Songs Inside The Box

Since the 1800s, craftsmen have been lovingly forming trash into treasure by making musical instruments from disposable cigar boxes. They worked primarily in isolation until recent years but the Internet changed that.

In 2003 Shane Speal, a Pennsylvania marketing professional, created an Internet forum to discuss cigar box guitars with a few friends who shared his enthusiasm for the instrument. Over time the forum grew to more than 3,000 members who traded tips on building and playing instruments every day. This communication led to the creation of events to give them an opportunity to get together, like the Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza in Huntsville, Alabama.

“It’s like a family reunion combined with a music festival,” says Max Shores, producer/director of the documentary shot at the third annual Extravaganza in June 2007. “These people know each other through the cigar box guitar forum but they don’t get to see each other face-to-face often.”

For Bill Jagitsch, a computer technician from Arkansas, the Extravaganza was like meeting best friends for the first time. “I’ve been a member of the forum for two and a half years and I’ve communicated with these folks daily, but I’ve never met any of them until today. It was definitely worth the six hour drive.”

Jagitsch took the stage in the persona of Bluesboy Jag and entertained the audience with delta blues. He was just one of 12 acts performing at the Extravaganza which featured a wide variety of musical styles played on cigar box guitars and other homemade instruments.

Several years ago Pennsylvania biochemist David Williams made a cigar box guitar and got hooked on the hobby. Discussion in the forum led him to historic one-string instruments which he recreated with scientific accuracy. The normally reserved Williams took the stage as the outgoing One String Willie and showed that a primitive instrument with only one string can make beautiful music.

“These guys gave me a reason to live,” said Gerry Thompson from New Jersey. “I had a liver transplant 16 years ago and for the past four years my body has been rejecting it. I had a new transplant just a month ago and I wouldn’t miss this event for anything.” Thompson and his group, the Color of Skies, performed ballads from the stage and mingled with friends both old and new throughout the day long event.

“There were so many different approaches, styles, and interpretations of the cigar box guitar,” said Robert Hamilton of Massachusetts. “It was well worth the 1500 mile trek to get here.” “All the performers were awe-inspiring, and I mean everybody!” Hamilton continued.

When the other two members of Hamilton’s group, the Low Country Messiahs failed to make it to the event because their car broke down, Hamilton was joined onstage by Shane Speal, the self-proclaimed “King of the Cigar Box Guitar.” The two had never played together before, but they played in perfect harmony at this event.

Speal is the glue that holds this widely diverse community together and he brought along his personal collection of historic cigar box guitars dating to the 1800s. When he took the stage, he played music ranging from punk rock to a Hindustani raga on his battered Macanudo box.

“These folks pride themselves on being able to play circles around a lot of musicians who use store bought instruments, but they use instruments they made themselves,” said Shores. “It’s something you just have to see and hear to believe,” he continued. “Some of the performances are demented while others are profound, and the camaraderie experienced at this event is truly heart warming.”

In addition to performances from the Extravaganza, the documentary includes a visit with cigar box guitar builder and player Tomi-O Hartwell of Hinton, West Virginia. It also includes historical perspective and instrument building tips from Bill Jehle of Decatur, Alabama.

Songs Inside The Box is a production of the University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio.

DVDs may be purchased online: Buy a DVD of Songs Inside The Box