Grand-daddy Morton’s Guitar

This ain’t just any ol’ guitar; it helped shape who I am.

“Rosewood, very elaborate inlayings around sound hole, top elegantly inlaid around the edges, two Celluloid inlaid stripes in sides, beautifully inlaid stripes around the back and through the center, edges all Celluloid bound. Oval Ebony fingerboard bound and richly inlaid with pearl; in all representing the most artistic, yet richest display of ornamentation, of any style quoted.”[1]

So read the 1889 advertisement for the Style 206 New Model guitar offered by the George Washburn Company of Chicago, IL. The list price for the concert size instrument was “$65.00, no discount, strictly cash.” Washburn offered this guitar for many years.

Perhaps Roy Morton, read these or similar words as he chose this model to purchase for his wife, Katherine. Roy and Katherine were married June 22, 1898 and made their home in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Their first daughter, Helen, my mother’s mother, was born in 1899.

The occasion is no longer known, but at some time Roy gave the guitar to Katherine as a gift. I envision her singing along as she played the guitar for her family, but no one is around to tell us for whom or how much she played. Katherine died in 1920 of pneumonia, a result of complications associated with the Spanish Flu.

Apparently, the guitar sat idle for more than 30 years until “Grand-daddy Morton” gave it to my mother sometime in the 1950’s. My mother never took an interest in playing the guitar, but her husband did. Dad made whatever repairs were necessary and proceeded to teach himself to play.

I have many memories of his playing that guitar. One that comes to mind as I write this, was in June 1965. Eight inches of rain fell in the afternoon, filling Kiowa Creek to its banks, threatening the town of Elbert, Colorado. The citizens felt it unsafe to stay in their homes so many of them gathered at the Elbert school which was situated on higher ground. The only thing I remember about that gathering is Dad leading the group in a sing-along, accompanied by Grand-daddy Morton’s guitar. (That’s how the guitar came to be known over the years, even though, “Grandmother’s guitar” would have been more accurate.) Dad has always enjoyed playing, alone or with others. He has added many guitars to his collection over the years and he is still playing at age 89.

Later, my Dad taught me to play – initially on Grand-daddy Morton’s guitar – and before long, a new one that my parents bought for me. We have enjoyed many hours playing together – it remains a special thrill for me to play with him.

Dad passed Grand-daddy Morton’s guitar along to me last year. The years had taken their toll on the old guitar. The face was badly scratched from enthusiastic picking and other mishaps and the body was cracked in several places, probably due to spending over a century in the dry Colorado climate. It had been repaired many times, but more cracks kept appearing; it was time to take it to a professional. So, on December 30, 2019, I took it to the Westmoreland String Workshop in Ligonier, PA.

Joe, the craftsman, told he this would take a while; repairs were needed, and prior repairs needed to be undone. But first, the poor old guitar needed to rest in a humid environment for a time to make the old rosewood less brittle. Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic delayed the restoration of the guitar just as the Spanish flu pandemic had resulted in its decades of silence. The shop was closed for months and so the guitar was in quarantine until May. The wait was worth it, though. The cracks are healed, the rattles are gone, and the rich tone of the guitar is back. My wife, Dianne, did some refinishing work to make it shine. The scratches remain but who doesn’t show some wear after a hundred years?

The old guitar still plays well and fingers easily. The sound echoes as the strings are strummed but, for me, it’s more than that. It echoes the memories of my childhood and stirs the imagination of my ancestral heritage. To me, that old guitar is worth far more than the $65.00 cash, Roy Morton paid the George Washburn Company or the considerably more than that I paid Joe to repair the cracks. It’s priceless and I’ll cherish it until I’m gone and someone else becomes the proud owner of Grand-daddy Morton’s guitar.

Jim


[1] “Washburn Prewar Instrument Styles: Guitars, Mandolins, Banjos and Ukuleles” …By Hubert Pleijsier

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