Tag Archives: Music

Guitarchaeology and hidden black histories

Regular readers of my blog will know that I’m an enthusiastic, if not very talented, player of the acoustic guitar. What I love just as much as playing is the history of these instruments and the music that they have made, and in the past I’ve linked this to the main topic of my blog, biodiversity: see this post on restoring an old guitar.

October is Black History Month in the UK so it seems fitting to share this bit of guitarchaeology: Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines in Steele Missouri – A Research Paper by John Seabaugh

In this video essay John pulls together what’s known, and what he has inferred, about a formative period in the lives of two iconic early blues musicians. Give it a read/listen, it’s really interesting.

John kindly sent me a PDF of the paper so I’ve had a chance to study it closely. What especially struck me was the table of Nightclubs in the Bootheel that appears 4 minutes into the video. John lists 28 nightclubs, the names of all but two of which are known from contemporary newspaper reports. The two unnamed clubs both had black owners.

It’s known from occasional written references and oral histories that there were many other music and drinking joints that were owned, and frequented, by the African-American population in this area. But in an era of strict racial segregation the names of these venues were not recorded in any of the white-run media. A big part of black social history is thus undocumented. And given the importance of black music from this time in shaping popular music around the world, the loss of this history is a tragic loss for everyone.  

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Cherishing old wood: a guitar restoration story – UPDATED

UPDATE: After I posted this piece I shared it on a couple of Facebook guitar groups.  On the Parlor Acoustic Guitar Lovers Group one of the members, Mario Burgani, suggested that in fact the guitar might be Italian, made in Catania in Sicily.  I’ve done some searching online and I think that he’s correct.  Some of the features that I am seeing on Catania guitars on various websites are identical to mine, in particular the way the back of the guitar has been shaped to cover the heel of the neck, and the shape and design of the floating bridge, with the bone side pieces.  My thanks to Mario for pointing this out.

I have now corrected the post and removed mentions of German manufacture.


This post IS about biodiversity, eventually, but I need to give some background first….

Guitar-based music is a big part of my life, and has been since my teens.  However it wasn’t until I was about 20 that I first started playing guitar.  That’s late, and I wish I’d begun earlier, but neither of my parents were musical and there wasn’t the influence or encouragement.  It wasn’t until I finally left home for university, aged 22, that I started taking it in any way seriously and bought a half decent guitar (a 1986 Washburn D-12N, if you’re interested – I still have it and I’m very fond of it).  Before I started my PhD, in 1989, I played quite a lot and was involved with the local music scene in Oxford, working stage crew for bands.  It was a lot of fun and for a while I considered dropping my PhD and doing it full time.  Some of the guys I worked with went on to become part of Radiohead’s crew and have had careers in the music industry.  But, you know, life, kids, and science got in the way, the frequency of my playing became less and less, and for a long time I hardly picked up a guitar.

But in the past couple of years I’ve started to get back into it and am enjoying playing again.  A few things have prompted this.  The kids have all left home now, so I have more time.  I’m finding it relaxes me and it’s a good way to get away from work and social media and screens.  Also, there are many short “how to play” videos on YouTube, it’s like having a whole set of guitar tutors with different styles and approaches.  It’s not just about the music though: I have a fascination with taking apart guitars and fiddling with them, which leads me on to the point of this post.

Back in late September I was looking at vintage acoustic guitars on eBay and salivating over the Martins that were for sale, when a guitar caught my eye.  It was an old “parlour” guitar in pretty poor condition, and a steal at £50. Parlour guitars are small-bodied instruments that were popular in homes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the guitars with big bodies, such as the Dreadnought models, became the vogue.  They were the sorts of instruments used by early blues players – check out the photograph of Blind Lemon Jefferson on his Wikipedia page and you’ll see what I mean.

I was intrigued by the idea of having an old guitar with an authentic bluesy sound and also having a project to work on, restoring this instrument back to playable condition. The seller was based in Bedford, not far from Northampton, so Karin and I drove down there one Friday evening to pick it up.

Here’s a shot of the guitar as I bought it:

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The body was sound and undamaged.  The neck had a bit of a curve to it, but the brass frets were in good condition, though due to the fret board drying out over time their ends were protruding a little either side.  However the bone nut at the top of the neck was broken, the pressed metal tailpiece was quite scratched, the tuning heads rusty and a little bent, plus there were a few other dings and dents.  Here are some close-ups:

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Someone has strung it with nylon strings which is probably not what was intended for this instrument.  The point of a metal tailpiece like this is that it allows the guitar to have metal strings, which are under greater tension, without the need for more complex x-bracing under the soundboard to prevent it from warping or cracking:

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It was clearly not the most expensive of guitars when it was first made, but the marquetry around the sound hole is in perfect condition and nicely executed:

2019-10-05 10.37.54

There’s no manufacturer’s name or label in the guitar, no serial number or anything like that.  So I did a little research online.  It’s not the best quality guitar, as evidenced by the metal tailpiece which, as I mention, is designed to take the strain off the sound board when using metal strings.  The alternative is to have a fixed bridge but that requires more elaborate (= expensive) bracing under the soundboard. However it’s clear that the guitar was handmade, probably in Sicily,  by a local luthier, possibly in the 1920s, but certainly somewhere between 1900 and 1940: so it could be more than 100 years old.

The restoration of the guitar was fairly straightforward, the most complex part being the carving of a new bone nut from a blank that I bought online. The machine heads were removed, cleaned and oiled, then re-fitted; I could have replaced them but they were in decent condition given their age and I wanted to retain as much authenticity to the guitar as possible.  The frets were filed and a neighbour who is a metal worker polished up the tailpiece.  Most of the other work was fairly cosmetic – I didn’t want to touch the original finish.

Now we get to biodiversity.  A lot of wood goes into the construction of acoustic guitars.  In the case of this instrument, the soundboard is solid European spruce (Picea abies) that has aged to a beautiful golden colour.  When I took off the tailpiece its original colour was revealed; that tailpiece has probably never been removed before:

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That spruce top is book-matched: the two sides of the soundboard are symmetrical down the mid-line of the guitar, showing that they were split from the same board.  Book-matching is a common technique used by luthiers, both for aesthetic reasons and because it’s harder to get a single piece of tonally-acceptable wood of that width.  The tree from which it was cut was probably grown in a plantation; most old growth forest in Europe had been cut by the time this tree started growing.  If you count the number of growth lines across one half of the soundboard there’s about 60, which gives an indication of the  minimum age of the tree at harvest, i.e. it was at least 60 years old when it was felled.  If the guitar was made in around 1925, and given that the wood from the tree would have to season for at least a couple of years, perhaps longer, before it was used,  it means that the tree started growing some time in the mid-19th century.  So the tree that contributed the soundboard has lived through summers and winters of profound historical change in Europe.

The sides, back and neck of the guitar are mahogany, as is the bridge I think.  Nowadays “mahogany” can refer to a range of unrelated tropical trees – see this website for details.  But when this guitar was made, mahogany usually referred to wood from species in the genus Swietenia, which naturally grow in Central and northern South America, and the Caribbean.  So the tree that donated the wood was cut out of pristine, or at least long-established, tropical rainforest. One possible source is Belize which was exporting a lot of mahogany to Britain during this period, which may then have been exported all over Europe.

The fret board is probably Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) judging by the black streaks or “spider webbing” in the timber. Brazil banned exports of the wood in the 1960s but there’s still much illegal harvesting going on of these and other trees.  This species, and the three in the genus Swietenia, are in the IUCN categories “Vulnerable” or “Endangered” due to their over-exploitation, and are CITES-listed.

Some other, so far unidentified, woods were used in the construction of the guitar, in the marquetry around the sound hole, in the binding around the top, and in the end strap button.  The latter may be ebony from one of several species in the genus Diospyros, which are likewise protected.

The timber used to make these old guitars is a legacy of an age when rapacious exploitation of the world’s natural resources was considered almost a public duty.  There was little or no consideration for the ecosystems that were exploited, or how deforestation affected both wildlife and indigenous peoples.  To some extent the situation has improved and there are global efforts to conserve the old growth forest that remains, albeit with variable results.  But we are far from giving these forests the protection and restoration that they deserve.   Modern guitar makers need to take responsibility for sourcing their materials ethically and sustainably, which some are and some are not.  There’s a really interesting set of articles about this in the series Building a Sustainable Guitar at the Forest Legality website.  At the other extreme the Gibson guitar company pleaded guilty in 2012 to knowingly using timber that was harvested illegally in Madagascar, a trade that Pete Lowry of the Missouri Botanical Garden is quoted as calling the “equivalent of Africa’s blood diamonds”.

Old musical instruments, furniture, and other artifacts have history as well as carbon locked into their timbers.  Therefore I think that it’s incumbent upon us to cherish and use them and not consign the wood to the bonfire or to landfill.  If that sounds too sentimental, then so be it.  But there’s a practical side to this too: they are often better quality than more modern instruments and can be much cheaper.

All of my guitars have names that reflect something of their history.  During the drive down to pick up the guitar from Bedford there was the most incredible rain storm, water lashing across the road and windscreen wipers on full blast.  So I’ve named this guitar The Rainmaker.  You can see the finished result of the restoration in the images at the top of this post.  I’m pleased with it and I hope it lasts another 100 years at least.

One final thing: how does the guitar play and sound?  Well, as I said, the neck has a bit of a curve to it and there’s no truss rod to adjust it, so re-setting it would be a major job.  This means that the action (the distance between the strings and the frets) is very high, especially close to the body.  So I’ve tuned the guitar to an open E chord, have invested in a glass bottleneck, and am using it to learn to play blues slide guitar.  And it sounds pretty good, with a warm, mellow, and (yes) bluesy sound.






Filed under Biodiversity, Music

Vermicide: how do you deal with earworms?


Warning: biodiversity content almost nil; bad language content significant.


Language fascinates me, and one of the things that I find particularly intriguing is the way in which metaphors and analogies from the natural world find their way into our writing and speech.  We talk of a “bird’s eye view” or being as “slow as a snail”; say that “from little acorns large oaks grow”, and we are as “ravenous as wolves”.

Which leads me to earworms.  Nothing to do with real worms of course, but fragments of music that worm their way into your consciousness and stay fixed there, repeating over and over and over and over…….

According to Wikipedia other names include brainworm, sticky music, stuck song syndrome, and Involuntary Musical Imagery, but I’ve always known them as earworms.  And I’ve suffered from them for as long as I can remember; typically every couple of days I’ll have part of a song stuck in my head that I can’t get rid of.  In recent days it’s been “Long-haired Lover From Liverpool” by Little Jimmy Osmond (which I heard on a Top of the Pops Christmas Special); Joni Mitchell’s “River”; and “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin that featured on a YouTube playlist on New Year’s Day.

Earworms get worse when I’m stressed or when I have a hangover: indeed if I have drunk too much the night before (a rare occurrence these days) I will wake up with a headache, nauseous, AND SOME FUCKING SONG BOUNCING LOUDLY AROUND IN MY BRAIN LIKE A KANGAROO* ON AMPHETAMINES!

At their worst these earworms can last for days and be very hard to shift.  They can also wake me up in the middle of the night and stop me from getting back to sleep.  The only method that I’ve found that can suppress them is to sing another song to myself that masks the offending song.  After much experimentation I find that “In My Time of Dying”, another Led Zeppelin track, is the most effective, perhaps because it’s slow and not especially catchy.

(Bugger, my son James is tidying his bedroom and playing music and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” has just come on – almost guaranteed to get stuck in my head!)

If you also suffer badly from earworms I’d be interested to know what methods you use to shift the little blighters: what works for you?


*See what I did there?


Filed under Biodiversity and culture

Conservation: from CSN to CSR


The history of what might be loosely called “the conservation movement” is a complex one with roots that are both deep and ramified.  In the west, direct antecedents can be found in the work of 19th century pro-environmental writers such as Henry David Thoreau  and George Perkins Marsh, but there are arguably also more subtle influences from other sources, for example the “Northamptonshire Peasant Poet” John Clare  whose natural history inspired verse captured a rural way of life and a landscape that was rapidly disappearing:

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books

The later foundation of organisations such as the RSPB, the Audubon Society, and the precursors of the Wildlife Trusts gave impetus to environmental campaigns focused on specific issues such as species extinctions and destruction of important wildlife sites.  But it was in the 1960s that nature conservation, and environmentalism more generally, began to become of wider concern.  Again the influences were broad but certainly included both popular science writing such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and  the attitudes and campaigning of the counter-culture.   Yet a generation later, as a student studying the subject in the 1980s, it was clear to me that the mainstream had not fully engaged with what was still considered hippy, tree-hugging notions of saving the planet/whale/rainforest/ [delete as appropriate].

Having always been a fan of vintage West Coast rock,  these hippy ideals were on my mind at the start of last week when I travelled to the BBC’s Maida Vale studios to attend a recording of Radio 4’s Mastertapes featuring David Crosby and his band.  As well as playing music from his first solo album, the haunting and majestic If Only I Could Remember My Name, Crosby talked about his life and political activism.  The following evening Karin and I were back in London, this time at the Royal Albert Hall to see Crosby with his compadres Steven Stills and Graham Nash, performing as the incomparable CSN.  A number of songs from their back catalogue feature environmentalism in one form or another and, despite their vintage, they are as in touch with the political scene as ever.

Now, in the first decades of the 21st century, the green agenda has gone mainstream and it seems that every large business discusses the environment in their Corporate Social Responsibility statements.  So with only a few hours sleep I jumped from CSN to CSR, a theme that recurred during  the first Northamptonshire Local Nature Partnership conference held at the University the next day.  One hundred and twenty delegates heard talks that presented environmentalism and nature conservation from the perspectives of citizen health and well being, Christianity, on-the-ground conservation activities, and the needs of business and enterprise.  In the afternoon there were smaller showcase sessions and I presented an overview of pollination as an ecosystem service.  

Every organisation (public and private sector) wants to be “green” these days, which is a good thing of course if it’s genuine and well conceived.  But as David Rolton pointed out in his talk, businesses were few and far between at this event.  During the question-and-answer session I followed up David’s comment with a description of our experiences with the Biodiversity Index.  Despite winning a Green Apple Award, and having lots of verbal encouragement from the private sector, as soon as we explain to businesses that they have to pay to use the Index, all interest dissipates.  These are the same businesses who are willing to invest in green initiatives such as recycling and energy efficiency, presumably because it saves them money as well: it seems that CSR for most businesses does not extend beyond paying lip service to biodiversity, despite an economic input of over £30 billion that the UK receives  from the natural environment every year.  

It took time for businesses and other organisations to acknowledge their responsibilities to the environment, and to develop policies relating to recycling, non-pollution and resource efficiency.  It seems that businesses are only just beginning to acknowledge their societal (rather than corporate) responsibilities with regard to conservation, and it’s an ongoing process that exercises government.  But conservation of biodiversity has got to become a priority; once a species is lost it’s lost forever, and we erode not only a natural heritage that has evolved over billions of years, but also the direct and tangible benefits biodiversity gives us.  In the words of CSN: “It’s been a long time coming; it’s going to be a long time gone.


Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity Index, Ecosystem services, Evolution, History of science, Pollination, SEED project, University of Northampton