Friday, 6 June 2008

Music on the battlefields of World War II (Part two of three)


Artie pulls a shapeless piece of thick cloth, the colour of unbleached cotton, out of an open suitcase. At first glance, it looks like it might be a straightjacket. There is a large round hole, roughly in the centre of it. A row of wooden pegs poke through the end of a long, reinforced tab. The tight stitching along the seams has pulled the fabric into ridges, giving it the appearance of a garment turned inside out.

He throws it onto the floor of the dressing room, shuffling around on his knees, spreading it out and smoothing it over with his hands as, behind him, the lid of the case slowly falls closed. We all stare down at the mangled form of a guitar, squashed almost flat on the bare concrete. The material is bruised with oil stains and brown tide marks.

“That looks pretty creased Artie,” says Bill. “Want me to iron it for you?”


He pulls on the fret board so that it looks slightly less crooked than before, then gets himself upright and rubs his back.

“Ok, starch it and string it.”

Mike unzips a bulging canvas holdall, stuffed full of aerosols.

“You might want to cover your mouth,” he says.

He removes two of the canisters from the bag. Taking one in each hand he begins to spray them erratically a couple of feet above the cloth. Everybody retreats to the walls, as a petroleum-smelling vapour fills the room.

“Always comes home smelling of that stuff,” says Ruth looking disapprovingly in Artie’s direction, from her chair in the far corner

“It hides the smell of pussy”

“Like at your age anyone’s going to be throwing some of that your way.”

The cloud begins to drift towards the outer reaches of the room, engulfing the food on a nearby buffet table.

“Didn’t think we’d be eating those sandwiches anyhow,” says Bill

“Won’t be now,” replies Mike.

On the floor in front of us, the body of the guitar is rising like a loaf of bread, taking on a three-dimensional shape.

Artie nudges me in the side with a bony elbow.

“You seen that before?”

“I saw that footage James Ashling shot of you in the 60s.”

He nods. In front of us the hissing of the aerosols stops. Mike reaches down and flips the guitar onto its back. The material is mottled with wet and dry patches. He shakes the cans and then carries on spraying, up and down the instrument.

“The fretboard is hollow,” says Bill “I made it with pockets sewn inside. They trap the air and help with the sustain. The drawback is that the sound becomes a little unpredictable. Not one for the perfectionists.”

“It’s a quality instrument that favours the more intuitive musician…” says Artie, adopting the cultured tones of classical music buff.

“…Unlike those cheap-ass ones he sells on his website.”

“I prefer to think of them as authentic,” says Bill. “They’re based on the same design as the ones the U.S. airmen used to make with their parachutes*.”

The aerosols begin petering out, until they are weakly spraying air. Mike places them on the table next to the platter of tainted sandwiches. The guitar lies face down on the floor, its sides bulging outward, as if it has been overfilled with air. He stands it upright, fishes a notched cardboard spool of guitar strings from his pocket and begins attaching the wires, one by one to the bridge, running them along the fret board and forcefully tying them off around the wooden pegs.

“The tuning isn’t so important,” remarks Bill. “Once you apply the spray the guitar enters a dynamic state. You play it more on what feels right.”

As Mike fixes the last string, Artie wanders over and inspects his work.

“Tell them just one spot, behind me, centre stage,” he says. “Nothing too low. And no footlights.”

“Will do,” says Mike as he leaves the room.

Artie picks up the guitar by the neck and offers it to me.

“You wanna get a feel for it?”

It weighs much less than I expect, like something made out of plywood. In spite of being drenched by the aerosols, the material is already remarkably dry. I turn it over, as if I am about to play it left handed. The bodywork leaves greasy smudges on my shirt.

“Don’t play it or nothing. It’ll throw my act off time,” says Artie.

On the concrete floor, a dense oily stain surrounds the stencilled, slightly wonky double image of a guitar.

“Practically every place we’ve played has something like that,” says Bill. “I like to think of it as leaving an authentic piece of blues memorabilia on the premises.”

Artie takes the instrument from me. He leans against the buffet table, one corner wedged between his buttocks and plays a couple of bars. It’s a hard pitted sound, more like a drum than a guitar; a sound with all the melody slapped out of it.

“When it’s tight like that, it eats up the harmonics. A quarter of an hour and it’ll begin to warm up.”

The door to the room opens a crack and the promoter puts his head around the side.

“We’re ready when you are John,” says Bill.

“Give it five minutes. We’re just getting the last of the equipment off stage.”

* * * * *

Artie’s live set is tailor-made to suit the changing state of his guitar. The punchy, primitive blues of the first three songs gradually shifting towards something more melodic as the fibres in the material loosen up.

It’s a performance that stands as a metaphor for a life of scrapes and hard knocks - a musical journey from the brash, vigour of youth to the feebleness of old age. During the last five minutes of the set, the guitar is withering in Artie’s hands. It’s deeply moving, watching him battle to get music out of an instrument that will no longer play the tune he wants, or any tune at all. After a chain of bum notes it finally gives out on him, leaving him to bark and growl the remainder of the song a cappella, the wilted instrument hurled down onto the stage at his feet.


Circa 1941, it was common knowledge among American airmen that an engine lubricant, in general use by the U.S. military, acted as a powerful starch on parachute material. It wasn’t long before enterprising troops harnessed this discovery for their purposes, employing any needlework skills they had in stitching surplus fabric into items of furniture. Typically they crafted tables and small stools, which could be made rigid with the application of engine lubricant and then collapsed and easily transported when not in use. Other soliders, more interested in self preservation, used the same materials to create primitive bullet proof vests. While these were of low quality, they undoubtedly saved some lives.

The first nylon musical instruments appeared around 1942, with guitars being most popular, although violins and even cellos and double basses were also developed. An uncredited sewing pattern for what became the standard guitar model appeared in the November 1943 edition of American Patriot magazine, which was freely circulated among U.S. Servicemen.

Nylon guitars, in their early incarnation, could be played for up to ten minutes before the taut bonds, that gave the fabric its rigidity, weakened and the material reverted to its original state. Short sets of well-known songs were soon replaced by bespoke compositions that often took the form of extended monologues with musical accompaniment – a style that is still occasionally referred to as 'G.I. Blues'. Staples such as Bearcat Blues and Monday Morning Dewdropper were all written on the battlefield; their hazy origins and multiple authors eventually leading them to be credited to ‘The Unknown Solider’, following numerous court cases.

The instrument also provided a leg-up for groups such as The Torpedoes and solo artists like Nils Parker, who honed their skills while on active duty and then went on to enjoy fruitful careers in the entertainment industry after the war. The most successful of these groups - The Big Six - toured for almost four decades across America and Europe, before taking up residency at Laredo’s Casino in Las Vegas. Here they continued to play sell-out shows five days a week until 1997 when the last original member of the group - Colonel John Wilson - passed away.

Dismissed as a novelty instrument for much of the 1980s and 90s the nylon guitar has enjoyed a reversal of fortunes at the beginning of the 21st century with many new groups championing the instrument. This in turn has lead to new designs becoming commercially available. Somewhat controversially the patent on the instrument is held by the American armed forces. Although it has been disclosed that profits from the sale of the guitars go to a fund dedicated to providing care and support for American soldiers injured in the line of duty, there remains an active online trade in versions of the instrument that do not line the pockets of the U.S. Military.

No comments: