Why I love giving the Six String Nation Presentation
Today’s guest blog post comes from Cultural Entrepreneur, Award-winning Broadcaster and Progressive Patriot Jowi Taylor.
Jowi’s audacious Six String Nation project distills stories of diverse cultures, communities, characters and events from every province and territory of Canada into a single guitar called Voyageur – an object that is at once touchstone, talking-stick and living instrument.
It looks like a simple enough object that people are familiar with: an acoustic guitar. And meeting it usually inspires a simple enough request: will you play us something?
But here’s the thing:
In spite of outward appearances and functionality it’s not really a simple object at all. It embodies the histories and characters of an entire country and took eleven years, hundreds of stories and tens of thousands of miles to bring into being.
And here’s the other thing:
I don’t play guitar. To be sure, this guitar has been played by all kinds of people but my job isn’t to play it. My job is to relay the stories embedded in the object, tell the story of how it came to be, include the stories of the people in the room and receive the stories people are inspired to contribute in return. As it turns out, apart from the roads and railways and telecommunications infrastructure and government and business and cultural institutions, that exchange of stories is one of the most important ways we have to build communities and build a country.
I can feel it now – the askance look. “Uh-oh. Am I about to be drawn into some convoluted artist’s dream?” Well, yes and no.
Yes because I did have a crazy dream and worked against the odds over more than a decade to make it real. But no because it seems that just about every Canadian I meet shares this dream in one form or another. And this thing that is hard to talk about and complicated in its origins turns out to have a kind of elegance that everyone seems to “get” instantly when they hear the story and encounter this guitar in person – whether they know or care anything about guitars normally.
This is why I love to give the Six String Nation presentation. Because it allows me to unfold this whole story in a way that includes everyone in the room. And in a way that is unique to them. And by the end of it, this thing that still sometimes feels like a struggle and a burden to bear, becomes light as air and a pleasure to lift on and off the people who gather around to hold the guitar and pose for photos as if they were rock stars – from little kids and couples in love to politicians, hockey heroes, CEOs… and ACTUAL rock stars.
Let me give you an example of how this all works:
Some people might just see the guitar and think: “Well, I like music OK but I’m not really into it so I don’t know that I’m all that interested in this thing”.
Other people might read somewhere that it contains pieces of the Bluenose II and Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle and Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring and think: “OK, I think I get it – it’s a collage of Canadiana. Kinda patriotic, I guess. That’s cool. Now what’s for lunch?” And still others might see an all-Canadian guitar and think: “Awesome. Has Neil Young played it? Has Gordon Lightfoot played it? Has Stompin’ Tom played it? Has Joni Mitchell played it? Has Bruce Cockburn played it?” (no, yes, yes, no, yes, BTW).
Given the chance to tell the story in words and pictures, as I’ve done with groups of students from grade 1 to university graduate classes, festival crowds in every province and territory, community, corporate and conference audiences in venues large and small all across the country, by the end of the presentation everyone realizes:
“it happens to be a guitar but this object is so much more – it is a touchstone of so many things that we are as Canadians from dozens, hundreds of different perspectives. It’s an icon, it’s a talking stick, it’s the most thoroughly Canadian thing I’ve ever seen in my life – and I’ve been to the Big Nickel and Lake Louise!”
“Sure it’s about famous athletes and authors and Prime Ministers but it’s also about the champion oyster shucker and the artist and the entrepreneur and the astronaut and the cowboy. It’s about the Chinese-Canadian community and the African-Canadian community and the Icelandic-Canadian community and the First Nations communities and MY community!”
It’s actually about me. There were specific stories that triggered stories of my own and the whole thing in general also turns out to be not so much about guitars but about people, about Canadian people. And I either am one or I know one or I think I’d like to know one. And as much as I think it’s about me, I look around this room and I see a hundred other people who seem to be thinking the same thing.
What I encounter over and over again after the presentation is that it seems to give license to a kind of longing that we Canadians are reluctant to reveal – that we actually have stories to tell each other. It’s not that we didn’t want to before, it’s just that when a country is this big, when the distances between us dwarf those of just about any other country on earth, we tend to gaze out into that void and look for the big arms waving – the things we can all see together: hockey, Tim Horton’s. And the NHL and Burger King Inc. are more than happy to occupy that space and be the medium by which we speak to one another. But there is more to us and we all know it and we all have something to add to the conversation. So out in the lobby after the show, people come up to tell me how they waitered one summer at the Wildcat Cafe in Yellowknife, or that their dad flew a DeHavilland Beaver out of Sechelt BC or that their cousin got sprayed with snow watching Nancy Greene win gold in Grenoble in 1968, or any one of a thousand stories that connect us all through this simple object.
We’ve now done 150,000 portraits of 15,000 different people holding the guitar, Voyageur, in every province and territory of Canada (and a few other places besides). And do you know what is arguably the most common declaration we hear as we’re setting people up for their photo session? “I’ve never held a guitar before”. I believe that the majority of people who come to see the presentation haven’t held a guitar before, don’t think of themselves as especially musical and weren’t sure what it was they were going to see when they read “Jowi Taylor and the Six String Nation” in the program for the evening. But every time I start the presentation I can feel the moment when those don’t already know about it lock in – the moment when they realize that no one’s about to offer them advice or share secrets for success or do a song and dance. They get wrapped up in the story just in time to realize that the story is their own. And when a musician finally steps up to bring Voyageur to life, it’s someone they know.
To watch that unfold time and again – with each audience in its own unique way – is an extraordinary gift that I never tire of receiving. And then to hear from people that they felt that meeting Voyageur was a gift for them completes a perfect circle.