OLD LYME — “It’s the human spirit. People make music somehow, they figure out a way,” explained touring musician Ramblin’ Dan Stevens. “It’s like the little blades of grass between the cracks in the sidewalk, they’ll figure out some way to grow.”
Sitting in Nightingale Acoustic Cafe on Lyme St., Stevens showed off instruments he’s had more time to make since his gigs stopped abruptly in early March.
As he talks, he plucks a few licks on the one-string diddley bows and three-string cigar box guitars that he’s made out of found materials: cigar boxes, gum tins, sink drains, washers and screws. They’re the kind of makeshift instruments that early blues pickers would play on the Mississippi Delta.
“They didn’t have the money to buy a Gibson or something from a Sears & Roebuck, so they just made their own,” he said.
The earliest form of the two instruments in the blues tradition was a wire nailed to a post, played with a bone, piece of pipe or knife as a slide. Eventually, someone put the wire on a cigar box. Early blues musicians didn’t have guitars or lessons, so they fiddled with homemade instruments until they found the right notes, Stevens said.
When Stevens used to play the subway in New York, he saw a Japanese musician playing a similar instrument. It’s a type of improvised instrument that musicians have developed in cultures around the world.
“It might be a gourd instead of a cigar box and a tin, and gradually people put on more strings and found the sweet spots,” he said. “I mean, the guys in the Delta, they didn’t have guitar lessons or the internet. They sat around with something like this and figured out where the good notes are.”
Stevens said he first encountered a cigar box guitar when he saw Richard Johnson play one on Memphis’ famed Beale Street. Stevens was there to represent Connecticut in the International Blues Challenge.
When Stevens got back, he met an artist in Westerly who sold him a cigar box, which he used to make his first cigar box guitar. Stevens has been making cigar box guitars and the similar diddley bow for over 10 years, and the instruments have become part of his show.
“They’re not that hard to make,” he said.
Each of Stevens’ guitars and diddley bows is made with a collection of parts that tell their own story.
He owns one that a friend made using a cigar box from Mohegan Sun, an electric pickup from the 1950s that Stevens found on a guitar hanging on the wall of a pub, and the neck of the guitar used to christen the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City.
“Instead of doing a bottle on the hull, like a ship, they took a guitar and smashed it against the wall,” Stevens said. “My buddy got the neck and gave it to me.”
Another diddley bow is made from a tobacco tin and another from a tin of Black Jack Gum. Some use washers and screws as the bridge that holds the strings over the body. The first cigar box guitar Stevens made has sink drains as sound holes and a bent nail as the bridge.
Stevens said he’s especially proud of one he made from an empty tin of mints from France as the body and a buzzer from a smoke alarm as the pickup. The homemade instrument can be plugged into an amplifier and played like an electric guitar.
A diddley bow is simple in its design and just as simple to play.
There are no frets, but the neck is marked with dots like the frets of a guitar. On the diddley bow, the dots mark out notes on the blues scale. All it takes is a slide, which Stevens makes from glass bottle necks, and anyone can play a simple lick by following the dots.
“You can’t really hit a wrong note if you hit the dots,” he said.
Stevens has been selling cigar box guitars and diddley bows to people who have seen him play and took an interest in the instruments.
He sent a cigar box guitar – which is played the same as the diddley bow, but with more strings – to a man in Pennsylvania. A few days later, the man sent back a video of a blues lick he had already put together.
“I’ve done workshops with kids where I’ll make something like this with an Altoids tin. I drill the holes, then we put them together and learn how to play, and they’re so easy to play,” Stevens said. “When you give one of those to a kid, you can’t get them to stop and show them how to play it. One second after they get it, they’re figuring it out, and they’re playing the doggone thing.”
Stevens and his wife Gail run a not-for-profit Music Now Foundation. Under normal circumstances, they hosted live shows three nights a week inside the cafe they own, host group fiddle lessons and a “Pickin’ Party” on Tuesdays when anyone can come with an instrument and play together, Stevens said.
That all stopped, as did teen open mic nights that were a big part of the foundation’s mission to give young musicians opportunities to perform.
“It’s gone completely to zero. My last gig was in Mystic on March 9. I play during the day in hospitals and nursing homes, and those gigs immediately went away. Then the clubs closed down. So I went for probably about two-and-a-half months before I had anything at all,” he said.
Without work, Stevens started playing on live streams from the cafe three nights a week. Stevens plays Wednesdays, showcases local artists on Fridays and features regional and national artists on On the Road Live on Saturdays.
Stevens has found ways to play more recently as restrictions on gathering have loosened.
The pickin’ parties started back up again two weeks ago, outside in the yard behind Nightingale, with participants wearing masks and giving each other space. Gigs have slowly started to come back, too.
Last week, Stevens traveled up to Maine to play some gigs. Like everyone from out of state, Stevens had to be tested for COVID-19 before he went. The crowd at Boothbay Harbor, usually teeming with summer tourists, was about a third of what Stevens was used to, he said. Portland was practically deserted.
On the patio at the Old Lyme Inn last Wednesday, Stevens performed a dry run of his long-standing weekly gig with the Mellow Men. It was a success and they are planning another on July 9, said Stevens.
“It was great. Everyone was socially-distanced, and they figured out the food within the guidelines. It was reservation-only and it was sold out,” he said.