“Wood has a character, like the good cooks found out that food has a character … everything you get involved with has a character of its own.” — Freeman Vines,
Guitars hang from the ceiling of the Greenville Museum of Art’s West Wing Gallery like strange fruit from an unknown tree. They’re not typical instruments. Oh sure, some of them have the familiar shapes and colors of vintage electric guitars manufactured by big companies like Fender or Gibson, but the wood is different: knotty, rough, discolored in places. One is shaped more like a mandolin or a lute — but it has six strings, so it’s a guitar.
Other pieces hang from the museum’s walls or are enclosed in glass cases. They’re even stranger, like fruit that’s rotted, dripped down the trunk of a tree, and dried into shapes that look like a shotgun, a pair of serpents, a human skull. But some of those pieces, too, have six strings, so they’re guitars.
Jazz singer Billie Holiday once sang of Southern trees that bear strange fruit. If the “Hanging Tree Guitars” exhibit bears any resemblance to her song, then what she sang resonates even more profoundly.
The man who created these pieces, 78-year-old Freeman Vines, didn’t start out making guitars as art. Vines was 8 years old when a white man who lived in the same area of Greene County near Snow Hill taught him how to play a few country songs on a Martin acoustic. Vines started making his own guitars in the late 1950s, untrained, a teenager crafting instruments for the musicians in his family’s gospel group, the Glorifying Vines Sisters.
Today, Vines makes guitars for himself and for exhibitions by the Music Maker Relief Foundation. The Hillsborough nonprofit preserves America’s music traditions by providing support, financial and otherwise, to marginalized musicians who were never signed to big record labels, but whose art has contributed value to our lives and perspective to the stories of our intertwined cultures. Vines doesn’t make guitars to sell — he’s declined offers of thousands for his works. He makes them because he’s compelled to make them. He’s an artist. It’s what he does.
Related: Listen to our Spotify playlist of music released by the NC-based Music Maker Relief Foundation:
Half an hour west of Greenville sits the town of Fountain, a tiny rural community of about 400 surrounded by sprawling tobacco and cotton fields at the western edge of Pitt County. The main drag is like a ghost town on this Friday afternoon. Not a soul in sight.
The sound of a single reverberating guitar string breaks the silence. It’s Vines, sitting on a couch inside his little storefront workshop next to several of his instruments, including a banjo-like guitar he made from a drumhead and a guitar that looks like a log. He’s just plugged in his “Death Mask,” an instrument he made in 1967, and he’s riffing on rudimentary blues licks, wailing tones that sound almost like the cries of a wounded animal — or human.
What Vines looks and listens for are the stories within the wood.
Vines was about to retire from guitar-making when one day, in 2015, Tim Duffy wrote him a letter. Duffy, a folklorist, photographer, and cofounder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation with his wife, Denise, had heard about Vines and wanted to see his work. “I asked if I could come visit him,” Duffy says, standing in the back of the shop as Vines continues playing. “When I got to his house and got out of the car, I saw this yard that was like an art installation,” Duffy remembers. “He started pulling guitars out from underneath pieces of linoleum on the ground and out of an old shed.” Duffy waves his hand around the shop, where instruments in various stages of development lie on worktables. “And when he started pulling out all of these guitars, it was clear to me that they weren’t just guitars — this was art.”
Duffy took a series of dramatic tintype photographs of Vines and his creations that day. The images are now a prominent part of the exhibit in Greenville and of Vines’s memoir, Hanging Tree Guitars, published last year in cooperation with the Music Maker Relief Foundation. In the book, Duffy says of his first visit to Vines’s home: “It had a sense of place. A beautiful place. Even the way the debris was arranged. I learned later [that] it was all heavily manicured.”
Most luthiers build guitars using certain so called tonewoods — mahogany, walnut, maple, and Sitka spruce, to name a few — and design them for maximum comfort and playability. Vines uses some of those woods in his guitars, too, but he also works with whatever other materials he can find lying around his neck of Greene and Pitt counties: the sides of a dilapidated tobacco barn, the soundboard from an old Steinway piano, planks from a felled black walnut tree. He then shapes the bodies into African masks, Yoruba spirits, creatures from nature, and other objects with ties to eastern North Carolina’s Black history and culture. Although his guitars sound good and are not uncomfortable to play, those attributes are not top priorities for Vines. What he looks and listens for when crafting his instruments are the stories within the wood.
Vines has spent decades listening for a tone that he heard 40 years ago.
“Wood talks to me,” Vines says in Hanging Tree Guitars, his words shaped and printed onto the pages like blocks of poetry alongside contextualizing text by Zoe van Buren, the folklife director at the North Carolina Arts Council. “Anybody got some old wood with some type of character, like a root, stuff like that intrigues me.”
Vines’s earliest attempts at guitar-making were nothing special. “Me and you, we’d call ’em pieces of trash,” the artist says with a gruff laugh, his “Death Mask” guitar now quiet, propped on his lap. “You pick up an old plank, sand it down, chop it here and there, and put a neck on it. Play it three or four times, then chuck it in the barn.” Over time, as he continued studying the mechanics of conventional guitars, Vines became a genuine luthier. His instruments not only began to look good, but they also played well. “I started shaping them a little better,” he says. “I made some pretty good instruments — I thought they was good. And when they got ’em onstage, you could tell I made ’em.”
One day, Duffy asked Vines about a few pictures that the artist had taken of some old planks, as well as drawings he’d done of a guitar hanging from a tree. Vines had found the planks in a local man’s barn. “I was going down the dirt road one day, and I stopped and asked him would he sell me some of that wood,” Vines remembers. “He said, ‘Yeah, go in there and look.’ But then he told me, he said, ‘Freeman, you might not want to use that wood there.’ He said, ‘They hung a man on that tree.’ I didn’t pay it no mind until Tim come by.”
Duffy was fascinated. “When Freeman told me, ‘These are hanging-tree guitars,’” Duffy says, “I was like, Whoa! What a title!”
The folklorist did some research and determined that the black walnut tree that produced the planks had, indeed, been used for a lynching during the Jim Crow era. “Tim had found conclusive evidence that the crime actually happened,” Vines says. “I told him, I said, ‘Tim, I don’t want to hear no more about it. Don’t want to see nothing, don’t want to hear nothing, because I got to live around here.’ And Tim just went on, and he found out a lot of stuff that I’d never heard about.” Vines pauses and gazes up at the ceiling. “He sure did.”
With trepidation, Vines went to work on the wood, chopping, chiseling, and carving until images began to appear, including one of a human skull. He doesn’t recall consciously creating a skull. He didn’t know exactly what he’d created until he looked at the piece the next day. “I reckon that, spiritually and art-wise, see, I was looking at it as something unusual,” Vines says. “And then, after my experience with that skull, everything turned different. Everything has significance. All you got to do is be able and willing to receive what it’s trying to tell you.”
A tone is just a random sound until you listen for what it’s saying. Vines has spent decades listening for a very specific tone that he heard one night after a day of work about 40 years ago. “It was as if you had a large tuning fork about yea long,” Vines says, raising his arms and extending his weathered hands about two feet from each other, “and you banged it, and was holding it, and that whole sound went over your body and then developed into a tone.” When he talks about the experience, it becomes clear that Vines is not just looking for an auditory tone, but an overall hue, an impression, a reverberation, some kind of communication with voices from the past in this flat expanse of eastern North Carolina tobacco country. He’s looking for a connection to history — a fraught history, an ugly history, and a meaningful history all blended together as words and art and music.
He shakes his head. “It messed me up for a while,” Vines says. “I was already making guitars, so then I started looking for that tone. It really ain’t a sound, though; it’s more of a feeling, and it’s hard to explain if you ain’t never experienced it. Anyway, I thought: If you could just keep that sound and that tone with you long enough, it won’t make no difference whether you died or if you lived. It was so soothing and so comforting.”
Duffy speaks of Vines reverently. “The guy is a genius,” he says. “He’s just one of those guys. For years, he’s been a contemporary artist who’s been disguising his art as guitars. He’d kept all these guitars since 1958, so he had a huge collection.”
And the collection continues to grow.
Back in Greenville, a certain tone quivers through the art museum’s West Wing Gallery, enveloping the guitars hanging from the ceiling, the unfinished objects in glass display cases, and the ghostlike tintype images that Duffy shot of Vines and his guitars on the day they met. From a video monitor, Vines’s voice echoes through what sounds like static from an old ’50s radio broadcast.
Only four of the instruments in the “Hanging Tree Guitars” exhibit were made from the black walnut that Vines found in that man’s barn years ago, but together, as a whole, all of the pieces tell the same story. It’s a story of perseverance, insight, and talent; of a time and place in the history of our state; of a people’s strength and ingenuity; of turning something painful into something beautiful. It’s the story of an 8-year-old Black child who learned to play country music on a guitar from a white man, and then discovered how similar that music was to the gospel and blues he heard around his own home.
It’s the story of Freeman Vines, who had a vision one day and went on to dedicate his life to re-creating that vision by carving into pieces of wood, unleashing their secrets in the form of beautiful but haunting music and art.
The “Hanging Tree Guitars” exhibit will be on display at the Greenville Museum of Art through March 6 and at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem from June 9 through September 15. It can also be viewed virtually at exhibit.hangingtreeguitars.com.