Lynching is a terrible stain on the history of the United States. Between 1882 and 1968, around 5,000 people were lynched, 73% of them black. It was a form of terrorism on the black community, particularly in the Southern States, with the Klu Klux Klan and other paramilitary groups ruthlessly defending white supremacy. Lynching was brutal, and involved torture, mutilation, hanging and burning.
One man who remembers the terror of lynching is Freeman Vines, born in 1942 in Greene County in North Carolina. He’s the focus of a quite remarkable book, which features a stunning set of photographs of Vines, his guitars and his environment by Timothy Duffy and input from folklorist Zoe Van Buren.
Vines is an intriguing character, who has had a colourful life reflective of the struggles and hardships of African Americans in the 20th century, and I had the opportunity to chat to him about his life and the book. But the focus of the book is on one particular aspect of Vines’s life – his crafting of guitars from a tree near where he lived that had been used for lynching. In one sense this may seem somewhat morbid, but the project serves to highlight the horror of lynching and how its spectre still hovers over America. And, indeed, the ongoing white violence that many people of colour still face.
For Freeman, having been given the black walnut wood which he had been told had come from a lynching tree, he was simply building more guitars, looking for the elusive sound he had been searching for over many years as a guitar maker. That was the holy grail, it seems, that had driven his art during his life.
But as he worked on the guitars at night, “strange things started to happen,” and the guitar work seemed to take on a life of its own and he ended up carving “some horrific figures” on them. “You had to see ‘em and play ‘em to know what I’m talking about.” About the finished articles, he told me he was glad to see them go, because “I was real uncomfortable with them around me.” The project took a considerable emotional toll on Vines; he said he was worried “about how that boy had to die,” referring to Oliver Moore, a young man who was last person to be lynched on the tree in 1930. His body was riddled with over 200 bullets.
The book documents photographer Timothy Duffy’s investigations about where the wood had come from, resulting in him meeting a woman whose great-grandfather had orchestrated the last lynching to take place on the tree. Freeman didn’t want to know the details about what had taken place, because he told me, “some of them people still live down here,” obviously anxious about relations with his neighbours.
Freeman Vines has lived with racism all his life. When he was growing up the Klu Klux Klan was very active where he lived and billboards declared “You are in the heart of Klan country: welcome to North Carolina.”
“I remember all kinds of stuff,” he told me, before going on to relate a horrific story of an old man he knew when he was a boy who was falsely accused of exposing himself to a white woman and who was abducted and dragged behind a truck until he died. “The white man,” he says, “is a dangerous man.” Even today, I asked him, in 2020? “Yeah, it ain’t no joke, man.” Racism he said, “is about the same way it’s always been.”
Hanging Tree Guitars is also about the photographer, Timothy Duffy, who met and befriended Freeman Vines and began to photograph the guitars he made. Duffy specializes in collodion wet plate processing for his photography, an early form of photographic processing which requires a darkroom in the field. Although invented at the end of the nineteenth century, there has been a revival of interest in the method, and certainly, Duffy’s photographs, which are a major feature of the book, are nothing short of stunning. They have an aged quality to them which entirely suits the subject matter, and you’d buy the book just for the photographs.
Duffy says that the journey he took photographing Vines’s work and pursuing the story behind the hanging tree “has had a profound impact on me, all of which I have yet to understand.” The book, then, is very much the story of the intersection of two artists, from two very different worlds, one white, one black, and both working in completely different media. The two formed a seemingly unlikely friendship, helped it seems, according to Freeman, by Duffy’s wife’s feeding him the “best rice and chicken I ever ate.” At the same time, Timothy Duffy and the book’s author, Zoe Van Buran, speak of the hospitality they received on Freeman’s porch.
But ultimately, the book is about Freeman Vines and the insight his life gives us to the past and its legacy. Freeman, whose very name points back to America’s troubled past, was born in poverty in North Carolina. His family lived on a white man’s farm where his mother worked as a “housewoman,” cleaning, washing and cooking and being paid in groceries and clothes. Vines said it was worse than the days of slavery because “you had the idea that you were free, but you weren’t.”
By the time he was fourteen Freeman Vines was doing time in the penitentiary. When I asked him about that, he preferred not to talk about the circumstances surrounding this, except to tell me that he learned to read and write from comic books in the prison library.
He started building his own guitars after playing the blues from a desire to find his own sound – “I didn’t want to sound like the average blues man.” He had heard a gospel musician play a guitar when he was young and that sound has haunted him ever since – “a most disturbing sound, but pleasing and comfortable.”
“Each wood has its own sound when you’re cutting and sanding on it, but you have to be alone to hear it.” The sound, he says, “is already there,” and all you have to do is do the carving and release it. I asked him if there was a particular wood that he liked, maybe cedar or walnut or pine, and he told me that the best wood he’d ever found was the tight-grained pine from the soundboard of a 175-year-old Steinway piano. Freeman Vines is not your regular luthier.
He built guitars for over 50 years, experimenting with woods and pick-ups, but has never yet found what he’s been looking for – “I know I ain’t never gonna find that sound, because I’m too old now.” Yet his guitars made their way into the hands of various professional, touring musicians, both blues and gospel artists. “They was ugly guitars,” said Freeman, “I didn’t even know they sounded so good until I heard them on recordings.” Freeman had never been satisfied with what he heard from Fender and Gibson electric guitars and always felt his guitars, although not finely finished, lacquered or stained, were superior.
Freeman Vines has four sisters who make up the famous gospel group, the Glorifying Vines Sisters, who first recorded in the 1970s and are still making music. Freeman went a different direction, but in the book he is quoted as saying he had been very moved by his sister being healed at a gospel meeting and was considering becoming a Christian himself. Sadly, he told me, the recovery didn’t last, but Freeman said he was still thinking about faith.
The book quotes Freeman as saying, “A person has to have a purpose to live.” I asked him what his purpose has been. For Freeman, it’s all about his work as an artist – “What excites me is wood I can communicate with.” And he’s got a new batch in, “highly figured,” which he was clearly pretty excited about. It’s a great thing, to still be excited about what you do when you’re nearly 80 years old.
The story of Freeman Vines and the hanging tree guitars is a remarkable one and a sobering one. It holds a mirror up to the troubled past, and present of America. At the same time, the book gives a quite remarkable picture of the deep engagement of two artists, Vines and Duffy, over a period of years, and the impact that had on both men. It is an utterly absorbing work, disturbing in some ways, and quite unique. Zoe Van Buren’s handling and presentation of the material is masterful and her afterword quite beautifully written.
There is a companion CD available to go with the book, 12 songs from Duffy’s archive. along with three songs performed by the Vines family, which provide a glimpse into the music that inspired Freeman Vines’s lifelong search for a tone.
The project was supported by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which was founded by Timothy Duffy and his wife Denise Duffy and which seeks to give relief to senior American roots musicians. Hanging Tree Guitars is published by Bitter Southerner in conjunction with Music Maker Relief Foundation.
Find out more at www.hangingtreeguitars.com All photographs by Timothy Duffy.