The Six-String Nation Project

🕔Sep 22, 2008

It might look like any guitar—albeit one with some fancy inlay and a gorgeous maple leaf on its front—but closer inspection reveals something more: a lovingly crafted talisman of Canadian history that draws elements of this enormous country together into one powerful package.
Jowi Taylor is the creator of the Six String Nation Guitar project, and the driving force—the only force, more or less—behind a Canadian cultural experiment with a strong northern BC connection, which can be noted both for its successful resonance with ordinary Canadians as well as for its failure to resonate with government and cultural institutions.
The idea to build a multi-material guitar that physically represented the incredible diversity of the Canadian experience was sparked for Taylor during the days of the Quebec referendum, when questions of what it meant to be English Canadian or French Canadian were continually debated. “I was sympathetic to both sides, but we were only hearing two sides of the story—there were all these other voices in Canada that weren’t being heard,” he says. “We had a country full of stories and we weren’t hearing any of them.”
With that in mind he approached George Rizsanyi, an award-winning luthier from Nova Scotia, about making a special guitar. “George had already made guitars using unusual materials, and said he would welcome the challenge.”
Wood with stories to tell
Initially, Taylor’s plan was simply to use different woods from various geographical regions of Canada. However, one particular meeting in Winnipeg sent the project off in a whole new direction when it was suggested a piece of a residential school be used in the construction of the guitar. “At that moment,” says Taylor, “the emphasis shifted from the abstract to the specific.”
A check with Rizsanyi confirmed that an instrument could indeed be created from such varied and unorthodox materials as part of 1972 goal-scorer Paul Henderson’s hockey stick, a piece of wood from the Charlottetown bar where Stompin’ Tom Connors got his start in music, and whale baleen from Iqaluit.
“I didn’t just want stories that we already knew,” says Taylor, so the call went out across the country for ideas. After several years of travelling the length and breadth of Canada and collecting all the materials, the Six String Nation Guitar, nicknamed “Voyageur,” was revealed to the country: it was played for the first time on stage on Canada Day, 2006, on Parliament Hill.
The guitar is made up of more than sixty pieces, and several components are from British Columbia. One in particular comes from Haida Gwaii. In what Taylor acknowledges as a great honour, he was permitted to take the only piece ever removed from the felled Golden Spruce, the unique tree special to the Haida culture and long revered as the living embodiment of an ancestor.
“It was an 18-month-long process of community consultation,” says Taylor—a process that culminated in the blessing of the fallen tree by a Haida elder and the harvesting of a generous slice of pristine blonde wood that went on to become the entire front of the guitar. “It’s something I’ve never gotten over,” Taylor says. “I’m always astonished by the gift.”
At this summer’s Edge of the World Music Festival in Tlell, Taylor brought the completed guitar back to Haida Gwaii as part of the its travelling life, and as part of the photo project conceived to connect the Canadian people with the guitar. As more than 6,000 others have done at festivals, celebrations, and gatherings all over Canada, hundreds of people at EOTW lined up to have their portraits taken while holding Voyageur.
One interaction in particular stands out for Taylor: “Haida leader Guujaaw brought an older gentleman up to have his photo taken with the guitar,” says Taylor, “and as he was having his photo taken, Guujaaw leaned over and said, ‘You know, he’s a cousin of the spirit of the tree.’” That revelation was an incredibly resonant moment for Taylor, one of many experiences from his travels around the country.
A dark cloud
However, the precious moments of connection with grassroots Canadians and the stories of how each person relates to the Six String Nation Guitar are the silver lining in a dark cloud hovering over the project: an insidious morass of political indifference and institutional rigidity on the part of Canada’s cultural establishment. Taylor has only a few corporate sponsors and zero government support in his quest to bring the guitar to the people it represents. In fact, Taylor has personally gone $80,000 in debt to facilitate the project.
“One of the lessons that I’ll have to write one day is what a disappointment our cultural institutions have been,” he says. His repeated and sustained requests for financial support for the project have fallen on the deaf ears of bureaucrats concerned with grant parameters and project qualifiers. Taylor’s frustration stems from the fact that, in his eyes, the project has been validated and given value by thousands of Canadian people, the same people the government and institutions are supposed to reflect. “How is it possible to have so many nay-sayers in government and so many believers on the ground?”
His incredulity at this conundrum is palpable as he tells of a 75-year-old retired country doctor from a Saskatchewan Dukhabor community and an 18-year-old graffiti artist from Toronto, both of whom, months apart, used the exact same phrase to express how they feel about the project: “This is so much more than a guitar.” Despite what Taylor cites as overwhelming popular endorsement, official recognition and financial backing of the Six String Nation Guitar is devastatingly nonexistent.
For this reason, the guitar’s future as Canadian cultural icon is at this time unclear. Rather than becoming part of one person’s quiver of instruments, Taylor imagines many musicians borrowing the guitar for recordings and performances, among other possibilities. Specifically, Taylor dreams of bringing the guitar back to Haida Gwaii soon, of having a group of Haida musicians jam out a new cover of Bruce Cockburn’s tune, “When a Tree Falls in the Forest” with the song’s author himself, and of the guitar being part of either the opening or closing ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. But, like so many things in this world, so much rests on money.
Mired in the kind of personal debt that most people only incur from a house mortgage, Jowi Taylor has just about reached his limits. “I love telling its story and having other people share their connections with it,” he says, “but I seriously have to start thinking about doing something else with my life.” He urges people to write to politicians and school boards and express their support for the Six String Nation project, which he describes as a lens through which to see each other more clearly.
Taylor believes passionately in the guitar and what it can do for the nation. The sad irony is that while all those who hold, play, and interact with the guitar react strongly and positively to the guitar’s message, the project itself, with the potential to foster such respect for Canada’s immense diversity, is in danger of foundering, faced with chronic government disinterest and bureaucratic limitations. “It’s such a weird disconnect. People need to really look at what this guitar can do for the nation.”
For more information about the guitar and the project, go to the Six String Nation website: