FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH with Blake Melnick

Chapter 3 - The Old Guitar - The Interview Part 2 - In The Company of Readers and Writers

March 24, 2022 Blake Melnick Season 3 Episode 12
FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH with Blake Melnick
Chapter 3 - The Old Guitar - The Interview Part 2 - In The Company of Readers and Writers
Show Notes Transcript

This week on #forwhatitsworthwithBlakeMelnick  we return to our story called#TheOldGuitar with guest #DouglasCameron, part of our new series  #InTheCompanyofReadersandWriters. This is chapter three  #TheInterview, Part Two . If you haven't done so already, please check out The Preface, Prologue, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of the story. In this episode we are introducing #ShoutOuts as a regular feature in the podcast... for what it's worth.

Our #shoutout this week goes to #ArnoldSchwarzenegger for his thoughtful and heartfelt video message to the Russian people during the unprovoked and unnecessary invasion of the Ukraine. Click HERE to watch the video and please share it out needs to be heard

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The Old Guitar - Chapter 3 - The Interview Part 2

[00:00:00] Blake Melnick: Well, welcome to this week's episode 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 Three of our story, The Old Guitar: The Interview Part Two… For what it's worth.

[00:00:45] For those of you that are new to our tale, here's a bit of a recap. A number of months ago, I was sent a story by an old friend of mine. It described a guitar that sounded very much like the missing guitar of blues legend, Robert [00:01:00] Johnson. The story was written by singer-songwriter Douglas Cameron about his old guitar.

[00:01:06] I was intrigued. In the story, he described the guitar as being very similar to that of Robert Johnson. It was the same make; it was made during the same period of time in which Robert Johnson's guitar was made. It had similar wear patterns to Robert Johnson's guitar. The story was interesting to the point that I reached out to Douglas and invited him to be a guest on the show to talk about the story.

[00:01:30] And I wanted to investigate the outside possibility that this could be the missing guitar of Robert John. So, I did a lot of research into the legend of Robert Johnson, and I discovered that the guitar that was in his possession the night he was murdered in the juke in Greenwood, Mississippi mysteriously went missing.

[00:01:49] One element of the legend I was unaware of was that when Robert Johnson apparently met the devil at the crossroads, the devil granted him his wish of becoming the greatest guitar player in the [00:02:00] Mississippi Delta. He did so by asking Robert for his guitar, tuning it, and then giving it back to him.

[00:02:07] So, we built the story around Douglas Cameron's old guitar, and we interwove the tale with the legend of Robert Johnson. In last week's interview, Part One, we spoke with Douglas Cameron about the guitar, and throughout the interview he kept making reference to the fact that it looked like, that it sounded like Robert Johnson's guitar.

[00:02:26] Douglas told us his story of owning the guitar for 40 years and then losing it; it was stolen from his car. And then it resurfaced just a short while ago as the mascot to a folk festival in Ottawa. And here's the funny thing: the musician and festival organizer, George Tierney, who ended up with the old guitar, had the same impression as Douglas Cameron; that it looked like, that it sounded like Robert Johnson's guitar.

[00:02:54] And so enamored was he about the guitar that in the festival, he circulated the instrument to the [00:03:00] various musicians and they played songs on it, and they fell in love with it too. And they all had the same feeling about the guitar. There was something mystical and magical about it, so much so that George Tierney decided to create an initiative called A Hundred Hands, One Guitar,

[00:03:17] where he would distribute this guitar to various well-known musicians who would perform songs on it, and George would videotape the sessions. And who knows, perhaps take the initiative a little further. So, once again, I'm fascinated with this story. In this chapter, the second part of The Interview, you get to hear more about the history of the old guitar.

[00:03:41] Well, this is an interesting underlying storyline. Both you and George referenced Robert Johnson, and I've looked at the photographs as well. It sure looks like Robert Johnson's guitar.

[00:03:53] And as the legend goes, Robert Johnson was not a good guitar player, by all accounts. [00:04:00] And then he disappeared for anywhere between six months in a year, depending on who you ask, and then he returns and he's the greatest guitar player in the Mississippi Delta, and perhaps one of the greatest guitar players of all time. If you take Keith Richard’s word for it, the legend developed that he had gone to the crossroads. He had met the devil. He had asked to become a great guitar player. He had given his guitar to the devil who had tuned his guitar and gave it back to him.

[00:04:29] So, the magic resides presumably in the guitar. And of course, the most important part of the storyline is Robert Johnson was killed. He was poisoned at a club and his guitar was never found, so the thing is, that guitar is out there somewhere.

[00:04:45] Douglas Cameron: George Tierney, in Ottawa, who now possesses the guitar––I'm not going to say he's the owner, it's in his possession––he did some research. Then he figured out more about where this old guitar is from. And it's even more remarkable in the [00:05:00] end.

[00:05:00] So, he's discovered that there was a company in England called T E Bevin and Company. They were a department store and they had guitars made by the Gibson Guitar Company, which they then sold in India. And there are some marks on the back of the old guitar that would seem like this is the case.

[00:05:20] So, it's more than likely a 1925 Gibson L 1 that were made in America for the T E Bevin Company, which would be the reason there was never a Gibson logo on it.

Blake Melnick: Right.

Douglas Cameron Because the T E Bevin Company had this sort of metal plate on the back of head stock. And there were two holes in the back of the head stock where that metal plate would be. And there's a number, George has found a number on the back of the head stock that sort of identifies it as an L one. And the stamp, “Calcutta”––the words above it were “T E Bevin”. So, this guitar was made in the twenties, probably 1925, which [00:06:00] means it's almost a hundred years old, sold in Calcutta by this British department store.

[00:06:06] And the day that I discovered the guitar again on Facebook, I got in touch with Tom O'Brien, who gave me the guitar. I phoned Tom. I said, “Tom”-  I told him the story of the guitar being stolen-

[00:06:18] I said, “where did you get this guitar?” And he said, “I think I got it from this guy who had come from India” That studied and UofT in the ‘70s who, amongst other things, was an Elvis impersonator. So, this guitar, it’s- long before I had it- So, I got it in 1979, and I had it for 40 years; this guitar has a life from 1925 to 1979.

[00:06:44] God only knows what it was doing in India and who played it. And Tom, as we speak, is trying to find the guy that gave him the guitar, who is living in America, and who knows, I don't know if he's been able to find him. [00:07:00] So, when George got in touch with him, he said, “Look, I'm doing these projects with this guitar.”

[00:07:05] And he spoke with such love for the guitar. And every time I see this guitar now, because George has done a number of videos with people playing it, I get this like twinge inside of me. It's like, oh, give me back my car. And then another part of me says, Douglas, you were given this guitar, you had it for 40 years, you fixed it up.

[00:07:27] And now all these other people are enjoying it and loving it and playing it. And, I had to say to George, “Go ahead, please.” Part of me is aching about it and part of me wants to die because I don't have this guitar. But another part of me is like, wow, what a story.

[00:07:46] And this old guitar, like it- it should not be alive. I mean, there were so many cracks in this guitar. When I cleated the cracks on the top and the back of his guitar, I've never seen [00:08:00] that many cracks. When I took the old bridge off––‘cause I made a new bridge––so much of the top came away that I had to switch the bridge. And the bridge is plated together with epoxy just to hold it, and then I play it and play it. I use it all the time. I lose it, it surfaces and there it is like, like the guitar is almost thumbing its nose at me saying, “Yeah, you thought you owned me, eh buddy?”

[00:08:28] Blake Melnick: Is there a chance that you could be a pair of these hundred hands playing the guitar?

[00:08:33] Douglas Cameron: Well, that's what I've negotiated. I really want to. And, George, I think he's shot maybe three or four of these videos, and here's another amazing story about it.

[00:08:43] When I worked at a record shop, Peterborough, Ian Tamblyn used to come by and get his guitars worked on. And he brought in a guitar one time, but he wanted new tuning machines. And so I took a set of old Klusons off his guitar. I think it was a [00:09:00] Gibson guitar, took the Klusons off, put on the new ones.

[00:09:02] And I said to Ian, “You want these tuning machines?” He said, “no, no.” I said, “Can I have them?” He says, “Yeah, you can have them.” I kept them. And the reason I kept them, there's not only were they Klusons, but they had this green tinge to the little buttons on them. And I put them on the old guitar when I fixed it up.

[00:09:20] And one of the people playing in One guitar, One Hundred Hands is Ian Tamblyn, and Ian Tamblyn is playing a guitar that has his old tuning machines on them. He doesn't remember. And the only reason I remember is because they had this green color to them that I loved, and I put them on the old Gibson guitar. Crazy. 

[00:09:43] Blake Melnick: Yeah, lots of twists and turns. 

[00:09:44] Douglas Cameron: My dream is that everybody who's ever possessed this guitar on stage together and is able to recount the years of this guitar and its journey through our hands. If anything, I guess [00:10:00] considering that it was in my possession for 40 years, and I was pretty jealous of it, I guess. I can relinquish it for a few more years.

[00:10:09] Blake Melnick: We want to follow this story and I would love a chance to have a chat with Tom, and I'd love a chat with George, and follow this story because I do think it's a fascinating story 

[00:10:19] There does seem to be something about the relationship between musicians and their instruments, and particularly guitars. And this is why people will say, “I want to buy a guitar. What should I buy?”

[00:10:29] And I said, you should really go into a store and play them. Because it doesn't really matter what label, what name is on the guitar. Some sound good, some don't sound as good. And I've played guitars that are inexpensive that sound amazing, and I've played really expensive guitars that I did not like at all.

[00:10:48] And it's almost as soon as you pick it up, you know that this is a guitar you're interested in. Whether it's the guitar you buy or not is another story, but it is something that appeals to you. [00:11:00] So, what is it about musicians and their attachments to their instrument? What creates that bond? So to speak 

[00:11:07] Douglas Cameron: This may not seem to connect, but whenever I played golf, something perfect would happen. It might even be that I was standing over a putt and I knew the putt was before I even pulled my club back.

[00:11:21] So, in my experience, the guitars I loved and that I wanted, and that I coveted were always broken guitars. There was always something wrong with them; they needed to be refinished. I would look at them and I would know that this guitar would be a spectacular guitar.

[00:11:40] I've had over time, a number of new guitars, and they're wonderful guitars. And I use them a lot and, I've had very expensive ones. They're fine and dandy, but the old guitars are the ones that have always captured me.

[00:11:54] And it's that immediate feeling. And as you say, you pick it up, know. You [00:12:00] play it; it has a sound. And you're right, it's the same for people who are going to buy a guitar. “What guitar should I buy?” Well, buy a guitar you love, right? Because you're going to have that guitar.

[00:12:13] And if you love it, you're going to love to sit down and play it. And even if you just strum a couple of chords and then put it back down and go on with your day, that's something. So, there is something. I can't explain it. My own experience of it is, has been that they're the instruments that I have used, and I have played them, and they've had application to a certain kind of music or a certain style of music.

[00:12:36] There's just something about the old wood and the feeling of them and the fact that somebody else played them. The special block guitar I had looks awfully like guitar in a photograph of Hank Williams when he was young playing guitar.

[00:12:49] It's like, I am connected to that kind of music because of the instruments. You and your old Martins––now, even though I'm not a Martin guy, [00:13:00] I can appreciate that those Martin's from that era speak in a certain kind of way. 

[00:13:06] Blake Melnick: And part of it may be the stories themselves and the memories that are associated with it that makes it significant.

[00:13:12] And of course your newer guitars as, as will mine, will eventually become old guitars and other people maybe telling stories about these guitars in 50 years from now as old guitars, but it is a fascinating thing. And I love your analogy about golf. You know, the famous Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, identified what you're talking about as the “state of flow”: when you're giving your fullest attention to an activity, or task that you're passionate about, that you're focused on; that you're totally immersed in, you find yourself creating conditions necessary to experience this state of flow.

[00:13:50] So, the usual distractions, like fatigue, fear, inhibitions, things like that, melt away. And all that matters is what you're focused on at that given moment in time. [00:14:00] So, it could be making your putt in golf. It could be your engagement with your instrument, playing a song, a dedication to your craft. But I think that's what we're talking about here. There are times where you pick up a guitar and you've, you don't feel it. Your playing is not that good, and there are other times when you pick up that instrument and you play like you've never played before and it seems really easy and it seems really fluid.

[00:14:22] It's a unique state of mind that I think most human beings can relate to at some level. The attachment with instruments in the stories that go along with those instruments. And there is something about the old guitars. There's something about holding a piece of history in your hand that makes them special. I would love to talk to, all the people associated with this. I think it'd be really a neat storyline to follow over a period of time. Especially with this project A Hundred Hands, One Guitar. What does he plan on doing with this?

[00:14:51] Douglas Cameron: I'm going to put you in touch with George. He just recently put up a website.

[00:14:57] The folk festival is going to be a yearly thing. [00:15:00] I’m really hoping that next year I can be part of it. I've already talked to him about tentatively doing something early in the new year with playing the guitar. And I may try to connect him to some people that I know. His ambition is to get Keb Mo’ to play it.

Blake Melnick: [00:15:16] Yeah, strangely enough, I just watched this recent release of a documentary on Robert Johnson, and Keb Mo’ was one of the hosts talking about the story. So, it would be great to get Keb Mo’.  

[00:15:27] Douglas Cameron: He's so far concentrating on people from Canada who have an affinity- Colin Linden. And Colin Linden would be a direct line to Keb Mo’ cause Colin did Keb Mo’s last couple of albums. 

[00:15:40] It's amazing, if you listen to the recordings of Robert Johnson playing, and then hear this old guitar, especially in the hands of, I think- I forget the guy's name, but he was one of the participants in the One Guitar, One Hundred Hands. It's a guy from down east too, he’s a blues player. Sounds exactly like- [00:16:00] you can hear it.

[00:16:01] It's like, oh my God, that's the same. 

[00:16:04] You know, one of the interesting things that when George and I first talked about whether or not this had been my guitar, he said one of the reasons that he trusted me was that I didn't say anything about money. And I never thought about this guitar in terms of money, what it might be worth. And a guitar that's almost a hundred years old, even though it's not all original, it's going to be worth something, 

[00:16:30] If Robert Johnson's guitar surfaced-

[00:16:33] Blake Melnick: Can you imagine? You could all retire! You need to add that you need to have that a written agreement that if it turns out to be-

[00:16:45] Douglas Cameron: As my dear friend, Michael Francis said, 50% of something's worth much more than a hundred percent-

[00:16:50] Blake Melnick: -of nothing. That's right. And we know some lawyers, right? Who could draft that agreement.

[00:16:57] Douglas Cameron: [Laughs] And one of them is a great guitar player. 

[00:16:58] Blake Melnick: Well, that's [00:17:00] true. That's true. 

[00:17:01] Douglas Cameron: It strikes me that imagination is part of what's happening here, and who knows what it can be imagined to be.

[00:17:09] I know that I want to be part of it. I don't quite know how, but even just contributing, being one of the people that plays in the video. 

[00:17:18] So I'm going to put you in touch with Tom, who I got the guitar from. I can put you in touch with George, and I'll send you my recordings.

[00:17:26] Blake, this is amazing. So, I will get to work ,and I will send you some others songs that feature the old guitar.

[00:17:34] Blake Melnick: This concludes Chapter Three of our story, The Old Guitar with guest Douglas Cameron. Stay tuned for Chapter Four of the story on the next installment of In the Company of Readers and Writers. We'll be back next week with another moment in time from Tom Locke's new book by the same name on the space in between.

[00:17:55] And if you liked the show, please drop us a review on your favorite podcast listening [00:18:00] channel, either on your own or by using the links provided in the show. 

[00:18:04] And as a final word, we're going to introduce shout-outs into our episodes. Things we feel are new, novel, and noteworthy.

[00:18:11] This week's shout out goes to Arnold Schwarzenegger. For his 15-minute video, a heartfelt appeal to the Russian people in light of what's going on in Ukraine. Links to his video are included in the show notes and the blog for this episode. Check it out; it's really good. And please share it... For What it's Worth.