December 30, 2019

Photo credit: Laura Frederick

Time passes. Tempus fugit and all that. The calendar turns yet another arbitrary number and we hear the cries of “Here we go again! This year will be the best of all!”

That and jokes about 2020 vision.

I am reminded of someone simpler. Her name is Billie. It’s the name of one of my guitars. I named it after, yes, THAT Billie.

Billie Holiday.

My Billie is a Gibson guitar. Let me tell you a story.

Some years ago I found myself in the Halifax Folklore Centre. It is a dangerous place for me. I was on the hunt for a tenor guitar when I spied with my little eye a lovely specimen hanging from the ceiling beam.

“What is that?” I asked.

“It’s a Gibson L3. Wanna try it?”

Do I like ice cream?

He brought it down for me. Small, parlour size. Carved top and back. “The Gibson” inlaid on the headstock. Narrow frets, almost wires. An ancient manufacturer’s sticker on the inside with the model and serial number written in pencil. Black varnish worn from the first to third position on a “V” shaped neck – no truss rod, then.

This was an old guitar. I played it. Beautiful, bold, brassy. Lead licks sounded, oh, so sweet. Rhythm could cut through damn near anything.

How old?

“1914” the man at the counter said. “Previous owner couldn’t play anymore because of arthritis. He’d had it for a very long time.”

Long story short, I took her home with me. I christened her Billie.

And she’s been with me ever since. She is 106 years and wears her age well.

She was born when the first world war began in Europe, one year before the real Billie Holiday came to this earth. When Ernest Shackleton survived his Antarctic expedition without losing a man in his crew. Not even twenty years had passed since Louis Riel was tried, convicted and hanged in a five day, trumped-up trial in Winnipeg. The great depression. The Winnipeg General Strike. Lived through second war, the Korean war, the cold war, the Cuban missile crisis. She was born before amplifiers. When 78’s were all the rage with the Charleston and the Flappers, and Prohibition. When Al Capone did business in the backwoods of Eastern Ontario.

Open tunings on her sound magical, harplike. I have had her re-fretted, made some changes so she could be plugged into a sound system.

And I can already hear the purists say, “Ohmigawd, why are you doing that to a collector’s item?”

I will tell you why.

Billie is meant to be played, to make music, to bring joy to a desperate world. I refuse to hang her on a wall and show her off like some hoarder’s trinket, to value her worth as an appraised resale item.

No, sir. Billie is meant to make music. Billie Holiday, “Lady Day”, one of the most influential musicians in vocal jazz and pop culture in the mid-twentieth century, died when she was only 44 from her demons, both the ones inside her and the ones who mistreated her.

My Gibson has outlived her two and a half times. I call her Billie to honour the memory. To keep the music going.

(The recording you hear on this blog edition is an original song, “Boogie with the Reaper” played on the Gibson. It will appear on my upcoming CD, “Caught” (c) 2017 Edward St Moritz)