Sometimes the craziest of ideas can be terrifically inspiring. This one involves a guitar and a nation.
In 1995 Canada was coming apart at the seams. A host of proposed constitutional amendments that would dramatically shift power from the federal to provincial governments was stirring arguments among Canadians. Revolutions had been fought over such things. In the United States, over 700,000 people were butchered in their Civil War that was spurred by the question of state power. Canadians reach not for guns but gavels. We debate. We argue at kitchen tables and over backyard fences. But in 1995, it was getting ugly.
The national tension inspired Jowi Taylor. The CBC writer and radio host met with luthier George Ritzsanyi and suggested that they make a guitar. They would call it Voyageur. Ritzsany was a first-generation Hungarian immigrant who had become renowned among guitar lovers for his unique and fine work. But this would not be just any guitar.
Taylor would assemble this guitar from fragments of the nation to which it would be dedicated. David Suzuki, the well-known environmentalist and TV host, was instrumental in pointing Taylor to the Golden Spruce. It was the rare, 300-year-old albino tree on Haida Gwaii that is sacred to the Haida people. It became a symbol of resistance to broken treaties and land rights encroachments when, in the middle of the night, an angry logging scout chainsawed the tree to the ground. Suzuki introduced Taylor to Haida elders and, after great debate, they agreed that the guitar would be an honoured place for part of the felled tree to live on.
The tree was an inspiring first step but Taylor needed more items to embed in the guitar and money to support their collection. He called his project The Six String Nation. He set up a website and wrote emails and snail mails and made countless phone calls. He traveled. He begged for funding and was disappointed more often than pleased. The Globe and Mail published a front page story about the project but even that brought frustratingly little funding. The CBC offered to make a film but that fell apart.
But Canadians came through. Individual sponsors stepped up and big and small donations were made. Many people logged on and bought guitar straps to help finance the project. (Full disclosure, one of them was me. The black strap holds my Strat at every gig I play.)
Taylor’s persistence began paying dividends and more precious objects were collected. There was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a fragment from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick, and another Paul Henderson’s stick. There was an antler from a moose and another from a mastodon. There was a piece of steel rail from a CPR track, one from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard, and a chunk of copper from the roof of the parliamentary library, Canada’s most beautiful room. There was a chunk of a seat from Massey Hall and another from the old Montreal Forum. There was a piece of Nancy Green’s ski and one from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.
Finally, on June 14, 2006, the guitar was done. It was beautiful. It played beautifully. A week later, at Ottawa’s Canada Day celebration, renowned bluesman Colin James strummed it for gathered reporters and said it was a fine guitar that he was proud to play. Colin Linden played it at a press event the next day. Then, on the big stage, on July 1, the guitar’s story was told and the enormous crowd thundered its approval with applause that echoed off parliament’s centre block. Stephen Fearing took Voyageur in hand and kicked off his set with the Longest Road. It had indeed been a long road but it was not over.
Jowi Taylor and Voyageur (Photo: Doug Nicholson)
The guitar toured the country. Professionals and amateurs held it and played it. As guitarists know, playing a guitar is an intimate act. It is the only instrument the player cradles when playing like a child, like a lover. And Canadians loved the guitar.
Canadians are a nation by choice. We are a nation not of blood but of laws. We build bridges not walls and we extend our hands to those in need and especially when suffering the aftermath of war be it Vietnam, Syria or Afghanistan. We are nearly all from away and at one point we were on the boats, risking all to seek a better life and contribute to nation worthy of our dreams. Canada is a conversation. Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur guitar has become an important part of that conversation by inviting us to consider the fragments within it that are fragments of ourselves.
(Please visit http://www.sixstringnation.com/ where you can scan the guitar and see all the amazing fragments embedded it in. If you enjoyed this article, please consider sending it to others and maybe even checking out one of my books – my most recent is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)