One of my guitars is a glorified piece of garbage, but it has a story behind it.
It was built in a Jersey City factory, in the 1920s, whereupon it was shipped to an Atlanta music store. Probably during that same year, it was bought by a man who was visiting Atlanta from Britain. He took it to England, and that was that.
Almost ninety years later, I bought it from a kid who was visiting Florida from Devonshire, England. He played this old American guitar for me and I fell in love.
It was a crummy old thing. Falling apart. And really, if I’m being honest, it was a piece of junk. But I have a soft spot for old junk.
I’ve been playing a guitar for most of my life, and after all these years I can truly say that I still suck at it. I have to hold my mouth right just to play certain chords.
But the real reason I wanted this guitar was because when I was a kid, my father bought me one just like it. Same brand, same shape, same size, and model. My father got it at a garage sale. He gave it to me one summer day and seemed to simply expect me to learn how to play it.
He was always doing things like this. Years later, when I was nine, he did the same thing with a piano. He gave me one and told me to teach myself. It took me almost a lifetime to learn to play—this is not a joke—“Happy Birthday.” Because this is not as easy of a song as you might think.
When the tune gets to the happy-birthday-dear-So-And-So part, the chord doesn’t work with the melody.
So I never quite figured it out. Which would often make me look like a complete dipstick at, for instance, birthday parties. Because during the apex of the big song, when people would sing the birthday-person’s name, the idiot at the piano would just stop playing and say, “Wait! Let’s all try that again!”
Anyway, as a kid I would carry the guitar my father gave me wherever I went. There was a rope attached to the neck. I’d sling it over my shoulder and go with the wind.
I have old Polaroid pictures of me sitting beside my uncle, who was playing his Martin. And there I am, holding my trusty guitar, wearing a diaper.
It’s not clear why I am wearing a diaper since I am almost five years old in the photo. Whenever I ask my mother about this diaper business, her only answer is to pat my hand and say, “Everyone is different, sweetie.”
It is concerning to see photos of a kindergarten-age kid still requiring the aid of a loincloth meant to catch poop. But then, I was a late bloomer. A late bloomer in everything. Always have been. I have never done ANYTHING ahead of schedule.
One good example of this would be: Peeing the bed.
I was a notorious bed-wetter. I would sleep so soundly that when I would awake, my rubber sheets would be saturated, and my mother would already be getting the shower ready.
My mother was desperate to break me of this habit, she tried everything on me. Even painful clothespins.
News of this spread like wildfire on the playground. Soon, when my friends would see me coming, they would start singing “I’ve Got A River Of Life Flowing Out Of Me.”
The way I actually stopped wetting the bed was because of a clever plan my father devised. His plan involved an alarm clock beside my bed that went off twice during the night. Once at midnight; once at 3 in the morning.
The deal was that I HAD to crawl out of bed to go pee—and here was the important part—even if I didn’t have to pee.
So I would stumble into the bathroom at 12 A.M. and 3 A.M every night. Mostly, I would just stand before the toilet, whistling “Happy Birthday.” And it worked. I never wet the bed again after that. And to this day, I still find myself wandering into the bathroom at 12 A.M. and 3 A.M.
I cannot believe I just told you that.
But I say all this to prove my point, which is that sometimes it’s good to be reminded of your past. And this cheap guitar brings that back to me.
So when I play it at my shows, or on the porch, this hundred-year-old thing reminds me of history. It reminds me of my ancestors. And the instrument I once slung over my childhood back. Back when I felt hopeful about things. A time when I was old enough to do long division, but also still wearing diapers.
I’ll never forget the night when the kid from the U.K. sold me the guitar. He was counting the cash when he said, “I can’t believe you wanted this duff guitar. Why do you want it?”
“No reason,” I said. “It just reminds me of someone I once knew.”
Then the kid said, “So play something for me.”
He handed me the instrument. I picked the strings. Holding my mouth just right.
The kid said, “Hey, I recognize that tune. What song is that?”
The song was “I’ve Got A River Of Life Flowing Out Of Me.”