Never Drop Your
Steel Guitar in The Ocean
by Catfish Keith
The lifelong search for music and adventure has taken me many places, and things can happen to you that you would never expect...
It all started because of a Son House record. Back in the mid-1970's, in high school in Davenport, Iowa, I was getting deep into acoustic guitar, I was 14 or 15. While my friends were into disco, heavy metal, rock & roll, I was going wild about solo-guitar-as-entire-orchestra; Leo Kottke was my absolute hero. Looking for the roots of it all, I kept digging around and found "Father of the Folk Blues" in the cut-out bin at the record shop...I put on Death Letter, I was disturbed, riveted. I kept coming back to it, and Son House's doomed conviction and the drunken tone of his crying, propulsive slide on the National guitar...this lead to Blind Willie Johnson, Charley Patton, Fred MacDowell, Booker White, Barbecue Bob, Little Hat Jones, Tampa Red, Sol Hoopii, Lonnie Johnson, Bo Carter, that's just for starters! Whole new musical worlds opened up for me, and when I was eighteen, I mail-ordered a shiny, chrome-plated 1930 National Duolian steel-bodied guitar. Angels sang when I opened the case the first time.
After leaving high school in late 1979, I started to travel around, to play some music, and to see what was out there. For a period of time I just lived in my rusty Oldsmobile, travelling through the east, south, midwest, Old West and California. I had my new (old) National, and was a happy man.
January of 1982 I bid farewell to my folks in Iowa; I'd bought a one-way ticket to the Virgin Islands. It was 30 below zero at home with two feet of snow and this guy I met at a party in Cedar Rapids once said, "If you ever come to the Islands, look me up, you could crew on my sailboat." Seemed like a good enough excuse for me to bolt! My Dad, wrapped up like Nanook, took me, shivvering, to the Greyhound station with my duffel bag and National guitar.
Stepping off the plane in St. Thomas, I'm immediately struck with the bright sun, heat and humidity and fresh salty Caribbean air. I have on my keep-from-freezing-to-death longjohn union suit, sweaters, etc. which with a great celebratory flair, I chuck wontonly into an airport garbage can. "I'm never going back there again," I think to myself. Before me is the kind of paradise I'd dreamed of but never experienced. Shunning taxis, I ran with my gear right to the water's edge, and jumped right into clear blue water warm like a bath.
After my inaugural dip in the sea, I proceeded across the Island, into Charlotte Amalie, and jammed with a dreadlocked sax player from New York for awhile. I then learned, to find my Captain, I'd have to taxi to Red Hook, then ferry to Tortolla, in the British Virgin Islands, and look for him in that little bay where the ferry comes in. So, I arrive, it's getting dusk now. The ferry and all the people are gone. Captain's name was Curly, so I call out a few times to a handful of boats, "Currr-leeee! Cuuurrr-leeee!" echoing across the bay. Silence. "Hmm, getting dark out here." More silence. Again, "Currr-leeeeeee" then, "Yeah, waddaya want?"
Well, Curly was teriffic, kind of a merry pirate, and took me on as "crew" for a while; I hoisted the mast mizzen, scraped barnicles off the hull, caught big tunas and lobsters, played his Gibson, and he let me sleep in the Fo'csle (Forecastle?), the little front corner of the boat. Since I was only 19, sleeping at a right angle was no problem, I was made of rubber then. I was overjoyed with my new island life, sailing around...man!
One calm, moonlit night Curly and I took the dingy ashore to a little restaurant & bar off the Island of Tortolla. I took my National, played a few tunes. Me and Curly were having a few rum drinks, then a few more rum drinks. As the evening progressed, finally the staff bid us farewell (kicked us out), and, aglow with good cheer, we got back into the dingy and shoved off. When we got to the edge of the yacht, Curly stood, to reach over, stumbled sideways, muttering, "Oh, shit, the dingy's sinking!" Oh shit, the dingy was sinking, I concurred.
Down went the dingy, down went the Captain, down went the National, down I go too. Curly is flailing around, trying to save the outboard motor, swallowing gasoline & seawater. I'm underwater in bright moonlight watching my National in it's wood case, float for a few seconds, then in slow motion start it's plummet to the bottom. Somehow, in sort of a drunken adrenaline surge I dive down, grab the guitar, and heave it up and onto the deck of the boat. Somehow Curly is saved (dingy & engine go down), and after purging himself of gasoline, seawater and rum, he's OK.
The next morning, saltier but wiser, we assess the damage from the night before. The dingy is found, right under the sailboat, engine will need some work. Guitar and case are hosed down with fresh water, still has good tone. We both require pain relief. Entropy, oxidation ensue.
That old National guitar, though rustier and rustier over the years has served me well. I continued to use it on thousands of gigs and on my first five albums, finally putting it in semi-retirement in 1998. The guitar just kept rusting, until it resembled the blown-out bumper of my 1973 Oldsmobile. It was one of the first Duolian guitars made in 1930, with a steel body, so when I'd give it a good strum, little chips of rusty dust would crumble onto the floor! It's now in the hands of Don Young and McGregor Gaines at National Reso-Phonic Guitars, being lovingly restored to it's original, salt-free condition.
And, although I can't promise never to drop my steel guitar in the ocean again, whenever I think of my wife saying "Be careful," as she always does, I know that is just the kind of thing she's talking about.