Restrung and Resurrected


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

Tunings


We all need to tune ourselves and our musical instruments, to the key that best expresses our deepest emotions.

In the 1830s, cattle were brought to Hawaii, and turned loose. Soon, cowboys were needed to keep them out of the taro and sugar cane fields.

Mexican cowboys, (vaqueros, or in Hawaiian, paniolo), introduced the guitar to Hawaiians. They tuned their guitars in the Spanish style, which is still our standard guitar tuning. Hawaiians called the cowboys paniolo, Hawaiians loved the guitars, a new experience for a culture which had never seen stringed instruments.

When the paniolo left, they gave their guitars to their new Hawaiian friends.

However, they didn’t have instructions to tune them as the vaqueros did. New tunings, called “slack key”, pleasant to Hawaiian ears, came about along with new chord fingerings. New melodies and rhythms, expressive of the beauty and culture of Hawaii, emerged.

Their guitars became a part of their lives, the harmonies of the strings in harmony with their music and their community.

The young men I mentor are looking for their own harmonies, their own expressions. How do they tune their own lives, so that they can play their own melodies? They strive to find the chords to their own life songs.

They have plenty to sing about, giving voice to their emotions and experiences on their journeys.

Like the Hawaiians, each of them is finding their own tunings, looking for the right tension on the string to reflect their souls, striving for their own harmony.

Without tension, there would be no music played on a guitar, and without each string having its own unique sound, the songs would not find their own voice.

And, without their own challenges and questions about their lives, these young men would not be giving voice to their own songs, finding the chords and rhythms that are leading them into brighter days and a renewed appreciation of their own souls and dreams.

These young men, these modern day paniolo, are bringing order to their own cattle, and their own guitars, each with their own special slack key tunings, and melodies and rhythms unique to their own, newly focused and directed lives.

–Neal Lemery 2/7/16

His First Guitar


His First Guitar

He’s said something about a guitar, a couple of visits earlier. We’d talked about his singing, his passion for music, his ability to hear a song, and then sing it back, note for note, and word for word.

It was easy for him, he said. He was born with it, something he just did. It wasn’t a big deal. His mom sang, and it was just part of his life.

I had first heard him sing at the prison talent show, his voice filling the half court gym that was also the room where every other public event happened. The room grew still when he sang, everyone following his voice as he hit every note of the song. And when everyone applauded at the end, I first saw his big smile, happy with himself and happy with the joy that he brought everyone else. His joy came alive then, with what he did with his talents.

The guitar would be new to him, and he thought he might want to learn. I knew he loved to learn. He’d graduated from high school a year ago, and was now taking a full load of on line classes at a community college. He’d struggled a bit with writing, and my wife gladly tutored him a bit on writing papers. Their discussion at one of our first visits quickly intensified, as he focused on how he could improve his work, and be a serious student.

I’d given another one of the young men I’ve been mentoring a guitar for Christmas. He was happy at the gift, but he’d struggled with the guitar, finally realizing it wasn’t his passion, and wasn’t something he enjoyed. He’d talked with me about his frustration and we left the discussion with him giving it back to me. He’s a guy who looks out after others, and sensed the guitar needed a new owner.

Now, there was the young man who needed a guitar and I had a guitar to give.

The next visit, I brought him the guitar, and a gig bag, a tuner, a capo, and some picks; all the mechanics you need to start. I put it in his hands, watching a grin brighten his face. He didn’t need me to show him how to hold it, he just picked it up and held it close to him, almost clutching it tightly to his body.

The right hand strummed, hesitating, playing with the strings. I showed him the G chord, his fingers quickly figuring out where the finger tips went, between the frets. The chord rang out from the guitar, close to being correct.

He frowned, not happy with the sound, and he tried again, and again. I reached over and moved a finger closer to the fret, changing his left hand a bit. Again, and it was better. And, again, and it was spot on. The frown was now a smile.

In a few minutes, I showed him another chord, and again, I moved a finger here and there, and then, his second chord was strummed, producing yet another smile. He was figuring it out, and moving back and forth between the two chords, and then a third.

“You can play Amazing Grace now,” I said.

He looked at me, his jaw dropping a bit, and shook his head.

“Yeah, its easy,” I said, taking the guitar from him.

I played the three chords he knew, and sang the words of the first verse, moving from chord to chord and then back home, strumming a rhythm, putting guitar notes into chords and rhythms, and adding the poem.

“Here. You try it,” I said, handing his guitar back to him.

He sang then, strumming and moving from chord to chord, making a passable version of the old familiar song.

“Really,” he announced, looking up at me, a much bigger grin now lighting up his face.

“Yeah, really,” I replied. “You can sing and play the guitar now.”

Before I left, he’d learned two more chords from me, and was talking about a song he’d been singing, and wanted to play it on the guitar.

“Homework”, I laughed. “Something to play for me the next time I show up.”

His laughter filled my heart, his eyes focused on his hands as he moved from one chord to another and back.

“There’s an E minor in it. Can you show me that one?” he asked, his hands trembling a bit on the frets.

“Sure,” I said, moving two fingers on his left hand into the E minor fingering. “It’s easy.”

And, it was for him, amazingly easy.

The next visit, he played several songs for me, including the one he had wanted to learn. He had good rhythm, good strumming, and was sliding his chord hand around to play the four chords in his song.

He stumbled a bit, but we all do when we are first learning a song. I told him everyone does that, at first. But, he still moaned a bit with frustration, expecting himself to be perfect.

The next couple of visits, I taught him some more, things I’d been working pretty hard on the last four years to learn and push myself up to higher levels of playing. My learning curve was a lot longer than his, and he quickly soaked up everything I offered to him.

My wife played a bit, too, with the guitar and her mandolin. He soaked up what she was showing him, too, at lightning speed.

Several times in the next few weeks, a staff person would come by, and show him a song. He’d watch, intently, and then played a duet with them, mimicking every movement, every note. Goosebumps showed up on my arms when I played with him, my jaw agape as I watched him learn so quickly, mastering small things here and there, bringing his own joy to a song he loved.

One day, I brought new strings, and showed him how to restring the guitar. He chuckled at the new, bright sound, as I wound up the old strings, strings he’d worn out, playing a couple of hours a day.

We’ve brought our guitar and mandolin teacher in now, to see if he can keep up with him. And, its a struggle, we hear, our teacher feeling challenged at what the young man can soak up in just a little bit of time.

And, every time I visit, we play together, sharing what we know and what we love, our voices filling the room and bringing more smiles to his face.

He’ll outgrow this guitar soon, if he already hasn’t done that. He’ll finish his associates degree in December and be paroled in February. Then, he’s off to a real college campus, and start his junior year, being a normal college student living a normal life. There’s a new guitar in all that, too. And, I can’t wait to take him guitar shopping and see him light up the store with his big grin.

9/12

Come September


Come September, and it is the start of a new year. School is starting, vacations are ending, the garden is in full harvest mode.

The long season of lawn mowing has slowed, nearly stopped, and one has time to wander around the yard, taking in the flowers, and the now unmistakeable presence of the start of Fall. Summer is still here in the heat of the afternoon, but the early morning crispness and heavy dew is a sign of transition in the calendar, in the cycle of the seasons.

The last few months have been their usual blur of activities: chores and projects, sandwiched between work, and the summertime events.

We still haven’t made it to the local farmers’ market this year, and have only had a few walks on the beach. I took a long anticipated hike a few weeks ago, realizing it had been a while since I hit the trail, what with trying to find where I’d last laid down my hiking boots and my binoculars.

A family reunion was fun, with great food, singing, and visiting folks I hadn’t seen for a year. And, we had an unplanned one later one, gathering for a funeral, and remembering the wonderful stories and laughter of a favorite uncle. Another reminder of how important it is to find the time for the fun and adventure of happy times, and good memories, and the strength of families.

One evening, we had the joy of listening to a favorite due sing and work their magic with their guitars and mandolin. They played a concert at the youth prison we go to every week, visiting and mentoring young men. There was a special joy in our hearts, watching young men enjoy themselves, becoming one with the music, and pondering their own talents and dreams. Again, I was reminded of the power and gift of music in our lives.

Every week, I take my guitar there, through the prison gate, and play and sing with one of my buddies. His musical talents are amazing, and an occasional tear runs down my face, as I share his joy and gifts, and watch him grow and find himself. My guitar teacher is now part of his life, and his skills seem to grow exponentially.

Their Pow Wow last week was a celebration of Spirit, of their many rich heritages, their creativity, and, above all, of their rich and fruitful community. I was humbled and honored to be asked to come, and sit with them, and dance with them, in all their splendid and welcoming community.

I go there as a mentor, but I really am the receiver, the mentee, the beneficiary of so many gifts from those amazing young men.

As with every summer, there never seems to be enough evenings sitting outside, just enjoying the end of the day and the solitude of the yard. Yet, we have had those wonderful evenings, and an hour here or there just enjoying the place and the day.

Last week, my chore list got sidelined, and I rediscovered my canvasses and paints, and brushes, and spent a few hours lost in art. My soul was happy, and the frustration inside of me that I’d hadn’t really had all the fun I’ve wanted this summer floated away. Later on, I played my guitar and sang a few songs outside, building up good memories of time well spent.

I held myself to one weekend wedding this summer, and savored the experience of love energy, a beautiful woman walking down the aisle, and the smile on her husband’s face. There was much laughter and happiness, on a sunny evening, where barbecue smoke and good music lingered into twilight.

I’ve also found some riches in getting rid of things, and cleaning up a bit. My golf clubs, which had accumulated dust, are now in the hands of a high school student who is passionate about his golf team. My childhood .22 rifle is now in the hands of a firearms instructor, and my mother’s deer rifle will soon be in the hands of a young man passionate about the sport and time out in the woods with his family.

My baby picture is now hung on a wall, rather than sitting in a box gathering dust, and there is a large pile of old papers waiting for the end of fire season and a new burn barrel. Other treasures await my rediscovery of them, and the crossroad questions of “toss or save”. At 59 years old, the “toss” answer is becoming more popular.

The real treasures now are time with family and friends, and in simply being present amidst the natural beauty that surrounds us. And, I keep learning to pay attention to that, and to be present in all of that.

Come September, I hope to simply be grateful for all that is, in my life.

Neal Lemery 9/1/12

Restringing


Restringing

 

Unwinding the string from the tuning peg, and popping out the peg by the bridge, the old string flayed around a bit, before I coil it up and set it aside.  It had lived a good life, part of the first strings on my buddy’s first guitar.

 

He’d worn it out, as he tried out his first few tentative chords and strumming patterns, toughening his finger tips and the side of his thumb.  He’s a finger picker, first and foremost, quickly finding his groove as he brings the songs in his mind to life on the guitar.  He’ll do a lot with this guitar; he’s one of those natural musicians, playing the chords and the beat not too long after he first hears a song.

 

He’s watched everything I’ve done with my guitar, when we get together and play.  And when someone else comes by and picks out a tune, he’s all eyes and ears.  What he soaks up is soon flowing out of his fingers, bringing out another song on his new musical pal.

 

We clean off the fretboard with a rag and something called guitar honey.  The frets and the wood of the fretboard soon sparkle, along with the brand new strings.  He’s realizing all of his hours of picking, and learning new skills, has actually worn out the tough metal strings.  There’s been some progress here, with his new hobby, his passion that’s burst into flame in the last six weeks.

 

With each one, we push the ends through the tuning peg, wrapping it around, and then slowly tightening it, bringing it up to the proper pitch, playing an odd melody of increasing frequency; boing, boingg, BOING!

 

He’s mystified, at first, at the process of changing strings.  It is another lesson in guitarmanship, this craft of creating music from this oddly shaped wooden box, a board, and six wires strung over a hole in the box.  Some call it a Tennessee flat top box, but we who spend our time with it would think a more spiritual name would be a better fit.

 

Soon, the guitar is back in his hands, and he’s fine tuning each string.  The smile on his face telling me he’s hearing a sharper, clearer voice from his friend.

 

The new strings, like his life now with the guitar, sharper, more defined, and more in tune.

 

7/2012