‘Hanging Tree Guitars’ Highlights the Worst of Endemic Racism and ‘the Art of Resistance’

Vines’ Hanging Tree Guitars may eventually be a permanent exhibit in the Greenville Museum of Art.
Each song was chosen to address racism head-on. Also in September, a companion CD compiling sacred soul and folk blues recordings, mostly culled from the Music Maker Relief Foundation’s archives, will be released.
In September, the gorgeously illustrated book “Hanging Tree Guitars,” published by Bitter Southerner in conjunction with the non-profit Music Maker Relief Foundation, and named for guitars Vines carved using wood from a tree used in a lynching, will present the 78-year-old folk blues musician’s work as a luthier, sculpting guitars — each unique and made completely by hand.
One day, a man — a white man to be precise — offered Vines some fine wood from an old black walnut tree. Even Vines wasn’t sure it was true, at first. The man told him that someone had been lynched from that tree many years ago.
Vines has been making guitars and playing them most of his life.
Vines says wood speaks to him, and that black walnut spoke loud and clear.
In the book, edited by folklorist Zoe van Buren — folklife director at the North Carolina Arts Council — Vines' words are formed into poetic rumination, interspersed among tintype photographs by photographer and ethnomusicologist Timothy Duffy.
“But what about their brothers and sisters who got nothing?” “The latest generation of Black musicians have figured out how to get the money, god bless ‘em,” Duffy says.
Freeman Vines may not be a well known name in the music world, but his work is finally being recognized.
As a young musician, Vines heard a sound that struck his soul and he’s been searching, in vain, to find it again.
“I could play like there was two guitars playing. I was quite popular around here at one point,” Vines says, speaking to Variety from his home in Fountain, N.C. I could play the bass parts, the lead and the riffs. Unfortunately, his recordings are lost.
“This is the art of remembering and resistance,” he says of Vines’ work.” />
“No one talks about these things and the only way to get to a different place is to talk about it. “That man who gave Freeman the wood told him he was at that lynching,” Duffy states. That’s what artists do.”
Despite lifelong, intense poverty, his guitars are no longer for sale: they are too much a part of him, imbued with his story and that of his family — his ancestors arrived on the dock at Charleston in the 1700s.
More exhibits are on hold due to the pandemic, so a virtual exhibition on the Hanging Tree Guitars website was launched in early August. Earlier this year, Vines' work was displayed in the Hanging Tree Guitars exhibit at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Kent, on the southern English coast.
His teacher was a convict; his schoolbook a Marvel comic. Vines has lived a life as hard as any: growing up sharecropping, he learned to read and write at age 14 in the penitentiary in 1958.
“I heard it, but one time and never found it again.” That sound made me feel so good,” he muses. "It was an eerie sound and everything sort of stopped around it.
It sure did. “It felt like a big relief after I finished it and everything.” One night I had an eerie feeling, like somebody was looking at you behind you back, your know that feeling?” Vines says rhetorically. “The tree will tell you the truth, everything about it. I just had to start working on it.
Making guitars makes Vines feel good, too, he says, so he just keeps on making them, hand carving them, winding the pickups by hand, hoping that maybe he will find that sound in one of them.
“This is art born out of the resilience of the human spirit,” Duffy tells Variety of Vines' work. Duffy and his wife Denise cofounded the Music Maker Relief Foundation in 1994 to promote and support rural southern musicians.
“I thought this guy is trying to make a fool out of me,” he says. “He said, 'I actually am telling you the truth.'”
“It’s spiritually important to have an exhibit where his family and community can visit,” Duffy says.

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