SLOAN COLUMN: The haunting story behind ‘Hanging Tree Guitars’
The better part of Freeman Vines’ 79 years on earth has been spent searching for a particular sound he heard long ago. That sound, heard on a guitar played in an old country church decades ago, has haunted him all these years.
He’s still searching for it and has no intent of stopping anytime soon. Some might call him obsessed and he wouldn’t argue.
While the sound has proved elusive, the life-long quest of the Fountain, N.C. luthier/artist has produced dozens of handcrafted guitars that are both unique musical instruments and breathtaking works of art.
No two of Vines’ guitars are alike. While commercial guitar companies like Gibson or Fender seek uniformity in their instruments, Vines seeks singularity. He closely considers the unique qualities of the wood and allows his own artistic spirit to connect with its character and its history.
Vines says he lets the wood, be it from an old mule trough, a torn down tobacco barn, or a broken piano, speak to him and then “ follows its lead.”
Three of Vines’ creations are on display as part of the current “No Place Like Home” exhibit at University Place Gallery in Downtown Florence. One guitar is made from mahogany birch and the body is carved into the shape of a leaf. Another is made from the lightwood of a logging tree.
The real eye-catcher is a six-string with a wide strip of dark wood at its center and two lighter pieces adjoining it on either side. A winged bird in flight is etched just above the bridge.
What makes this instrument so special is that it is one of Vines’ “Hanging Tree Guitars.” The wood at the center of the guitar came from a black walnut tree that was used in the lynching of a black man in 1930. The lighter wood was taken from the soundboard of a Steinway grand piano.
Vines has crafted hundreds of guitars over the years, but the ones made from the black walnut have received an astounding amount of attention and praise, and rightfully so. Their craftsmanship and the story behind the wood used to create them are haunting.
Vines completed the first guitar made from the black walnut in 2017. Three planks of black walnut wood had been lying around his disheveled workshop for several years. He had gotten them from a white neighbor who lived down the road. The neighbor first gave him permission to use the wood, but then changed his mind. “You may not want to use that wood,” he told Vines. “It was used in a hanging.”
Vines brought the wood home but could not bring himself to do anything with it.
When Vines partnered with author and photographer Timothy Duffy to publish a book, he told his new partner about the three planks of dark wood. Duffy’s research led him to Wilson County where he documented the story behind the tree from which the planks had been and the ungodly crime for which it was used.
In the early 1930s, Oliver Moore was a Black tenant farmer and shoe repairman who was accused of raping the white landowner's daughters. He was arrested, but a white mob abducted him from the Tarboro jail and took him back home. They hung him from the tree in front of his home. With his family watching from inside the house, Moore's hanging body was then riddled with bullets. He was shot 200 times. The lynching was reported in local newspapers, but otherwise earned little attention.
Vines admits he was scared of the wood. He wasn’t interested in the sound qualities. The idea that Oliver Moore’s blood would be in the wood haunted him. It took a while, but Duffy eventually convinced him to create a guitar from the wood. That first guitar took a little more than two years to complete.
“That wood spoke to me,” Vines admits in “The Hanging Tree Guitars,” published by The Bitter Southerner in 2020. “It had a spirit in it that I don’t have words to explain.”
The book led to an offer to put Vines’ craftsmanship on display across the Southeast. A large collection of his guitars is presently on display at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Blind in one eye and with only a third grade education, Vines does not wander from his home or workshop very often. He is not big on being the center of attention and is content working on his latest creations. His time is better spent, continuing his pursuit of the sound that has eluded him.