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Column: Soundtrack of history comes alive in Indy museum exhibit

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We were just like two kids in a candy store, except the candy store was a room full of guitars, and my longtime friend Dan and I are both a few years distant from the description “kids.”

Otherwise, the simile was accurate in that the two of us were enthralled, hypnotized and totally absorbed as we pressed against the glass cases containing an array of stringed musical instruments on display in the Guitars! Roundup to Rockers exhibit at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis.

Dan and I were in fact kids when we started our guitar-playing journey nearly 50 years ago. (It is an overwhelming realization even as I write that.) We met 40 years ago and discovered we were musically compatible. We have been playing guitars together since then, our latest configuration being a duo we call The Retro Brothers.

When we read last winter about the exhibit coming in March, it was understood that we would have to attend, although it took us until last week to finally get there. It was worth the wait.

We were accompanied by our understanding wives. They graciously indulged our delight as we moved from guitar to guitar and were tolerant as we hovered for what must have seemed like forever before the red Gibson SG George Harrison played on so many Beatles songs or the Martin acoustic guitar weary from hard traveling and worn down from constant strumming that Woody Guthrie used to write songs that have become part of America’s songbook.

Although it was a weekend and many people were there, it did not feel crowded. Maybe that was because many of us wore iPods issued at the front desk that were loaded with examples of the sounds of the various instruments as well as some commentary.

The headphones made for a feeling of isolation and was like touring the rooms with my own personal guide. Wearing the headphones did make conversation between Retro Brother Dan and myself sometimes a bit awkward, but after a couple of warnings from Becky and Helen that we were talking too loud, we remembered to move the headphone away from an ear before we said anything.

As I sailed from one historic musical instrument to another, I found myself a bit awed by the guitars and at the same time observing my reactions to what I was seeing.

What is it about being in the presence of historical objects that creates in me a contemplative and almost reverential feeling? Not just while looking at guitars once played by my musical heroes, but any time I encounter a physical piece of history: the spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong, say, or the desk Robert Frost sat at while he wrote. Why do such artifacts attract me?

I wonder if it is because they help me sense my place in the sweep of history. Here I am, just inches away from the guitar Hank Williams played in 1950 — a year before I was born — and on which he wrote some of the songs it seems I have always known.

I caught myself thinking about the modern Cult of Celebrity. As much as I like to think I am above such worship, I realize when it comes to modern music, it has its hold on me. Certainly not in a sacrilegious way, but as I stood looking at a sliver of wood from a guitar once smashed by Jimi Hendrix, I was reminded of those Medieval cathedrals which house pieces of the True Cross or some other holy relics.

It is fine to have a favorite guitar player, I guess, but I occasionally have to remind myself not to get too hung up on fame, whether objects or people.

I am so glad we finally made it to Guitars! Roundup to Rockers. It is a fascinating exhibit. It runs until Aug. 4.

I hope all you pickers and strummers, as well as those of you who are interested in the history of an amazing instrument, get a chance to go.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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