Thursday, July 12, 2012

This land is guitar land

How much is that guitar in the window?

Guitars are in the news in a couple of distant but connected ways that seem to shed light on the myth making that keeps music and history so interesting. The Washington Post used a picture of Woody Guthrie playing on the New York Subway to illustrate a review of a new book from Smithsonian Folkways on the 100th anniversary of his birth this week.

The photo captures Woody’s lifelong commitment to social issues with the hand lettered message on his guitar: This machine kills fascists. It also seems to imbue the guitar as a symbol of freedom…freedom to sing what you want to in protest or in celebration.
Woody also demonstrated how the guitar was the means to hit the road…strap it on your back and stick out your thumb…in search of fame and fortune, a personal dream, or changing the world. Anyone who loves music should take a moment this week and say thanks to Woody for his songs (more than 3,000 so far but still being mined in the family archives) and his commitment to the causes of the downtrodden and oppressed.

One of Woody’s musical progeny is also in the news this week for a mystery about which Fender guitar he played during the paradigm shifting concert at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when he went electric. One chapter of the Dylan myth is devoted to what happened that night and this latest round is sure to recharge that episode and prove that the reclusive star now seems to have a Midas touch for publicity (without so much as lifting a finger). Not to worry, the sleuths from the PBS series, History Detectives, are on the case and the full story is part of their season premiere on Tuesday night (check local listings). Here are some details from the Associated Press.

Bob Dylan and historians at PBS are in a dispute over the whereabouts of an electric guitar that the singer plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, quite possibly the most historic single instrument in rock ‘n’ roll.

The New Jersey daughter of a pilot who flew Dylan to appearances in the 1960s says she has the guitar, which has spent much of the past 47 years in a family attic. But a lawyer for Dylan claims the singer still has the Fender Stratocaster with the sunburst design that he used during one of the most memorable performances of his career.
If the authentic “Dylan goes electric” guitar ever went on the open marketplace, experts say it could fetch as much as a half million dollars.

Reading that this Stratocaster, if authentic, could go for $500,000, revives memories of some recent crazy prices that other guitars have brought at auction and conjures up more images of some famous ones. Willie Nelson has been using the same one for decades so you wonder what that could be possibly be worth…or how it has survived all those years on buses and in honky tonks. I guess they made them to last back then (before it became good hype to smash them on stage). Then there is the question of what Woody do with all that money?

As for the guitar pictured above in a store in Carmel by the Sea, California, it sells for $1200 and I have no idea if it can be played. Then again, it might come in handy if you are traveling across country in hot cars rather than hitch hiking.


  1. Nice bit of history. I just learned this week that California Stars by Wilco is a Woody penned song. What an amazing phenom he was/is.

  2. I just listened to most of an American Roots extended special on Woody. Fascinating.