Welcome to this week's episode of For What It's Worth, and our new series called #IntheCompanyofReadersandWriters. I'm your host, Blake Melnick, and this is Chapter Two of our story, #The Old Guitar, The Interview, Part One… with my guest, the multi-talented #DouglasCameron ... singer, songwriter and the author of "Old Guitar"...for what it's worth.
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The intro music for today's show, "For Old Times Sake" is written and performed by our current artist in residence, #HeatherGemmell. You can find out more about Heather by visiting our show blog and by listening to our 2 part interview with Heather.
The music for the outro to today's reading, "How Come I Gotta Go" is written and performed by #DouglasCameron on "The Old Guitar"
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The Old Guitar - Chapter 2 - part 1
[00:00:00] Blake Melnick: Well, welcome to this week's episode of For What It's Worth, and our new series called In the Company of Readers and Writers. I'm your host, Blake Melnick, and this is Chapter Two of our story, The Old Guitar: The Interview, Part One… for what it's worth.
[00:00:49] After reading Douglas's story. I did some extensive research around the legend of Robert Johnson and the guitar that was allegedly tuned by the man at the crossroads. [00:01:00] I discovered Robert Johnson had at least two guitars: a Kalamazoo and a Gibson L 1. I examined the only known photographs of Robert Johnson.
[00:01:11] Historians had until very recently believed there was only two in existence, but I discovered there was a third, owned by Robert Johnson's half-sister, Annye C. Anderson. And this photograph adorns the cover of her most recent book about Robert Johnson, Brother Robert: Growing up with Robert Johnson. The book was written by Anderson and coauthored by Preston Lauterbach with a foreword by Elijah Wald.
[00:01:39] Both Lauterbach and Wald are considered two of the foremost experts on Robert, John. I also had a chance to listen to the podcast interview with Anderson, Lauterbach, and Wald, recorded in August, 2021.
[00:01:52] In the interview. Anderson mentions that Robert Johnson's nephew, Louis, went to retrieve his belongings including the [00:02:00] guitar from the juke in Greenwood, Mississippi, after Robert's death.
[00:02:04] And while the details are murky, Robert's guitar was retrieved by Louis and apparently stored in a cedar chest, and was supposed to have been sent to Maryland where his sister had moved, but it never arrived. According to Mrs. Anderson in the interview, her brother Leroy had apparently been given permission to take the guitar.
[00:02:26] And as Mrs. Anderson says during the interview, “That's how we lost it.”
In each of the three photographs. Robert Johnson is holding a guitar. But upon closer examination, it's clear there are at least two different guitars depicted in the photographs. And while the pictures are grainy, the fret board of two of the guitars are short of the sound hole.
[00:02:51] The third, the one from the best-known photograph of Robert Johnson––with him sitting on a stool and a pinstripe suit guitar in hand–– [00:03:00] in that photograph, the fretboard reaches the sound hole; as does the old guitar of Douglas Cameron.
[00:03:09] I was so intrigued by Douglas Cameron story, the obvious passion he had for his guitar, the sense of deep loss he experienced when it was stolen, and the unbridled joy he felt when it was found. And I was equally excited about the remote possibility that his old guitar might be the same guitar that Robert Johnson had in his possession when he died, that I reached out to Douglas for an interview.
[00:03:37] Hi, Douglas, thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. I absolutely love the story of The Old Guitar, and I'm really excited to have the opportunity to talk to you in greater detail about it. But before we get to that, I'd like to hear your backstory. You've been composing songs and performing in Canada for over four decades.
[00:03:57] You're a two-time Juno nominee. [00:04:00] You've had a top 20 record in Canada with “Mona with the Children”. You've written music for television, and you teach. You've worked in guitar restoration and you're a collector of old guitars. In a nutshell, music is your life
[00:04:16] Douglas Cameron: I've been doing music since I was really quite young. I'd been taking piano and playing guitar. As I grew up and became a teenager, it was in the era of all the folk singers, like Joni Mitchell and Crosby Stills and Nash.
[00:04:29] But particularly Bruce Coburn became a bit of a hero of mine. I heard Bruce Cockburn play guitar and I would try to play like Bruce Cockburn, and I learned Bruce Cockburn songs. My ambition in life was to have a record on True North Records.
[00:04:44] I was probably like 15 or 16, I wasn't very old. And then in 1985, when I was, now 30; to have a record on True North Records. And that's what happened with “Mona with the Children”. In the years leading up to 1985, I had been trying to [00:05:00] get a record deal.
[00:05:01] I'd been writing songs, I'd been doing demos, I'd dedicated my life. And I said to myself, I'll give myself two years.
[00:05:08] If I don't get a record deal, then that's okay. At least I've given it a shot. So, two years came, didn't get a record deal. And in fact, everybody turned my stuff down. Every record label in Canada turned me down.
[00:05:22] I was told to my face that my stuff was not commercial and that it wasn't going to work. And so, I kind of gave up and I thought, “well, I'll go back to school and, become a teacher.” And then- I'd written this song called “Mona with the Children,” and a group of people got together and they wanted to make a video of the song and this story of this young woman named Mona.
[00:05:41] And I said, “sure, great, fine. I don't care anymore. Go ahead. And, if you want me to be involved, I'll be involved.” Well, the day that the video was being shot, Bernie Finkelstein from True North Records phoned up and said, "I want to put out this record."
[00:05:58] Bernie is an amazing guy. [00:06:00] And then suddenly, my dream came true. Suddenly, I'm having a record on True North Records. And I had, at that point, not really done anything to make that happen. It was an amazing experience. I thought I'd arrived. I thought, "this is it," you know? Like, "whoa." And for a brief period of time, it was. I was taken to lunch, I was interviewed, I was on TV; I was a pop star. And I got nominated for a Juno. And almost as quickly as it had arrived, it went. It departed because thereafter nobody wanted any more of my records. And I think that my big mistake at that time was that I should have gone to Bernie in the middle of it all and said, “Bernie, I want you to be my manager.” Cause Bernie wasn't my manager, and “Mona with the Children” got on the radio in Canada because of Bernie Finkelstein. So, it was a real education. And the other thing that went along with it was that, as a result of that experience, I got to function at a [00:07:00] pretty high level in the music industry in terms of recording and the musicians I played with.
[00:07:05] And I played with some of the best musicians that there were. So again, that was an education. And then, when the career very quickly took a dive and it took me about a year and a half or two years after that to realize that it wasn't going to keep going; well, then I had to change gears.
[00:07:22] And I realized that maybe I didn't want it quite enough.
[00:07:27] Blake Melnick: Right.
[00:07:27] Douglas Cameron: You know, that the thing is that people I've known that have been successful as singer-song writers and as pop musicians; they really want it. And I think in the middle of it, I thought to myself, I don't know if this is really what I want.
[00:07:43] I don't lay that at anyone else's door. I laid at my own door. You know, I had the time of my life.
[00:07:49] Blake Melnick: Right. Something that very few people would have a chance to experience. So, you're lucky from that perspective.
[00:07:55] Douglas Cameron: Oh, absolutely. I remember being at the Junos in 1986 [00:08:00] and I was nominated for most promising male vocalist.
[00:08:03] Which was a category they had in those days. I think Billy Newton Davis won that year, I can't remember, but, I'm sitting at the Junos. And I look, and there's Bob Dylan, and there's Gordon Lightfoot and there's Anne Murray, and there's Murray McLaughlin. I'm thinking, oh my God, here I am, isn't this what you want?
[00:08:22] Isn't this the deal. So, sure. All my musical adventures after that were informed by that-
[00:08:29] Blake Melnick: -that whole experience, sure. But you went on and still pursued a career in music. You went and studied music at York university. You still write, you still teach, is that correct?
[00:08:39] Douglas Cameron: I went to York, and I studied voice and I got a degree in music which would have made my mother very happy. She'd always wanted me to do that. And I thought I'd become a teacher and I tried to become a teacher, but I couldn't get into teacher's college. So, I had to resort to Plan B, and I [00:09:00] ended up working writing music for television shows, which turned into about a 20-year career.
[00:09:06] And I worked in one company in that entire time, but I worked on a ton of different kinds of shows and my song writing abilities and my composing abilities and the instruments I could play––because I could play guitar, I could play ukulele, I could play banjo, I could play mandolin––I could play all these string instruments which, in the age of computers, were the instruments you needed to be able to play real-time.
[00:09:31] I had a career in, television, largely because I could write songs. I wrote a lot of kids’ songs for TV shows and because I had a good ear. I faked my way through just about everything. Tthe rule in composing is that if they come and say, “Can you do this?”
[00:09:47] You say yes. “And can you do this?” “Hey, Doug, can you do this?” “Oh yeah, sure. No worries.” And then as soon as they're out the door, you're like, “How am I going to do that?”
[00:09:58] What I would do is I would [00:10:00] imagine someone I knew that knew how to do that. Say it was an orchestral piece. And I had no training as an orchestral composer, arranger; I’d think, “well, who do I know that can do that?” And then I pretended that I was them and I tried to channel them. You know, bass playing: I'd say, well, I need to play bass here.
[00:10:19] Who do I know that's a really good bass player? And I would try to be them. Plus, my own skills, which were basically song writing, when we would work on, a children's series, and I did a lot of work for Treehouse TV, a number of series. There would be at least one song or two songs per episode.
[00:10:37] So, you might have to write 50 songs for that series, writing two songs a day in order to get that 50-song quota.
[00:10:46] But it was always in collaboration and it was always with a lot of information. The song writing that I'd done as a singer songwriter was you had to come up with the ideas.
[00:10:55] Blake Melnick: Right.
[00:10:57] Douglas Cameron: In TV, you didn't have to come up with the ideas, the ideas [00:11:00] were there. And so that became a question of craft. And the other thing I learned in television is, like, have stuff rejected.
[00:11:07] You'd write a beautiful cue that you thought was just perfect. And the producer would hear it and say, “No, I don't like it.” You've put your heart and soul and, “I don't want it. I want something different.” And so, you do something different. They say, “No, I want something different.” I think maybe one of the most valuable things I learned is to not be so possessive. There are lots and lots of musical ideas and in television, the music serves the story or the picture. If anything, I became less of a song writer when I just had to come up with ideas, because. I was most fertile as a songwriter when I would have the opportunity to just let ideas percolate.
[00:11:47] Blake Melnick: You make a great point about this whole notion of craft. This has been something that has been discussed in our Pass the Jam series a number of times; and actually Blair Packam, who has a very similar a backstory to you and of course did a lot of work in [00:12:00] television. When I discovered that he did the voice for Rescue Heroes and the music for Bey Blade, both of which were played in my household when my kids were young constantly, we all got a big kick out of that. But he made a point about this whole idea of song writing, that craft is important. People think that great songs just kind of flow out of artists spontaneously, at the moment. And he says, you know, song writing really is a lot of craft. It's a combination of the two, but he said, craft becomes more important the longer you're at the art of song writing and the more songs you write, craft does become important. Intentionality does become important. And it is that blend of, that intentional process of writing a song and crafting your lyrics combined with an inspiration as you've just said, an idea, that actually helps to facilitate that craft.
[00:12:49] You did a lot of kids’ stuff; what are you doing now? Are you still recording music? Are you still writing songs?
[00:12:54] Douglas Cameron: My TV career sort of came to an end, in part because of my age, in [00:13:00] part because I didn't really want to do it anymore.
[00:13:02] And around that time I began to perform a bit more. And most recently I've been performing with a group called Whiskeyjack, and Whiskeyjack was the last band to tour and record with Stomp'n Tom Conners. And Duncan Fremlyn who's the leader of WhiskeyJack and has been for 40 years,[00:13:23] has this show called Stories and Songs that Stomp'n Tom and I insinuated myself into the band, but I initially started out just playing guitar in the back line. And then, and as, his buddy and a guitarist and singer eventually retired, I took over his chair and Duncan got me into it.
[00:13:42] And so that's been a great venue for performing. And one of the things about the show is that Stomp'n Tom was always a great supporter of young songwriters. And so, we do a couple of my songs in the show as a kind of nod to the way that he supported people. And I wrote a song for the show, [00:14:00] because I said to Duncan, I said, “Duncan, you need a song at the end of this show to kind of wrap it all up.” And so, I wrote a song. Interestingly, I didn't know Stomp’n Tom- you know, I was familiar with his music, but when we go up and play in rural Ontario and down East, there are people that, I mean, Tom has just a huge, hero in their lives.
Blake Melnick: [00:14:20] Yeah, absolutely.
[00:14:21] I remember seeing him in the eighties, at some old bar in Sudbury and again with the board and stomping away. And he was mesmerizing. I mean, he was such an entertainer and a funny satirical songwriter. I loved his stuff.
Douglas Cameron: [00:14:37] The other thing that I've discovered as a result of being in Whiskeyjack is that Stomp'n Tom wrote a lot of songs
[00:14:43] We remember him for Sudbury Saturday night and Bud the Spud, but he wrote a lot of other songs that I think people would be quite interested to hear, because they're not the sort of novelty kind of songs. He wrote serious love songs, and he wrote a [00:15:00] quite beautiful songs and we've incorporated some of them in the show. As well [00:15:04] for a number of years, I had a band called the Louisiana Snowblowers. We played around Toronto quite a bit, did some recording. And then, I started teaching and I never thought I would teach. I don't really have the training of the teacher, but people started asking me, would I show them how to play guitar?
[00:15:22] And then it morphed into teaching little kids piano. And so for about 10 years now, I've been teaching. And I had up to around 30 students a week at one point, before COVID hit, teaching entire families. I love teaching. I don't know that I'm the world's best teacher, but what I've come to is that when I'm playing a duet with a seven-year-old or an eight year old, I feel like it's the same experience that I would have playing in the studio with Dave Piltch or Jorne Anderson.
[00:15:53] I feel like we are musicians. We are playing music. There's some stuff we're going to do. There's some [00:16:00] skills we're going to use. Maybe I'm a little better than this eight-year-old, but maybe they're going to pick up and learn from me.
[00:16:06] The idea that music is such a generous experience and something that, that anybody kid, adult, any level––any sort of skill level––an learn from it and enjoy. And so, as a teacher, that's sort of the model that I base myself on. And because music has been for me lifelong learning both as a pianist, as a guitar player, as a singer; it's something I can share with many, many people. I've had so many wonderful musician friends that I've played with over the years. And that's some of the best experiences I've had, in my mind.
[00:16:48] Blake Melnick: Music is a unifying force and it brings people together. And as you say, it doesn't really matter, what level you're at, as long as you can come together and play together and make music. It's a beautiful thing. [00:17:00] And it's a very personal thing too. And I hear what you're saying about teaching, too.
[00:17:03] I was a teacher for a good portion of my life. There's something unique, fulfilling about teaching: the chance to inspire somebody else, just one person, that can be enough to effect changes in ways that you don't anticipate.
[00:17:16] Let's move on now and talk about guitars. So we're going to talk about the story of The Old Guitar. But first, you also worked at the 12th Fret. So, you've had some experience with guitars, yes?
Douglas Cameron: [00:17:28] Yes, I worked at the 12th Fret for a year, starting in 1979. But before that I had worked in a little shop in Peterborough called Ed's Music Workshop.
[00:17:38] I went to Peterborough in 1976 to go to university. I went for one year and every Wednesday I had a course in Peterborough at one of the colleges. And there was this little guitar shop just down the street from the college. So, after the course on Wednesday, I'd go and sit in this guitar shop and play the guitars.
[00:17:57] I ended up buying a guitar from there. It was [00:18:00] a Gibson LG, a 1950… I can't remember. Beautiful. And then, eventually Ed who owned Ed's music workshop, we became friends. And then he invited me to go to work there the next fall. And I dropped out of Trent because it was a lot more fun to sit in this shop. And I was his apprentice. In the end I was probably not that great of a guitar repair person, but eventually, after working with Ed for a year, I came to Toronto and I bugged the guys at the 12th Fret for a job. And finally, they gave me a job. The 12th Fret had just opened up then, it wasn't that old. So, there were two or three of us working in the shop. And because I'd had a lot of experience on the acoustic guitars, I became the acoustic guitar guy. And I did a lot of setups and re-frets and repairs and stuff like that. In the end, I think both Ed and Grant McNeil from the 12th Fret would agree that I was not the world's best guitar repair person, that I was perhaps better [00:19:00] slated for other things.
[00:19:01] But one of the things that happened, both at Ed's shop and the 12th Fret is that I was exposed to countless guitars, many of them old, many of them vintage. At one point, when I worked with Edward, I owned 12 guitars, all of them old. Often a guitar would come in broken and we would buy it, or I would buy it and fix it up. And I just fell in love with old guitars, and I particularly fell in love with Gibson guitars.
Blake Melnick: [00:19:29] There's something about guitars. Every time I walk by a guitar store, I can't help but go in. It doesn't matter who I'm with; “I'm just going to pop in here for a minute and have a quick look around.”
[00:19:43] There's just something about it. It must've been amazing having a chance to work in one. I could spend hours in a day in a guitar shop. There's just something about it that I absolutely love. And so that brings us to The Old Guitar.
[00:19:56] And thanks again for that story, it's wonderful. But I want to talk to [00:20:00] you about it because this is a really, really interesting story. So, you got the guitar from a friend of yours, I assume then; you were going to rent his apartment and he had this guitar. So, tell us a little bit about that first sighting of the old guitar.
[00:20:17] Douglas Cameron: So, this guy's name was Tom O'Brien and, interestingly, Tom played in a band with Blair Packham in the late seventies. I didn't know Tom very well, but I knew the band. I knew Blair a little bit and I knew someone else in the band. Tom was an American studying architecture in Toronto, and he shared a house on Beverly Street with some people, and I was looking for a place to live.
[00:20:42] I moved back to Toronto from Peterborough. I was working at the 12th. And I remember it was summertime and he was moving back to the States and so his room was available. So, I went to look at the room; plus the rent was so cheap, I think it was $35 a month. And I walked into the room, [00:21:00] he was still there and all this stuff was there, and hanging on the wall was this guitar. And I looked at it, and two things: it looked exactly like the guitar in the famous picture of Robert Johnson playing a Gibson––I believe it's called an L 1, I didn't know that at the time––but this guitar, although it looked exactly like that, did not have Gibson on the peg stock and it didn't have any logo.
[00:21:28] So, it was a little confusing. What is this? But it sure looked to me like the perfect Gibson guitar from the ‘20s. So, we were discussing the room, but I kept looking at this guitar. And the other thing about it is that I looked and I thought, “oh my God, this guitar will sound beautiful.”
[00:21:46] And again, I was at the height of my addiction to old guitars and any old guitar, especially if it was in a broken state, was something I was interested in. And this guitar was practically unplayable. So, I said [00:22:00] to Tom, you know, we talked about the room, and I said, “what's with this guitar.” So, you know, “that's my old guitar,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I said, “well, I'll buy it.”
[00:22:07] He says, “No, I can't sell it.” I said, “No, no, I'll buy it. I'll give you 500 bucks.” Well, and he said, “no, no,” and I said, “Okay, if you ever want to sell it, I'll buy it. Please let- you know, please sell it to me.” He said okay. A couple of weeks went by; he left. I move into the room in the house and there's the guitar hanging on the wall with a note stuck in between the strings.
[00:22:36] And all it said on the note was "enjoy". He gave me the guitar. He left and I didn't know him that well. We were acquaintances, but we weren't friends. I was almost a stranger, and he gave me this guitar. So, I have this guitar and, it really was beat up. It was in terrible shape.
Blake Melnick: Where did Tom get the guitar from, do you know?
Douglas Cameron: [00:22:57] So, at the time, I didn't know. [00:23:00] On the back of the neck, near the body of the guitar was a stamp that said “Calcutta”. And at the time, I thought this was a guitar that Tom had traveled with, and he had taken it to India and gotten his stamp on it.
[00:23:12] Well, it turns out that's not the case because as the story developed, years later of course, I got back in touch with Tom and Tom told me that he had gotten a guitar from a guy from India. So that guitar, it had come from India to Canada. More of the story has been filled in subsequently. So, we know what the guitar was, but at the time, I just thought it was this old guitar kind of looked like a Gibson guitar. Maybe it was a Gibson guitar. It was in terrible shape, and I couldn't really do anything with it. And I used to take it camping. And I didn't have a case. I'd take it on canoe trips, and as a result it got rained on, it got beat up- it was already beat up,[00:23:53] it got worse and worse. But at a certain point, I said, “I'm going to fix this guitar up.” so I had a little [00:24:00] shop at home––this is when I was working at the 12 Fret––and I popped it back off; in the process of popping the back off, I destroyed the back binding. There were so many cracks in this guitar that I made these little pleats and pleated all the cracks.
[00:24:13] I put the back back on and never put a binding on it. I've made a new bridge. I made a new bridge plate. I made a new fingerboard. The neck was really spongy. I put a non-adjustable truss rod in. This is all stuff that I sort of knew how to do because of my guitar repair career. And the guitar became slightly more playable. So, again, I kept it at home. I didn't ever play it at a gig or anything like that. For years it didn't have a case. And I just kept playing it and playing it. It was the perfect guitar to play old blues songs on it, had that perfect sound. The sound of Robert Johnson's guitar.
[00:24:50] I never really thought about it. No one else was very interested in that guitar, because again, it didn't have a Gibson logo on it, and I didn't know how to do the research to [00:25:00] find out what it was. I never saw Tom O'Brien again, and 40 years went by And about, maybe five, six years ago, I thought to myself, I really want to fix this guitar up. I want somebody who actually knows how to fix it, to fix it. And I ended up taking it to my friend, Tony Duggen-Smith who’s a wonderful guitar builder and repair person here in Toronto. He was one of the original people under Larivee that became guitar makers, including Lynda Manser and David Wren, Serge de Jong - Tony was one of those people. Tony had rebuilt two other guitars for me. And so Tony did a very interesting repair. Slipped the back off, did a non-traditional neck reset and turn that guitar into the most playable, beautiful guitar that was.
[00:25:49] And, so again, I didn't take it out on gigs. I would take it teaching. I would use it when I was teaching, and I played it every day at home. I played it constantly. I played scales. I wrote [00:26:00] songs, I would learn songs on it. And eventually I made a whole recording an album using that guitar and played a lot of slide.
[00:26:08] It was perfect for playing slide on.
Blake Melnick: And it was a parlour-style guitar, correct?
Douglas Cameron: It was a very small little guitar; the ultimate parlor guitar, in my mind. And if you look at the picture of Robert Johnson playing the guitar, which I think there were two pictures of him, it is exactly the same guitar. The only thing is it doesn't have the Gibson logo on it.
[00:26:30] It has the same wear patterns,[00:26:36] which is bizarre, but there you go. So anyway, I'm just buying time goes by. And when I teach, I drive to people's houses, so I'd have the guitar in the back of the car. And one fateful night, Jane Seberry was having an event at the Transact club where musicians from the eighties were going to gather and have a kind of reunion.
[00:26:56] So I went to it, but I got there, and I realized that [00:27:00] I was a month early, that the event was actually in a month's time. So, I'm in the transact club, and I’m thinking, “Well, this is dumb.”
I parked behind the Transact club. So, I come out, I think, “Well, I'm here and parked, I paid for parking, I guess I'll go to the grocery store.”
[00:27:15] There's a Sobey's down the street. So I go, I'll go to the Sobey's. I got to get some milk and eggs and whatever. I come back from the Sobey’s and my back window’s smashed. The guitar is gone. Ukulele is gone. My teaching bag is gone. It's all gone. I've been gone 15 minutes. I'd seen a guy standing in the alley. [00:27:33] I should have known.
[00:27:34] It was devastating, absolutely devastating because the guitar that I'd had for 40 years, that had been given to me almost like a treasure that I was supposed to take care of for the rest of my life, was gone. I walked up and down the alleyways. I tried to see if I could find somebody.[00:27:55] I called the police. I made a police report. There's nothing you can do. [00:28:00] I didn't even know how to describe the identifying markers on the guitar because again, there was no logo. It was gone and I was heartbroken. I don't know how I can say what it was like.
[00:28:11] It took weeks for me to kind of just say, okay, right. It's gone, you know, get over it, feel better. And there, it was, end of story.
[00:28:24] Blake Melnick: And what year was this, approximately?
[00:28:25] Douglas Cameron: When it was stolen? It was just before COVID hit.
[00:28:30] Blake Melnick: Okay so not that long ago.
[00:28:31] Douglas Cameron: No, it was literally two or three years ago. So, I commiserated, I mourned. I have other guitars, so it's not like I was bereft in any serious guitar way.
[00:28:43] I mean, I still have my L 00.
[00:28:45] So I went through this period of time of clearing house a little bit. I got a beautiful new guitar from my friend, Edward. Je made me a lovely new guitar. I divested myself of a couple of my older instruments.
[00:28:57] Maybe it was a purge to allow [00:29:00] myself to get past being attached to that old guitar because what's so interesting- and I've thought about this since you and I talked a little bit: owning a guitar is one thing; loving a guitar, playing that guitar every day- For me, it's the sound of the instrument. You can play one note and it just reverberates. It's hard to describe because in a way you don't own the guitar; in a way you simply live with it and you use it.
[00:29:27] Anybody that plays an instrument will tell you that part of what it is. That this is what do this with the instrument. There's the famous story- I think it's Chet Atkins… Somebody came up to Chet and said, “Wow, Chet that's a great sounding guitar,” and he put it down and said, “how does it sound now?” There's something about the act of playing an instrument, there's a kind of relationship you ended up having with an instrument if you play it every day.
[00:29:52] Blake Melnick: Yeah, I couldn't agree with you more. It's like your favorite pair of shoes. I have a lot of guitars, but there really [00:30:00] are only a few that I play on a regular basis. The other ones I play once in a while. But with certain guitars, it's the attachment to the sound and to the feel of the guitar. And of course with older guitars, as the wood ages and the more they're played, the better they sound.
[00:30:15] I have an old Martin parlor style guitar from 1915, 1916 period. And I still play it regularly. And people ask me, “why are you playing that guitar?” You should be hanging it on the wall. It's a museum piece. But the point is, you have to play the guitar. Guitars are meant to be played. They're not meant to hang on the wall.
[00:30:36] And so, I always play my Martin and it's still my favorite guitar. It needs work. The frets are riding high. It's challenging to slide around on it, but because of its age and the resonance that's built up in the wood, it sounds amazing. All my other guitars are nice guitars, but they don't sound like this one. So, I do get the attachment.
[00:30:56] So back to the story. Tell us how you found your old [00:31:00] guitar.
[00:31:00] Douglas Cameron: So, this past September, I've been living up North. But we'd come back for the election. And I got up really on election day and I got on Facebook, and a guy from Ottawa that I know posted a video of a guy playing a guitar and singing a song.
[00:31:15] And I looked at the guitar and though, “God, that sure looks like that old Gibson guitar that I used to have it got stolen from me.” And I looked at it some more and I thought, “That is that guitar.” So then this video and this guy playing it with a folk festival called the Upper Canada festival.
[00:31:31] And so I looked at their little Facebook page. The picture that they will using to promote the folk festival was a picture of my guitar. I said, “wait a minute, what's going on here?” So, then I did some research and there was a newspaper article and sure enough, the guitar had been found couple of months after it was stolen from me in Kensington Market.
[00:31:51] And there's a direct line from the Transact club down to Kensington market on a dark alley. It had been rescued from a garbage bin, someone in Kensington Market had [00:32:00] rescued it and had given it to this guy in Ottawa named George Tierney.
[00:32:05] And George was so inspired by this guitar that he started a folk festival, and the guitar was the mascot of this folk festival. And one of the things that people do at this folk festival is they play this guitar and sing songs on it. And I'm looking at it and saying, “well, this, this is my guitar.”
[00:32:23] I actually knew some of the people associated with the folk festival and some on the board of directors.
[00:32:29] So I see a couple of messages. And by the end of the day, it had been established that was my guitar that had been rescued from the garbage bin and was now having this life. So, I actually spoke to George- we were in line to vote and he and I spoke on the phone and he said, “Yeah, this is your guitar.[00:32:45] You're the rightful owner.” And he said, “Can I tell you what I'm doing with guitar?” And I said, sure. He said, “Well, I've got this project called One Guitar, 100 Hands, and I'm going to get 50 people to record, tp sing and play this guitar and I'm going to make [00:33:00] videos and it's going to be a whole project.”
[00:33:01] And he said, “Plus, the folk festival, is this coming weekend? Do you want to come and play at the folk fesitval?” Well, I couldn't come and play the folk festival because I actually had a gig. So, I couldn't go, I would have gone in a heartbeat. And, I said, we'll keep in touch. We'll figure this out. I guess I have to give this guitar back to you.
[00:33:17] I went to sleep that night and I got up again really in the morning and I thought, something's going on here. There's some kind of magical business here with this guitar. I've given up on it.[00:33:28] It's gone. I think it's been smashed a million pieces in the dump somewhere. And here it is in Ottawa being played by all these people. And it's the mascot of a folk festival.
[00:33:39] I got back in touch with, George and I said, “Look, go ahead, keep the guitar, use it for your project. Just let me be part of it.
[00:33:46] And at the end of the day, give it back to me when it feels like it's appropriate so that I can leave it to my niece or something.” And I have to tell you, and I've watched George's adventures, getting people to play this guitar. And I'll tell you there's one [00:34:00] video we made with a guy,[00:34:01] and it sounds exactly like Robert Johnson's guitar.
[00:34:04] Blake Melnick: This concludes Chapter Two of our story, “The Old Guitar” with guest Douglas, Cameron. Please join us for the next installment of In the Company of Readers and Writers for Chapter Three: The Interview, Part Two… for what it's worth.