Hanging Tree Guitars: Made Out Of A Tree Once Used For A Lynching Freeman Vines is an African American luthier who creates what have been called "contemporary art sculptures hidden as guitars" out of old wood, some of it from a tree used for a lynching.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/909213376/912424838" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Hanging Tree Guitars: The Wood's 'Not Good, Not Bad, Not Ugly — Just Strange'

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/909213376/912424838" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.