1933. Vines recognized that the wood was “knotty and rough.”
Vines then decided that something felt unusual about the wood, so he asked questions. With the help of Timothy Duffy from The Music Maker Foundation, he was able to confirm that the wood did come from a tree that had been used to lynch a young man. Vines felt that the wood itself had “brought out the fact” that an innocent man had been murdered. For Vines, the Black Walnut wood, taken from close to the heart of the tree, had internalized its history.
Flemons showed several photographs of Vines’ sculptural guitars which are included in the book.
Several of the guitars take the shape of faces, some with grotesque, evocative features. Vines commented that sometimes the look of his guitars became “horrific,” but were a process of really digging into the wood, and that even the one with a snake through its eyes turned out “like it wanted to be.” Vines had retired from guitar making when he met Tim Duffy, but had always “dragged around,” his unfinished guitars and now they were included in the book also, with some dating from 1969, 1970, and 1979.
Flemons asked Vines if there was any musical association between guitars he was working on and their appearance. Vines commented that “horrible guitars” always bring the song, “House of the Rising Sun,” to mind when he’s working. But more joyous guitars tended to bring the song, “I Want To Be At The Meeting Around God’s Throne,” into his mind.
Flemons and Vines spotlighted a particular guitar that Vines had created from an African mask sculpture and traced its development. The African mask was made from African wood and was quite ancient at the time that Vines spotted it on the wall of a man’s home. In its original state, it was more roughly cut and “primitive,” but when he began working on it, he polished it more fully, brought out the facial features, and found it had an “amazing sound,” too.
Speaking about the tin-type photographic method that Duffy used to take pictures of Vines himself, and Vines’ guitars, Vines expressed his admiration for Duffy’s mastery of that craft. At first it seemed impossible that he had captured such detailed images in such a way, which involves using metal plates and acids to fix an image.
Speaking further about Duffy and The Music Maker Foundation, Vines shared some heartfelt appreciation for the hands-on and daily support he and other members of his family have received. Things as essential as a truck, a refrigerator, a renovated bathroom, and a shower have all contributed to his quality of life thanks to Duffy and the Foundation. Vines now also has an indoor space in which to work instead of spending time in barn that was unsafe for him. Vines pointed out that Dom Flemons is on the board of the Foundation, too. Vines thanked Duffy, Flemons, and the Foundation for helping him discover that there was “another world out there,” after working in solitude most of his life.