Q&A with Collins Kirby, founder of New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival, celebrates the art, music, and history

"Music is ingrained in the culture of New Orleans more deeply than in other cities.  The traditions are practiced and upheld with a reverence, dedication and honesty that can’t be found elsewhere."

Collins Kirby:

New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival

The 8th annual New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival at the New Orleans Jazz Museum from Thursday, January 18 through Saturday, January 20 (2024) offers a stellar celebration of the art, music and history of homemade stringed instruments in the city where those devices played a role in the early development of Jazz and Blues. Over the course of the three-day event, performances will be staged featuring guitar phenom Erin Coburn, Louisiana Blues veteran Lil' Jimmy Reed and Louisiana Music Hall of Fame inductee Jonathon “Boogie” Long, plus Cigar Box Serenaders, Ghalia Volt, Steve Arvey, John Nickel, La Durance Blues Band, Memphis Lightning, John Mary Go Round and a dozen other top cigar box guitar performers. During the Thursday Night Symposium, second-generation Louisiana Blues musician and highly acclaimed actor Chris Thomas King will discuss his book, The Blues: The Authentic Narrative of My Music and Culture, while noted New Orleans visual artist Charles Gillam will talk about his folk-art guitars. An instrument builders’ forum and contest is slated for Friday afternoon.

(Photo: Producer Collins Kirby, founder of New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival)

Only one-hundred-and-fifty all-inclusive tickets are being sold to this unique and intimate cultural experience. All aspects of the event will be held within the comfortable confines of the Jazz Museum. The New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival was founded in 2016 and quickly gained a reputation or outstanding entertainment. Throughout U.S. history, pioneers, Civil War soldiers, farmhands, street singers and other resourceful musicians found ways to build expressive instruments from household items and random hardware, most notably in Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. “Cigar Box Guitar” is a catchall phrase used to describe the general category of improvised stringed musical devices consisting of banjos, basses, dulcimers, fiddles, mandolins, and what-have-you. Many musicians throughout the world are currently using homemade gear to record, perform live, or play at home, making these unique instruments and their authentic, traditional sound a staple of today’s music scene.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios          Special Thanks: Collins Kirby & Doug Deutsch

How has the music influenced your views of the world? What “music moment” changed your life the most?

It’s sociologically comforting to know that different types of people around the world can share love for the same music, and I’m proud that so many treasured musical traditions emerged from the American South, where I’ve always lived. I have a great many meaningful musical memories. Among them are the James Brown and Otis Redding live shows of the mid-‘60s and recording sessions in Muscle Shoals and Nashville. I’ve met and worked with some of my greatest heroes.

How did the idea of New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival come about? What characterize festival’s philosophy?

In 2007, I saw a very popular street musician named Richard Johnston playing a cigar box guitar on Beale Street in Memphis and was impressed by both the raw, bluesy power of his one-man-band performance and the crowd’s fascination with his instrument. I immediately hired him to play at a festival I was producing in Alabama later that year. Over the next few years, I encountered and hired several other musicians who played CBGs, including well-known practitioners Microwave Dave, John Nickel and Justin Johnson.

I also became aware of cigar box guitar festivals that had popped up around the world and decided that New Orleans’ unique history with homemade instruments during the early years of Jazz and Blues made it a natural location to establish what I hoped would become the top festival of its kind. We held our first event in 2016. At the NOCBGF, we believe that playing a homemade stringed instrument to express yourself musically is just as meaningful and satisfying for today’s Americana pickers as it was in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

"Roots music has always been a comfort to the weary and a celebration for the joyous. I hope it continues to be a source of comfort and joy all across society." (Photo: New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival, celebrates the art, music, and history of homemade stringed musical instruments)

Why is it important to we preserve and spread the Cigar Box Guitar? What are the secrets of Cigar Box Guitar?

Promoting the cultural history of CGBs through exhibits, interviews and performances is just part of the larger mission of passing on the music we cherish and enjoy. As for secrets … I’m not sure there are any secrets.   With cigar box guitars, what you see is what you get: simple instruments capable of producing authentic, exciting music.

Why do you think that New Orleans music scene continues to generate such a devoted following?

Music is ingrained in the culture of New Orleans more deeply than in other cities.  The traditions are practiced and upheld with a reverence, dedication and honesty that can’t be found elsewhere.

Are there any specific memories or highlights of New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival that you would like to tell us about?!

Some of the more memorable moments have come during our interviews with Louisiana Blues greats Little Freddie King and the late Walter “Wolfman” Washington as they told of humble musical beginnings with homemade guitars.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I still enjoy listening to Muddy Waters, the Louvin Brothers, Chuck Berry and the other trailblazers, but I’m rejuvenated to hear those various rhythms being passed along by today’s culture bearers.

What is the role of Roots Music in today’s society and socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Roots music has always been a comfort to the weary and a celebration for the joyous. I hope it continues to be a source of comfort and joy all across society.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I appreciate the offer, but I’m not really interested in going back or jumping ahead. I’ll give up my seat in the time machine and continue to take each day as it comes.

New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival - Home

(Photo: Shane "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" Speal; and Collins Kirby; with Jazz & Heritage Foundation Coordinator Baylee Badawy; and Jazz Museum Director Greg Lambousy)

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