Smith: Love of my father, and his kind of music

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I must have been riding my bike past the school, when I heard picking over the hill.

It was coming from Joe’s house, which stood by the square curve. I rode up, parked my bike, and walked up on the concrete slab porch. Through the open door I could see Hugh, singing “Long Gone, Lonesome Blues.” After he finished the chorus, he flat picked a break too. I thought those three guitars made the prettiest sounds I had ever heard.

Joe, a big man with a ready smile, stopped playing long enough to say “Come on in.” I did and listened until it was almost too dark to ride home.

“I want to play with them,” I said as I pedaled the Shelby through the twilight.

David was the youngest, and he was two years older than me. But they made me feel welcome, so I went back many times to listen, but I did not play, because I didn’t know how, and if I had known how, I had nothing to play with. Then, one afternoon, after warm weather came and the jam session moved outside, Hugh stopped picking.

“I’m going to sell this thing,” Hugh said “and go to the Air Force.”

He held his guitar up so he could see its top.

It didn’t have a flat top with a round hole, like most guitars, but rather an arched one, with two long holes — f-shaped holes, like a fiddle. If you looked closely you could see that the guitar had been painted to look like solid wood, but the borders of the f-holes betrayed the laminations of plywood.

When Hugh turned the guitar sideways, there was room to push a number two pencil between the strings and the fingerboard, and never touch either. “I want a guitar that doesn’t dent my fingers,” he said.

“What you want for this one?” David asked.

“Fifteen dollars,” he said.

“I wouldn’t sell mine for that,” David replied.

“It’s the best looking guitar I’ve ever seen,” I said to myself. “I wish I had fifteen dollars.”

“Daddy,” I said, a few days later, “Hugh’s going to sell his guitar.”

“He is?”

“Yes sir,” I said, “And I’d like to buy it.”

“Are you going to learn to play it?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, “I am. I really am.” I thought for a minute. “I can get the five-minute guitar course book like the one I used with the ukulele.”

Daddy knew more about guitars than he let on, because he loved “string music.” Years ago, when I was little, he would sit me on his lap then twist the knob on the table radio until he found the Carter Family or the Monroe Brothers, or someone like that. And when he did, he would jog me up and down on his leg.

“Look son,” he would say, “I’m patting my foot to the music.”

“I still love the sound of a guitar, Daddy,” I said, “like that Burgess boy made when he walked around the school yard.”

Daddy smiled.

“He sang ‘The Spanish Cavalier,’ Daddy,” I said. “I thought it was the prettiest song I’d ever heard.”

“I’m not surprised you love the guitar,” Daddy said. “I do too.”

He paused. “And I believe you’ll learn to play it.”

He picked up a stick and began to whittle.

“You know how much Hugh wants for it?”

“He said fifteen dollars,” I answered. “David said he wouldn’t sell his for that.”

Daddy came over and put his arm around me.

“I haven’t got the money right now, son,” he said, “but we’ll go see a man next week. I think he might help us out.”

So, after our Saturday trip to the Dixie Home Store, Daddy said, “Let’s ride over to see Mr. Wayne.”

We drove past Joe’s house, to a place right across the “T” from Hugh’s mama’s place.

“I hope Hugh won’t come out,” I said to myself. “I don’t want him to see Daddy borrowing that money.”

Hugh’s yard was still empty as we came to a stop near Mr. Wayne’s side door.

Daddy said, “You just wait for me, now. I’ll be back in a just a little bit.”

I did more than wait: I slid down in the seat of the Plymouth, so far that I could not even see Daddy knock on the door. I don’t even know if he went inside. But I do know that when he came back to the car, he was grinning.

“Here you go,” he said, handing me what must have been three five-dollar bills.

“Thank you, Daddy,” I said. Hugh was nowhere to be seen.

He just smiled.

As Daddy pulled back out onto the road, I looked over toward Hugh’s mama’s. It looked like no one was home. Maybe that’s why we didn’t go down to Hugh’s right then.

But soon after that, Daddy drove me down to Hugh’s house, just the other side of the place where they said Miss Ader Tater lived.

I don’t remember Daddy’s walking with me up on the porch at Hugh’s mama’s. But I do remember that I knocked several times before the woman came to the door.

“You the boy that wants to buy the guitar?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” I answered.

“Hugey,“ she called. “There’s a kid here who wants to buy your guitar.”

When Hugh came to the door, he was playing the Harmony.

“Hugh, I want to buy that guitar,” I whispered.

“You got the money?”

I held up the three bills.

Hugh nodded, then strummed across the strings one last time. I handed him the money, which he tucked into his shirt pocket, then pulled the gilt rope from over his shoulder, and handed the guitar to me.

“You can keep the rope, too,” he said.

I said “thank you,” and walked to the car. Finding that four of the six strings played like my uke, I beat on the thing all the way home. The strings were hard to press, but the sound was worth the pain. Daddy must have thought so too, for he patted the steering wheel the whole time.

Next Saturday after we bought groceries, Daddy took me to Mr. Bunn Crider’s jewelry store to buy a three-cornered flat pick and a copy of the “5-minute Guitar Method.” We didn’t need any strings that day.

Sometime later, I was framming the guitar with my new plastic pick, when I heard a “pop,” then looked down to see the bridge-end of my tiniest string flopping up against the finger board. I had broken a string for the first time in my life.

“Guitar strings must not last like ukulele strings,” I said. “And I can’t get a new one ‘til Saturday.” I paused. “I got to do something,” I said, then laid the guitar on my lap and followed the path of the other strings with my finger.

“They don’t go through a bridge like they do on a flat top,” I said. “They go ‘cross the bridge and into that metal piece that looks like the seat of a yard swing. And there’s four inches of string between the ‘swing seat’ and the bridge.”

“If I can wind enough string off the tuner to make it reach to the other side of the bridge,” I continued, “I might be able to twist the two ends together.”

I tried the plan, but the first splice twanged loose before I could tune it to pitch, so I relaced the ends into a knot to keep the splice from slipping. It held until Saturday, when I made the first of many string-buying trips to the jewelry store. After a while, I think I didn’t even have to ask for a ‘Black Diamond first string’ any more, for Mr. Crider would put his loupe aside, pick up a square red envelope with the diamond symbol, and have the string ready for me when I came in.

“I saw you coming,” he would smile.

David taught me some new chords and, after I walked my new guitar over to Joe’s, introduced me as the new “agony box“ man. Although Hugh did not go to the Air Force, he did get a new guitar, and I got to play with the complete trio for at least a year. They encouraged me to pat my foot.

Although it took 30 years for me to understand the love Daddy showed in getting the guitar for me, it only took a few weeks to understand the usefulness of his gift. By concentrating on learning, and keeping strings on that gift, I found temporary escape from the loneliness and the sadness I felt during my teen years — for though I had a good relationship with my earthly Daddy, I had not made things right with my heavenly one.

But eventually Father love won out, and 40 years later I wrote a tune about Daddy’s Guitar. Here is its chorus:

Now that guitar, it is long gone, but the memory lingers on

Of what my Daddy did for me ….That Saturday. That Saturday. That Saturday.

One day I plan to tell both of them.

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Leon Smith is a contributing columnist to The Anson Record. Write to him P.O. Box 124, Marshville, NC 28103.

Leon Smith is a contributing columnist to The Anson Record. Write to him P.O. Box 124, Marshville, NC 28103.