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I began this blog in order to share my experiences learning instrument building from my dad, but along with those stories I look forward to sharing my memories of growing up with two busy, musically inclined parents as well as my current experiences stepping out on my own as a female luthier promoting environmental sustainability in her instruments while working to alter gender stereotypes in a male dominated field. If you'd like to use quotes from this blog for interviews or in your own work, please contact me first! (email is henderson.elizabethj@gmail.com)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Robert Frost

Something I feel I haven't expressed enough in the stories I write to you is how lucky I feel to get to do my job. Not just because I have the opportunity to hang out with my dad, which is something I hadn't done much until I started working with him, but because I get to meet some truly amazing people. The folks who trust me to build them a guitar are pretty much the best people I have ever met. The neat thing is that I get to know people beyond our mutual affinity for guitars and ukuleles. A shared love of To Kill a Mockingbird, appreciation for how much we love our dogs, or goats or catfish...To me, building someone a guitar is a very personal business. I attempt to meld what they imagine with what I want to make for them. Small custom touches, however, require me to know something inherent to my client's character. I like to think it is a trust in me to appreciate what I am told enough to turn that into a tangible part of the instrument I am making for them.

A specific example of one of these personal touches comes in the form of a tiny acorn that I inlaid on the fingerboard of a guitar now owned by a fellow named Mike. He told me that his most cherished book is a limited edition copy of a book of poems by Robert Frost, and stamped into the cover is a small acorn.  He hoped I could incorporate the design in his guitar somehow. Upon hearing about his admiration for Mr. Frost's work, a memory bubbled into my conscious thought; I recalled a face full of snow as I attempted to walk on snowshoes for the first time, which happened to take place at Robert Frost's house.

Robert Frost Farm, Ripton VT
During my time at Vermont Law School, I served as an intern for the Green Mountain National Forest. One of my favorite days while I was working with the Forest Service was the day I rode along with one of their law enforcement officers. After tracking some tree poachers, testing to make sure the correct trees were cut during a logging operation, and slipping down a snowy hill clutching to maple saplings in order to dig through illegally dumped trash, my reward was to visit Robert Frost's cabin. That February in Vermont was still a bit snowy, so in order to navigate the several feet of snow that covered the ground, Officer Mike (not the guitar orderer Mike) strapped my boots into snowshoes. "Go give em a try!" he encouraged. I took one step up the bank toward Robert Frost's house and due to the unwieldy nature of snowshoes, I promptly fell face first into a 5 foot drift of snow. I don't even think Mike laughed half as much as I would have had it not been me upended in the snow, struggling to right myself. Anyway, after practicing a bit more, we walked around the property and checked out the house. The property reminded me of home and my Granny, holding the same magic quietness of Rugby. I thought Robert and I probably would have had similar ideas of an awesome spot to hang out.

Testing out some snowshoes. It didn't turn out well.
When I delivered the guitar I made for Mike, he gave me a copy of that book of poems he referenced during our first phone conversation. The books are so pristine I have been reluctant to mess them up, but the other day I decided to carefully remove the delicate packaging and see what poems were in there other than the popular ones I already knew. While perusing the beautiful prose, one poem jumped out that solidified my suspicion that Robert would have loved hanging out Rugby. This particular poem, the power of which nearly knocked the breath from my lungs, is called Ghost House. (I have included it at the end of this post.) For me, the words paint such a vivid picture of loss and time gone by; I can't help but see my Granny's house become clear in my mind, once full of life, but it now sits lifeless, letting nature retake its claim on the land.

Frost's line, 'The footpath down to the well is now healed' especially reminds me of summertime with my Granny. Every time I visit now I search in vain for the path behind her house nestled between two hills that lead to the reservoir of the spring, the water from which is directed into the house. The path I am thinking of was barely wide enough for our feet. I remember walking one foot in front of the other, pretending to balance like a tightrope walker, careful to stay only on the dirt, avoiding any grass that leaned in my way. There was a black pipe sticking from the ground bubbling the overflow water from the spring's reservoir. As we sat recovering from the uphill climb, my Granny would always say, "That there is the best water there is. It is even better when you drink it straight from the mountain." We would both take sips from the pipe, savoring the cool clean water that really does taste better than any water I can remember drinking. I would lay down, my face pressed to the large cement slab that covered the reservoir and just listen to the water gurgle far below. The cement would always be warm, having been heated by the sun all day. Though it isn't anything of consequence, it is a fond memory. I am thankful for Mike for providing the kindling to spark that little memory from happy summers past.

I know in business folks who purchase the goods I provide are called clients. That doesn't sit quite right for me though as I really consider each person who trusts me enough to make them something that hopefully will remain part of their lives, to be passed down to their children, a friend. With each instrument I make and send to someone, a little bit of me goes with it. There is no way for me to separate my work from myself, so to me, business is extremely personal. I take comfort in the fact that I gain a new friend with each instrument I make and I want to make sure you all know how thankful I am that you allow me to have that opportunity.

Ghost House

I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
   And left no trace but the cellar walls,
   And a cellar in which the daylight falls
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
   The orchard tree has grown one copse
   Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.

I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
   On that disused and forgotten road
   That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
   I hear him begin far enough away
   Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.

It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folk are
   Who share the unlit place with me—
   Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad—
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,—
   With none among them that ever sings,
   And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

EmiSunshine and Smedley

I have been working on a neat ukulele this week. Not particularly special in terms of specifications, just a koa tenor style ukulele, but what is special is the recipient. Her name is EmiSunshine and she is kind of the cutest little girl I have ever met. She is an incredible singer, songwriter, and entertainer, but most of all she is just a kind energetic girl who loves that she gets to sing and play a ukulele.

EmiSunshine checking out my #7 guitar, built for Doc Watson
Emi, followed by her parents Randall and Alisha, walked into the shop on a foggy, sleety morning in January. I had a feeling we would be buddies just based on the fact that they have an accent as thick as my dad's, paired with a deep appreciation and respect for old guitars and vintage country music. And then Emi made my ukulele sound better than I can. After we spent an afternoon hanging out, eating barbecue cooked by my awesome cousin Becky and playing a little bit of music, I felt like I had known them forever. I think it is because their goodnatured demeanor fit perfectly with the laid back, simple character that defines Rugby. After listening to some new songs and talking about old guitars, what I didn't expect to have in common with Emi and her family was an ornery turkey situation.

Emi and her mom Alisha testing my uke
Have I ever told you about my dad's turkey Smedley? Well, I remember him as a feather headed monster, quite a bit larger than I was at the time, with a beak more dangerous than sticking your hand in a snapping turtle's hole. I was told to stay away from him, and though he never did anything to me I would run as fast as I could to the house if he ever caught sight of me outside. Anyway, before I knew Smedley, my dad would don a motorcycle helmet and leather riding jacket and box with Smedley out in the yard. I am told Smedley enjoyed it, but I am skeptical. On the other hand, I have never been in a situation where I wanted to box with a turkey.

While Emi and I played with Harper (Harper wouldn't dream of pecking anyone's eyes out) Alisha told us about their turkey Mr. Turk. It seems he has a similar mean streak that afflicted Smedley. When she drives up to her house he sees her coming and hightails it (ha!) to confront her before she heads into the house. She says uses her purse as a weapon or a shield, but he typically manages to chase her from the car to the house until she is breathing heavily behind the locked door. "I know something you could do to get even with him," my dad said. He then proceeded to tell us the story of how he thought he killed Smedley.

Wayne and Smedley
Granny's house has a chimney constructed of stacked gray rocks that handles the smoke from the woodstove in the kitchen. I remember the chimney being another area that my Granny would suggest I avoid because the cracks between the rocks were ideal for bees to make their hives. One day after a particularly brutal boxing match, my dad took a biscuit from the kitchen and sprinkled its crumbs out by the chimney. He then encouraged Smedley to come over and enjoy a little snack. He then went into the kitchen and pounded on the wall, expelling angered bees from their hives within the chimney. At first Smedley didn't seem to notice the bees, and my dad began to wonder if turkeys were immune to stings, or perhaps his feathers served as a sufficient shield. After a while though, that turned out not to be the case as Smedley forgot about his biscuit crumbs and twitched his feathers and jerked his head around to find what was afflicting him. He then took off toward the granary, a cloud of bees in pursuit above him. About halfway to the granary he flopped over into the grass. My dad said, "I thought, oh Lord, I killed ol' Smedley dead as a hammer." He waited for the bees to dissipate then walked out to check on the poor turkey. As he laid his hand on Smedley's limp wing, Smedley shot up and took off running into the woods as fast as his legs would carry him. My dad said he didn't see him again until lunchtime the next day.

Hopefully Alisha will have better luck with Mr. Turk and won't have to resort to a motorcycle helmet for protection from his wrath. Ornery turkey advice aside, I am so glad EmiSunshine and her lovely family came to brighten up a dreary winters day.

Harper, EmiSunshine and me