As I turned off the highway to enter the town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, I could not contain my excitement. In my mind’s ear I could hear that classic 1970s hit song The Weight, penned by the Canadian born guitarist of The Band, Robbie Robertson:
I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin’ about half past dead
I just needed some place where I can lay my head,
“Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”
He just grinned and shook my hand, “no” was all he said.
Nazareth Pennsylvania is the factory town of C.F. Martin and Co. Established in 1833, for the last 180 years they have been producing merica’s best acoustic guitars. German émigré master guitar maker Christian Frederick Martin Sr. established the company and it has maintained family ownership ever since, now under the successful management of Christian Frederick (“Chris”) Martin the IV, born in 1955. It is one of America’s most unique, longest-lasting family businesses.
Dissatisfied with the hierarchical, guild-like structure of the Early-19th-century German guitar-making scene, master guitar maker Martin took his commitment to excellence across the ocean and provided an ever democratizing country with the instrument that has come to express its artistic soul, eventually building his factory in Nazareth after having first established his reputation with the guitar players and musical instrument wholesalers of pre-Civil War New York City and its environs.
Virtually every major figure in modern folk, rock, blues, folk rock and country either plays a Martin or has played one; Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Robbie Robertson, The Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, Bess and Alan Lomax, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry and Big Bill Broonzy. Last but not least, yours truly — committed folk guitarist, singer and proud owner of two Martin guitars.
The Martin Company is aware that so many clients have a desire to see, feel and experience the factory where their instrument was born. And so every day at 11:30 a.m. you can sign up for a one-hour tour of the factory. When the tour guide asked us who owned or had played a Martin almost everyone raised his or her hand. Clearly, here I stood among the blessed, and with these other visitors I began my great guitar pilgrimage at the source of good sound.
Although the average Martin guitar is made up of many dozens of parts and many of them have at one time or another received the attention of up to three hundred people working on at least one aspect of them, the factory still employs considerable hand craftsmanship and has a 19th- or early 20th-century feel to it. As we walked along the assembly line we saw focused artisans, men and women, diligently working at their stations, calm, determined yet relaxed, and no doubt delighted to be doing what they clearly love to. In the sober and undemonstrative spirit of the Moravian German and Pennsylvania Dutch who give this state its work ethic, Martin workers create upwards of 100,000 high-quality guitars each year, ranging in price from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand dollars. And since Chris Martin took over, management has implemented a profit sharing program for the employees that can increase their annual take home pay significantly. (Is anyone in Washington listening?)
As we moved from station to station I was intoxicated by the sweet smell of the koa, alpine spruce, mahogany and other kinds of wood that they use to make Martin guitars, by the smell of the glue, the sound of saws and the scent of polish that emanates from various work stations. Most of the important guitar making processes are still largely done by hand, such as the neck shaping, neck fitting, final neck fitting (once is not enough!), side bending, bracing, and pearl inlay work (my jeweler wife wanted to leave the tour and start working with the inlayers immediately). I was particular struck by the use of old-fashioned wooden clothespins that are used to line the ribbons in the body of the guitar. Craftsmen discovered that they worked best sometime in the late 1880s, and nothing better has been found that does the trick.
Once the guitars are finished they receive a final inspection where keen-eared guitarist workers string up the guitars and listen to theirsound to insure that the overall quality is controlled; just ears and eyes, no machines for this task. Had I known about this job so many years ago after I had just finished my degree in music, I would have immediately applied for it. Not surprisingly, during the course of the day I discovered that the factory has five times as many guitar players as in the surrounding neighbourhoods, in an around Nazareth.
Although it feels like the guitar is a late 19th-century and largely 20th-century phenomena driven by the rise of “hillbilly” and blues singer instrumentalists, the guitar has been around for a long, long time. It first arrived in the New World in the 1500s with the Spanish conquistadores and was played at St. Augustine in Florida. The Catholic orders of the Ursulines and the Augustines taught the guitar in the early 1600s in Quebec and French speaking Creoles made the guitar part of their lives in early 19th-century Louisiana.
Although it was largely thought of and used as a classical instrument even in early Spanish America, popular singers quickly took it up. Guitar historian David K. Bradford quotes a Spanish noble who already in 1611 laments that, “Now the guitar is no more than a cow bell, there is not a stable lad who is not a musician on the guitar.” This tendency to use the guitar as a chordal background for light or professional balladeers would only grow with time.
During the first half of the 19th century the urban elites in what was once the 13 Colonies that came to be the United States were developing an urban culture that closely imitated London and the capitals of Europe. There the piano reigned supreme as the instrument that best reflected the sentiments of the time. By the mid 19th century the largest influx of immigrants to America came from German speaking central Europe and so the strains of Mozart and Beethoven could be heard in the concert halls of the Eastern seaboard and in the houses of the rich.
But the piano was not to go unchallenged. During the 1830s and 1840s America was hit by what was then called “guitarmania.” At that time continental classical guitar virtuosos such as Sor and Giulani were taking the English concert halls by storm and they were widely imitated among elites in Philadelphia, Boston and New York. The demand was so high that famous musicians such as Spanish classical guitarist and composer A.T. Huerta moved from Spain to New York on the crest of this wave to make a successful career in classical guitar in the New World. By that time C.F. Martin, Sr. was well established in New York and was making “gut” stringed guitars that were the all the rage among the middle classes. He was also importing a relatively wide array of musical instruments from Prussia that he offered for sale in his small music shop.
As the Spanish guitar was adopted by English speaking Americans, despite the fact that the repertoire came from Italy and Spain, Americans began to use the guitar to sing the parlor songs and popular music that was beginning to distinguish the American middle classes from their British and European counterparts. This was part of the 19th-century belief system called the “cult of domesticity” which assumed that a women’s role in the house was to domesticate the baser sentiments and provide a haven in a heartless world.
And so the guitar became the parlor instrument extraordinaire, a kind of American anti piano where people would learn a few chords and “catch tunes,” which was the expression they used for self-taught playing and singing of the music of Stephen Foster with songs like his Camptown Races or pieces from the minstrel stage such as Dan Emmet’s song, Dixie Land.
Although the guitar was largely seen as a female instrument in the northern United States, men among the slave-owning states of the South avidly took it up. Soon the slaves of the southern plantation owners were adopting it. We read that one of the most famous military leaders of the confederacy, General J.E.B. Stuart, engaged an entourage of African-American musicians, singers and dancers who would entertain him and his guests and which included a guitarist; evidence of the “trickle down” of the guitar from oppressor to the oppressed. (It was these men’s children who would invent the blues and whose descendants, like Bluesman Big Bill Broonzy and Reverend Gary Davis, played Martin guitars).
Once the rage for European guitar music had abated, the guitar and even more so the banjo became the central instruments of the most popular American music of the 19th and early 20th century, “Blackface” minstrelsy, which combined a whole range of genres but which for the first time mixed the Anglo-Celtic and African-American traditions of American folk music and created a nation-wide popular music tradition best experienced at the rural “Medicine Shows.”
The four-part vocal harmonies that eventually were added to this tradition came from Central Europe as, once again, mid-century America was a awash with Alpine music singing groups where the guitar was featured, with names like the Tyrolese Minstrels, who in turn influenced the most famous American minstrel group, The Christy Minstrels. One of the most interesting characters of the 19th-century blackface minstrelsy movement was Napoleon Gould. He was a white man born in England in 1819. In the course of his early career as a guitarist, banjo player and singer he became smitten with minstrelsy and like Huerta before him set out for fame and fortune in the New World. He ended up playing with Pierce’s Minstrels, the Christy Minstrels as well as Bryant’s and Campell’s minstrels. Gould’s career goes some way to explaining what looks like an unprecedented cultural phenomena where after the Second World War, white Englishmen like Eric Clapton and John Mayall fell in love with African-American music (in this case, the blues), mastered it and then made their fortunes from it in the U.S. It has happened before.
C.F. Martin was lucky, for he established his business in Pennsylvania just before the Civil War when guitar mania was taking over America. He managed to economically survive the war and provide better guitars (as well as banjos) for the parlor and Minstrel craze, which took over the U.S. in the mid to second half of the 19th century.
Guitar makers, however, had not yet adjusted to the sonic needs of growing audiences and outdoor venues such as travelling medicine shows. Martin, his descendants and inheritors successfully managed the great transition to heavier-built guitars with steel strings (giving much greater volume) and which was strengthened by the Hawaiian guitar craze of the early 1900s. Soon after Martin, six-string steel guitars became instruments of choice for the black blues musicians and the white hillbilly and, later, country and western musicians who came to define 20th-century American popular music.
From the start the Martin family had often done their own limited marketing and occasionally sold specially ornamented guitars to high profile players, such as country singer Jimmie Rodgers in 1927 and a little while later, Gene Autry. By the time of the first and second folk song revivals of the 1950s and 1960s, the Martin guitar in its many incarnations was the instrument of choice for most American Roots musicians.
During my tour, Dick Boak — Martin archivist, illustrator, musician and occasional luthier — showed me the original account books from the first C.F. Martin in the late 1830s.The penmanship was exquisite and I was thrilled to touch something that the first Mr. Martin himself wrote upon; another sacred act in my great guitar pilgrimage.
Dick is the mastermind behind Martin’s Signature editions. He sought out the most famous and charity minded music stars that use Martins and together they designed a limited edition of an upgraded version of the Martin that had propelled that star to fame. Profits from the sales went to charity. Dick tells the story of this remarkable endeavour in his beautiful coffee table book [ital]Martin Guitar Masterpieces[endital]. Looking at the guitars preferred by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez and Eric Clapton, we can only admire the artistry and craftsmanship that makes Martin the pinnacle of American guitar artistry.
When I got home, I poured myself a glass of whiskey and sat down by the fire. I took out my Martin D-28 and picked out an old-time tune that had been recorded by Alan Lomax in Kentucky in 1937. The strings sounded like church bells. I had “pulled into Nazareth” and I was home now. My great guitar pilgrimage was over.
First published in the National Post.