Saturday, June 23, 2018
Human Interest

Cigar-box guitars put retiree on a musical mission


Accidental Floridians. They move here for a job or retirement, because the taxes are low or because they are tired of shoveling snow. But they never quite fall in love with Florida. They wish Florida could be somewhere else.

They might go to the beach once a year or take a visitor to Disney World. Otherwise, they are afraid of everything in their yards and in the creek at the end of the block. They have never seen a wild alligator, of course, or enjoyed a bowl of buttered grits. They never get off the interstate because there may be what they call "hillbillies'' lurking along the two-lane roads. And the heat! When they make out their wills, they demand burial back in the civilized world — Ohio, Michigan, Indiana.

Steve Cinnamon, born in the Bronx, was an accidental Floridian.

Southern culture? What culture? Chewing tobacco? Swamp meets? That's how he thought.

But then came one of those existential crises we often read about, an existential crisis that results in bone-chilling fears about middle age and mortality. Why are we here? We're born, we work, we pay taxes, we die. That's it?

Like a drowning man, he reached out for a life preserver — and grabbed something wooden.

It was a strange guitar, a guitar made out of a cigar box.

And when he struck a chord he discovered something he never dreamed he had.

Southern roots.

Maybe he was a Floridian after all.

• • •

In the South, sometimes we talk slow, answer a question with "yes, sir" and watch our cussing until we have at least taken the measure of a stranger. Cinnamon, 65, is a fast-talking New Yorker who wears a pinky ring and is no stranger to salty language. A plate of smoked mullet isn't on his bucket list, but if you can find him a Nathan's Famous frankfurter, he'll tip his flat cap at you.

Flat caps.

Dion, the great singer from the Belmont section of the Bronx, always wore one when his records, Runaround Sue, Donna the Prima Donna and The Wanderer, topped the rock 'n' roll charts long before the Beatles. Cinnamon and his buddies wanted to be exactly like Dion. They liked to stand together on street corners and sing doo-wop to passing girls. Cinnamon bought his first guitar from a neighbor kid for five bucks.

He never got good like Dion. But he did okay as a bank teller, construction worker, aluminum siding salesman and lady's man. Wife No. 3 is a hell's-a-popping hairstylist who has blue fingernails, polka-dot glasses and a yen to go out dancing.

They moved to Nokomis, south of Sarasota, just about the moment the economy tanked. Cinnamon's anxiety grew as his bank account dwindled. On June 25, 2009, he ended up in the emergency room.

The words "heart attack" caught his attention. As he lay on a gurney with tubes dangling from his pale body like guitar strings, he heard a lot of worried whispering near the nurse's station. Were they discussing his approaching mortality? No. In Los Angeles, Michael Jackson had just died.

"Hey,'' Cinnamon called out. "Michael's dead but I'm still alive. Don't forget about me.''

• • •

Steve Cinnamon didn't die. At home he suffered the usual post-heart attack depression. An old friend from the Bronx, now a Floridian, tracked him down. A retired cop, Jerry Depaulis had always been the best guitar player in their doo-wop neighborhood. "I'm coming over,'' Depaulis told Cinnamon. "We're going to play some guitar.'' Depaulis collected them. One day, while Cinnamon was plucking a John Denver riff, Depaulis introduced a strange guitar.

The guitar body — the compartment on an instrument that amplifies the sound — happened to be an old cigar box. Cinnamon had never seen anything like it. Or heard anything like it either. His friend told him to look up the history of cigar-box guitars. There was plenty to read on the Internet.

Musicians, mostly poor Southerners who couldn't afford real six-stringed guitars, began making three-stringed cigar-box instruments around the time of the Civil War. They made cigar-box guitars in tar paper shacks and played them in the cotton fields. Bluesmen long dead performed with them in jook joints in the Mississippi Delta and in the orange groves of old Florida.

Lightnin' Hopkins, among the greatest of the Southern bluesmen, played his first lick on a homemade cigar-box guitar during the Depression. B.B. King first got his huge hands on one in the 1940s. In 1954, a young Mississippi-born musician, Ellas Bates McDaniel, began calling himself "Bo Diddley" and recorded the first of many hits playing a chug-a-lug rhythm on an electric instrument shaped precisely like a cigar-box guitar. Maybe it was a coincidence, but in an earlier America, a diddley bow was just another name for a cigar-box guitar. Bo died a Floridian in 2008.

Today, Luther Dickinson, who plays in the North Mississippi Allstars, sometimes breaks out his electrified cigar-box guitar during gigs. Same with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Sometimes Tom Waits plays a cigar-box banjo.

Steve Cinnamon finished reading about cigar-box guitars and headed for his garage in Florida. He looked at his workbench and saw possibilities.

He is comfortable with tools. His dad worked at a hardware store and could do anything with his hands. The son paid attention.

Cinnamon bought guitar strings, oak for the guitar neck and penny nails for the guitar frets. Sometimes tobacco shop clerks gave him the cigar boxes for free, sometimes they charged a buck or two. In the last two years, Cinnamon has built more than 200 guitars, which he sells at music shows and online for $150 and up. On March 10 he will display his guitars at Cigar City Brewing's annual Hunahpu's Day and watch a west Florida bluesman, Eddie Wright, give one of his electrified instruments a terrific workout.

When Wright plays the old Bo Diddley tune, Who Do You Love?, Cinnamon grows goose bumps.

• • •

The native people were the first Floridians, of course. Then came the Spanish, French and the English, the Scots, the Germans. In the 19th century folks migrated into Florida from Greece and the Bahamas. They trickled in from Georgia and the Carolinas. Some came from the Bronx.

Now Floridians include Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Mexicans, Colombians and Europeans. Some never adjust to their new home. But others, by accident or on purpose, introduce something of their old lives to their new ones in Florida. Or Florida somehow changes them.

Cinnamon, born in the Bronx, fast-talking Yankees fan, is part of that tradition.

He picks up his three-stringed guitar, the one with "Arturo Fuente" scripted on the cigar box, clears his throat and plays the opening chords to Memphis, Tennessee. Maybe Chuck Berry would recognize it. But probably not.

"I'm still practicing,'' Cinnamon says.

One day he may develop a taste for grits.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.

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