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

A book, companion CD and virtual exhibit celebrates the life and work of musician and luthier Freeman Vines.

Freeman Hanging Tree Guitars Featured Image
Courtesy of Timothy Duffy

Freeman Vines may not be a well known name in the music world, but his work is finally being recognized.

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.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of Timothy Duffy

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.

“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.

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. Each song was chosen to address racism head-on.

“The latest generation of Black musicians have figured out how to get the money, god bless ‘em,” Duffy says. “But what about their brothers and sisters who got nothing?”

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. More exhibits are on hold due to the pandemic, so a virtual exhibition on the Hanging Tree Guitars website was launched in early August.

Vines has been making guitars and playing them most of his life.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of Timothy Duffy

“I could play like there was two guitars playing. I could play the bass parts, the lead and the riffs. I was quite popular around here at one point,” Vines says, speaking to Variety from his home in Fountain, N.C. Unfortunately, his recordings are lost.

As a young musician, Vines heard a sound that struck his soul and he’s been searching, in vain, to find it again.

“It was an eerie sound and everything sort of stopped around it. That sound made me feel so good,” he muses. “I heard it, but one time and never found it again.”

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.

One day, a man — a white man to be precise — offered Vines some fine wood from an old black walnut tree. The man told him that someone had been lynched from that tree many years ago. Even Vines wasn’t sure it was true, at first.

“I thought this guy is trying to make a fool out of me,” he says. “He said, ‘I actually am telling you the truth.’”

Vines says wood speaks to him, and that black walnut spoke loud and clear.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of Timothy Duffy

“The tree will tell you the truth, everything about it. It sure did. I just had to start working on it. One night I had an eerie feeling, like somebody was looking at you behind you back, your know that feeling?” Vines says rhetorically. “It felt like a big relief after I finished it and everything.”

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. His teacher was a convict; his schoolbook a Marvel comic.

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.

Vines’ Hanging Tree Guitars may eventually be a permanent exhibit in the Greenville Museum of Art.

“It’s spiritually important to have an exhibit where his family and community can visit,” Duffy says.

“That man who gave Freeman the wood told him he was at that lynching,” Duffy states. “No one talks about these things and the only way to get to a different place is to talk about it. That’s what artists do.”

“This is the art of remembering and resistance,” he says of Vines’ work.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of Timothy Duffy