Sunday, September 22, 2002

Spokane

Guitar's story almost surely a tale of genius
Thrift store, Woody Guthrie seem to share link, Doug Clark says.

Doug Clark
The Spokesman-Review

Today's adventure in journalism is part "Antiques Roadshow," part "Unsolved Mysteries."

Our tale centers around a battle-scarred brown acoustic guitar that once sold in a Spokane thrift store for 2 bucks. Remember that figure.

This took place back in the late 1960s. The guitar, an inexpensively made model called a Slingerland May Belle, was split open along one side and covered with grime. A bird had built a nest inside.

The buyer, an instrument repairman, cleaned it up and
glued it back together. While doing so he discovered something that put this guitar on a path bound for glory rather than one bound for a garage sale.

The something was a name that had been scratched crudely into the guitar's face.

Woody Guthrie.

If that name doesn't register, congratulations. You just flunked Popular Music 101.

Guthrie, who died broke in 1967, is the father of modern American folk music.

The slightly built troubadour strummed and bummed his way across the country during the Dust Bowl 1930s. Often borrowing melodies from hymns and popular tunes, Guthrie's original, sometimes-pointed lyrics championed the downtrodden and afflicted the affluent.

Every kid who has ever set foot in a summer camp has probably warbled Guthrie's most famous ditty, "This Land is Your Land."

But his most important achievement was as a role model for the next generation of musicians. These folk/rock balladeers discovered that, thanks to Guthrie, a mere song could be a mighty weapon for social change.

Without Guthrie there would be no Bob Dylan. No Bruce Springsteen. And on and on.

Guthrie spent May 1941 touring the Inland Northwest, including Spokane. Commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration, Guthrie cranked out 26 songs during that prolific month. One of the tunes, "Roll On, Columbia," eventually was adopted as Washington's official folk song.

And if Jim Kalmenson is right, Guthrie composed "Roll On, Columbia" and the other 25 while plucking -- you guessed it -- that lowly May Belle.

Kalmenson, 43, is general manager of a Los Angeles Spanish-speaking radio station. He also hosts a Sunday night folk music radio show and is an unabashed Woody Guthrie devotee.

"He's the heart and soul of folk music in this century," says Kalmenson.

Last April, Kalmenson flew to Spokane and paid $5,000 for that Guthrie-signed guitar.

The man he bought it from is Nick Faber. A retired Whitworth professor, Faber obtained the guitar from the aforementioned repairman about six months after it was liberated from the thrift store.

That was only fair. Faber, who collects musical instruments, says he saw the guitar first, but passed on it because of its dreadful condition.

"I figured I'd buy it for $2 and then spend 200 bucks fixing it up," says Faber.

When Faber saw it again at the repairman's shop, he realized what he had missed out on. Faber says he asked the man to give him first dibs if it ever went up for sale. Sure enough, the man called Faber and let it go.

Faber laughs. "For 200 bucks."

So to recap our saga, this broken guitar with a bird's nest jumped in value from $2 to $200 to $5,000.

If only the stock market performed this well.

But this is chicken scratch compared to what the May Belle might be worth if Kalmenson can establish Guthrie ownership.

As it turns out, there are very few bona fide Guthrie guitars still floating about. One of them, it's rumored, was sold recently to gazillionaire Paul Allen for his Seattle-based Experience Music Project.

The price was said to be $100,000.

You only have to talk to Kalmenson a few minutes, however, to realize that he didn't buy the guitar to score a windfall. He stumbled on it one night while searching the Internet for Woody Guthrie items. Faber had mentioned it on his Web site.

Displaying the guitar, Kalmenson believes, is yet another way to keep Guthrie's legacy alive.

But the question remains: Did this guitar really belong to Guthrie?

That's the mystery, although the circumstantial evidence is persuasive. Aside from the name, the letters WWG are faintly scratched into one spot on the guitar's back.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was the singer's full name.

Written deep inside the guitar with a pencil are the words "Property of Woody Guthrie OK." Guthrie was from Oklahoma.

"Nobody would do something like that if they were trying to create a replica," says Kalmenson.

Guthrie was a notorious doodler, known for scrawling his name and drawing on practically everything he owned.

In his quest to legitimize the guitar, Kalmenson located Portland resident Elmer Buehler, the BPA employee assigned as Guthrie's chauffeur and guide during his monthlong tour of the Inland Northwest.

Examining photographs of the May Belle, Buehler signed an affidavit confirming that "After spending countless hours with Woody Guthrie and the guitar in his possession, I clearly recollect that the guitar depicted below is the same guitar ..."

Finally, Kalmenson took the guitar to Barry Ollman. The Denver stockbroker owns the largest private collection of Guthrie papers.

"My sense of this guitar is that it feels right," says Ollman. "I can't say it's definitely his guitar. But I feel Woody owned this guitar at one time."

The ultimate proof, of course, would be a photograph of Guthrie with guitar in hand. But so far, none has been found.

And other questions remain.

Who had the guitar before it made its way into that Spokane thrift store?

Guthrie always was teetering on the edge of financial ruin. Did he have to sell it while he was here? Did he give it away as he was sometimes known to do?

Faber has no regrets about selling an instrument that could be worth a small fortune.

"I did what I wanted to do and have no bad feelings at all," he says. "To me there's no question in my mind or heart but that it's authentic and I thoroughly enjoyed having it as long as I did."

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at dougc@spokesman.com.


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