Those old cigar boxes can do more than store trinkets or treasured memorabilia. They can make beautiful music, too. These colorful cases have been repurposed into musical instruments dating back to Civil War days.
While old Civil War etchings show a soldier playing a cigar box fiddle, the development of a cigar box guitar wasn’t far behind. These instruments were perfect for poor people looking for a temporary release during the Great Depression. By the same token, early blues artists found that they could easily construct a cigar box guitar on the cheap and play the music that moved them.
Flash forward to the present day and you’ll find that this simple, non-glitzy instrument has been experiencing a surge in popularity, which is partly attributed to the rise in recycling and the do-it-yourself revolution. It also harkens back to a renewed interest in jug bands and related roots music.
With folks getting more fired up about cigar box guitar music, festivals have become more prevalent, including one in west suburban Lombard, Illinois. Musicians from as far as Texas and California to Chicago-based cigar box virtuosos will converge upon the Brauerhouse for the 4th Annual Cigar Box Guitar Festival on Friday, November 13th and Saturday, November 14th.
Reverend KM Williams of Dallas, Texas is one who will be performing at the festival on Saturday night in the 11 pm slot. One of Williams’ main influences and fellow resident of the Lone Star State is Lightnin’ Hopkins who once sang the praises of a cigar box guitar that he fashioned himself “and got me a tune out of it.”
Williams played at last year’s festival and said that he “loved it” as it was “a very unique and entertaining music event.” For festival first-timers, Williams said that they will learn that “cigar box guitars are primarily homemade instruments, so the playing of these instruments are unique and exciting!”
Williams previously played at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2010 and 2012 and has a “wonderful time playing in Chicago.” While Williams is no stranger to the big stage, it’s also obvious that he likes a stripped down sound as his newly released, “New Spirituals” CD “is just my modified Harmony guitar on 3 tracks!”
His experience with cigar box guitars dates back to the eighties when he “made my first one out of a two by four wood piece, a couple of nails, a guitar string and a couple of crushed cork cans.” He added that, “I have made Diddley bows and I modified and old Harmony guitar into a cigar box once but John Lowe out of Memphis makes my cigar box instruments I use for performing.”
Also known as “Johnny Lowebowe,” Lowe is the go-to guy with custom builds for many of the Chicago festival performers including Stacy Puckett and One Hand Dan. Lowe feels that cigar box instruments have been gaining ground because “it’s do it yourself and being able to come up with new formats like my combo bass and guitar builds.” He has been making cigar box instruments in various forms for over 20 years.
Lowe has been a regular at every Chicago Cigar Box Festival and said the event was “the brainchild of Brian Rogan who saw me and got with Tony (French) to get the ball rolling.”
Former Chicagoan Jeff Dale will be coming in from Los Angeles to play the festival. He is scheduled for Friday night at 7pm with harp player, Jeff Stone. Dale has been playing cigar box guitars for almost 10 years and “loves the way it sounds” as it is “my go-to instrument when I sit down in my living room and watch TV” as he likes “holding it and exploring.”
Dale is also happy that Cuba is becoming more accessible to American tourists and intrepid explorers since “the cigar box I have was made in Arkansas but it contained Cuban cigars so I was relieved that we normalized relations with Cuba so no one confiscates it,” he said with a smile.
While there won’t be any Cuban contraband at the 4th Annual Chicago Cigar Box Festival, there will be a Cigar Box market and an open mic all day Saturday. There will also be free swag the entire weekend from festival sponsor, CG Gitty Crafter Supply. A pair of cigar box guitars will be raffled off, courtesy of Hardtime CBGs.
Doors open on Friday at 7:00 pm with a $13 cover.
On Saturday, the show begins at 1pm and runs past midnight for a $17 cover charge. Over 10 bands will play throughout the course of the day, with a CD release party for Mississippi Gabe Carter’s new “Live from Rosemont” taking place at midnight. Coincidentally, this Chicago-based artist recently had his song, “Midnight Dream” played on an episode of NCIS—New Orleans.
Ticket info and additional details available on the Brauerhouse website. The Brauerhouse is located at 1000 N. Rohlwing Road in Lombard.