The old acoustic guitar hung on the back of the guitar rack in the all-purpose room at the prison camp. It was a “state guitar” as the boys called it, looking every one of its years, the wood dull and nicked up by all the young hands that had held it over the years. It looked out of place next to the fancy shiny electric guitars that some of the boys had, their “personal” guitars.
I would pick it up and play a little accompaniment when one of the guys was showing me a riff he had learned, or was playing a song he’d written. And, sometimes, when I was waiting to meet with one of the guys, I’d take a few minutes and play it. But, it was usually out of tune, and often, one of the strings had broken. It wasn’t as banged up as Willie Nelson’s “Trigger”, but it was moving down that road.
In the last few weeks, I noticed it looked sadder, more neglected than ever. All of its strings were missing, along with four of the six bridge pins that held the strings in place. Of course, no one could play it anymore, and it was getting dusty, and moved over into the corner of the room.
I was afraid someone would toss in the garbage. It deserved more respect than that. It was, after all, the “senior guitar” here, and had a long history of providing some joy to the lives of the incarcerated youth who’ve come through this place, year after year.
The guitar was here when I first started coming, six or seven years ago, and it has been well used by perhaps more than several hundred young men who have held it in their hands, and picked out a tune or a chord or two or three. Young guitarists of every range of talent here have enjoyed its decent, respectable voice and have had it bring some joy into their lives. Perhaps it has saved some lives, as well.
I wasn’t going to give up on the old guitar, a “Johnson”, not a trendy or fancy name in musical instruments. It had earned my respect, though, for being its stubborn self and for bringing joy to many a young man. I wasn’t going to just let it slip by the wayside. I was determined to bring it back to life. “Mr. Johnson” deserved better.
I was in the city a few days ago and decided to stop at the guitar store, to see if they had some extra bridge pins. They did, for fifty cents a piece, and I invested in a good set of strings, too.
Today, I was back at the prison camp, and brought the strings, the pins, and my tools for changing strings and tuning up the guitar. A few of the young men gathered around as I went about my tasks, asking questions, and offering a hand as the strings and pins began to provide us with a guitar with actual strings and the beginnings of some notes.
“Mr. Johnson” was coming back to life, and he had attracted a growing fan club.
Our flash mob guitar string changing class attracted others, followed by a robust discussion of string replacement theory and whether each string was properly tuned.
At last, we reached consensus. I clipped off the ends of the strings, and handed Mr. Johnson to the first young man who had come to help. He hesitated, claiming he didn’t know how to play, and others soon were standing in line to test our work. But, he gave it a tender strum and grinned from ear to ear.
Smiles appeared, as the guitar made its way around the circle, and a few stories were told, of how they enjoyed playing it, the quality of its sound, and the good times that centered around the old guitar. They enjoyed hearing Mr. Johnson being resurrected, returning to their lives as tool for some personal joy and satisfaction.
I put away my tools, and headed off to my meeting with a young man, as the guitar was carefully taken outside, to be played by our flash mob guitar restringers.
Near the end of the day, I came back to the prison, meeting with some other young men in another part of the prison. Where I parked was close to the work camp and their outside recreation area. When I walked out to leave, I heard a guitar and young men singing, and saw them gathered around in the twilight, playing the old acoustic guitar.
Their voices filled the prison camp yard, a freshly written song being sung in earnest, filling my heart with joy. My eyes watered up, too. It must have been the dust in the air.
Yet another story was being created tonight, of young men and songs, and friendships being forged around the playing of that guitar, reborn and doing its work once again.
When I got into my truck, I came across the receipt from the guitar store. Six guitar pegs, $3, and a new set of good strings, $14. It was the best money I’d spent in a long time, small change for the price of some big smiles on the faces of those young men, and resurrecting Mr. Johnson.
–Neal Lemery, July 13, 2016