Selected excerpts from Freeman Vines’ The Hanging Tree Guitars

Wood talks to me.
See, this wood is saying something right here.

Wood has a character.

Wood has a character, like the good cooks found out that food has a character. Everything you do besides scratching yourself or combing your hair, everything you get involved with has a character of its own.
It may not be physical or spiritual, but it’s there. Like that lawnmower has a character. You probably couldn’t mow no grass with it, but I can.
Because I know it.

You already know that.

I’m a fool.
Anybody got some old wood with some type of character, like a root,
stuff like that intrigues me.
I can’t stand for them not to sell it to me.
They can find some old plank from those old mills around here and, man, I had to have it.
—Freeman Vines 


I was experimenting with sound,
reversing the polarity on the pickups
and winding them in phase, out of phase,
series, parallel, and using different capacitors.
You can find them in those watch capacitors that came out of those old model radios. You can hear the tonal quality of them.

They’ve got a soul now.
I went over to the boy’s shop over there.
He said, “Bro that guitar ain’t no good.”
I said, “You’ve got a Gibson.
All you’ve got is a conventional sound.”

—Freeman Vines 

They’re always made out of something or other that was some use to somebody.
Somebody used it.

The guy who plays the instruments I make is proud of them.
Because I don’t paint them.
I like them natural, because when a man wants a custom instrument,
he wants it to be his. He has to know what’s under there.

—Freeman Vines  

A renegade learnt me how to play.

When I started messing with a guitar,
it was with a little old white guy in Greene County.
I liked that man. He was Oscar Hopper.
When I got big enough to start hanging with the boys,
and I attempted to play a little bit, they laughed.
They called it hillbilly music, because that was all I knew, what he showed me.
Then the guys started coming out with
John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, and them.
I found the same stuff I knew was just what they were playing.
Just in a different manner, and a different sound to sing it.
That’s all it was.

I don’t know what was wrong with Mr. Oscar.
He broke all the rules.

Me and Mr. Oscar were all right,
but the others weren’t all right unless you were out there plowing their mule.
Mr. Oscar was actually a friend, and that was strange.
Ma told me all the time,
“The Ku Klux Klan is gonna get you, boy, hanging ’round with that white man.”
Yeah, his son’s still living over there. Just as nice as he can be.
But he goes by the old rules.
You know what I’m talking about when I say they’ve got their own rules, don’t you?

—Freeman Vines  

Any tree could be a hanging tree, but that tree there had a purpose.

More than one man had been hung on that tree.
When your mother came in and looked at you and said:
“Boy, you didn’t see or hear nothing, did you?”
You answer no. And she means it.
Because someone told her:
“That boy’s out here running his mouth about what happened down the road there.”
You’d get stomped to death. I mean dead.
So you know not to talk about stuff like that.
You didn’t say nothing about it.
Who they hung, or how many they hung, I don’t know.
A whole lot of that stuff happened around here, God almighty knows.

But I’m telling you the truth about the hanging tree. It’s a shame people are scared to tell.
—Freeman Vines 


Everybody knew about the Klan.
We had some undercover white folks that told us stuff.
But you had sometimes to keep your mouth shut.

All those folks would put the pillowcase on their heads.
They didn’t give a damn about you looking at them.
They still go by the old rules, the older people.
The younger folks they just done got foolish, but the older ones still go by the same rules.
They got their rules over there like they’ve got their rules down in Alabama.
Race, all of it. They’ll kill you, too.
If you don’t know it, you can read it.
They get their little group together if you’ve done something
and they feel like the law ain’t gonna take care of you.
I had learned that the white man was what controlled the code.

A white man is a dangerous man.
If you stay out of his damn territory, out of his world, you can make it.
—Freeman Vines