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more... ArchtopGear HistoryAugust 2011

Inseparable: Alf Binnie And His Archtop

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Inseparable: Alf Binnie And His Archtop

The prison camp was part of a complex that held as many as 47,000 inmates in horribly overcrowded conditions. Some reports say as many as 150 people lived and ate in 120' x 60' rooms. Prisoners were sent to work daily in nearby salt mines and stone quarries. Disease was rampant, and Joan Binnie says Alf felt fortunate to have never gotten dysentery, which was commonplace. Alf also avoided the hardest manual labor by virtue of being an officer. But he didn’t escape the prison’s ghastly dentistry, on one occasion having the wrong tooth pulled before passing out. “They (also) gave them very little to eat, which was very hard on them,” Joan says. “Mostly just soup and hard bread. I asked Alf how they managed to exist, and he said it was only because they were so young. Nineteen or 20. He said you could take a heck of a lot [at that age].”


Alf’s guitar features a bound headstock with a handsomely aged pearloid veneer that, unfortunately,
bears no labels or marks to indicate who made it. Note the well-worn tuning buttons and the zero fret.

A Light in the Dark
Alf ’s 6-string deliverance was made possible by a remarkably unusual circumstance—at least for a jazz musician: He didn’t smoke. Cigarettes were literally currency in the camp, and inmates could either smoke their meager tobacco rations or use them to buy personal effects. Somehow (Joan attributes it to a particularly compassionate camp commandant), Alf ’s desire to spend his saved-up cigarettes on a guitar moved up the chain of command and was approved. A prison guard apparently bought it on his behalf. The receipt from the August Becker Musical Instrument shop specifically notes that “The aforementioned instrument is the property of A.E. Binnie (inmate 39159). He has bought and paid for it out of his own means, or resources.”

When Alf got the guitar, says Joan, he “just about fainted. Because it was a beautiful thing and it was just handed to him. He was absolutely floored.” It was a copy of a Gibson L series, but nobody has been able to find a maker’s mark on it, so its provenance is unknown. A luthier who repaired its neck after the war said it is a very fine instrument. One can only imagine the solace and the relief from boredom such an instrument could afford. Not to mention the camaraderie that came from being able to form bands, which—according to accounts and photographs—was not uncommon. Performances, however, were rare, and life in camp was interrupted by lockdowns after escape attempts and outbreaks of disease. But it does seem that Alf was able to keep the guitar and play it basically when he felt like it. Joan relates that, at some point, Alf ran out of guitar strings and his father corresponded with one of the Dorsey Brothers (a popular jazz group from the 1920s and ’30s that was fronted by Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey), who helped arrange for delivery of a care package that included new strings.


At some point, Alf’s guitar—a copy of a Gibson L series archtop— was damaged and the neck needed to be rebuilt. According to his widow, Joan, the Canadian luthier who repaired it said it was a quality instrument.
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