Note: This is the last preview chapter I’ll be posting of the expanded edition of “The Anarchist’s Design Book.” The remainder of the new chapters will be released with the expanded edition at the end of 2019.
Up into my 30s, I wrote songs as much as I wrote newspaper or magazine stories, and I was always bewildered about where melody came from. How, after so many generations of births and deaths, could we still manufacture new melodies?
The answer is, of course, that we can’t.
Growing up in Arkansas in the 1970s, it was impossible to escape traditional music. You’d hear it at every church picnic, at the gas station and while eating at the Irish pub/barbecue restaurant. It was even piped into the town elevator.
Fingerpicking was like the fluoride in the water. Banjos hummed like the mosquitos in your ear.
I didn’t think much of it all until I encountered the alt.country band Uncle Tupelo in the 1990s. One of the bonus tracks on the CD “No Depression” was “John Hardy.” And the first time I heard the song I instantly began singing all the words.
John Hardy was a desperate little man
He carried two guns every day
He shot a man down on the West Virginia line
They saw John Hardy getting away
It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a repressed memory bubbling to the surface. I grabbed the CD case and saw the song was credited to Lead Belly. That was weird. It wasn’t a Lead Belly song I’d ever heard. After some digging, I found the source of where I’d learned the song: the Carter Family.
Then, like every aspiring songwriter, I soon found that the Carter Family was the source code for an astonishing mountain of American rock, folk, pop, blues and bluegrass. That statement sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not.
True story: While on tour with her husband, Johnny Cash, June Carter once demonstrated this deep truth by switching on the radio in their tour bus. About every third song, June began singing the Carter Family version over the version playing through the radio. Different lyrics. Different instrumentation. Same song.
This small songwriting revelation (which nearly every American songwriter has) turned out to be as important to my furniture making as it was to my love of music. And so, if you’ll indulge me a bit, learning a little about Sara, Maybelle and A.P. Carter can help you understand vernacular furniture and how to design it.
Many musical historians and musicians peg the beginning of country music to a series of recording sessions in Bristol, Tenn., in the summer of 1927. Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Co. toured through several Southern cities equipped with new recording technology and a desire to capture examples of “old time” or hillbilly music.
He attracted local artists with newspaper advertisements and the opportunity to get paid for their work. While in Bristol (a town that bleeds over into Virginia), he snared his biggest catch, the Carter Family. Led by A.P. Carter, the group was comprised of three people named Carter: A.P., who arranged the songs and occasionally sang; his wife, Sara, who played autoharp and had an enchanting and powerful voice; and Maybelle, who played guitar (plus other instruments), sang and was Sara’s cousin.
The Carter Family recorded six songs with Peer over two days during that first recording session. The three were paid and they returned to their Virginia homes. After the royalty checks began coming in, A.P. sought to record more songs (the Carter Family eventually recorded more than 250 songs, according to the documentary “The Winding Stream”). And this is where things get interesting.
The songs that the Carter Family brought to record were a combination of traditional tunes, original songs the three had written, plus songs that A.P. had “collected” and then adapted – changing the words, adding a beat here or there, tidying it up.
So that’s why you’ll see a song such as “John Hardy” attributed to three or four (or a dozen) people. These were songs that were transmitted from person to person and that changed based on who was singing them, when and where. The songs didn’t belong to one person. They belonged to the whole culture.
These melodies are deeply embedded into the American psyche – especially among Southerners – and it can be shocking (and sometimes uncomfortable) to have the curtain pulled away.
Listen to the Carter Family song “Wayworn Traveler,” sometimes titled “Palms of Victory.” (You can find it on the contemporary album “Carter Family: Storms are on the Ocean.”) The song is commonly regarded as a hymn attributed to a New York reverend from 1836.
Bob Dylan rewrote the song as “Paths of Victory” in the early 1960s. Then he rewrote it again as “The Times They Are a Changin’.”
In my mind, there is nothing wrong or shameful about this process of evolution. Each artist adds or subtracts something from the original to suit the time or place. And the work rises or falls based on the talent of the writer or singer.
By the end of his life, A.P. Carter had traveled thousands of miles all over the South to collect the songs that he, Sara and Maybelle would then hone, record and perform. Their true genius was in acting as one of the most incredible funnels and filters of American song culture. (Also, Maybelle Carter happened to invent the concept of lead guitar with her “Carter scratch” style of playing. She was a pioneering bad-ass.)
For me, this way of looking at traditional music has profound implications when applied to vernacular furniture.
The Vernacular Pattern
As I mentioned at the beginning of this book, the high furniture styles tend to be transmitted via pattern books – basically big catalogs of ornate or expensive works that are connected to a big name such as Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Stickley or Maloof. That’s why we have schools of furniture that are connected to famous names. And, as a bonus, there’s a book to consult that lays out the boundaries of the style. Chippendale has its somewhat Chinese details and distinctive feet. Stickley has a particular joint and a particular material (quartersawn white oak). Maloof has a language of curves and joinery that is easily understood.
Higher-style music is similar. We have the works of Mozart, Bach, Brahms and the Beatles to endlessly parse and parley. There is (usually) a definitive body of work. And it’s fairly straightforward to say when a particular piece of work is either inside or outside of a particular style.
Vernacular music and furniture do not work that way. There is no “Book of Cletus” when it comes to backstools. No detailed drawings to tell us if a certain detail is proper or inadmissible. So the only thing we can do is study the furniture record, which mutates across time and state lines and is always incomplete. We’ll never see it all.
But if you see enough of it, then the form’s design elements become like a melody you’ve heard your entire life. You know what details and proportions create harmony. And what’s a wrong note. If you sing it enough times you probably will change the pitch to suit your vocal range. Or change a curve to better suit your spokeshave and skills. And when you encounter a new version of the form that you’ve never seen before, it can cause you to shift your work again in response.
The boundaries of what’s acceptable and what’s not are softer and more nebulous. But they are there.
Again, I like to think of vernacular furniture design as a shared melody. If your work is appealing, then others will sing along. In their hands and on their lips, your melody will endure and change over time. If, on the other hand, your work fails to resonate with others, then it dies alone at the curb, never to be sung again.
What Does This Mean to a Designer?
If you want to build in vernacular styles, I think you need to explore the forms for yourself. Building pieces from this book or other books on vernacular furniture is a start. But it’s like singing songs from a Pete Seeger songbook that you bought at the mall. That might be where it starts, but that’s definitely not how it ends.
Like A.P. Carter, you need to get in your car and drive to the next town to see what is happening there. And then adapt what you find to your needs.
As I build these forms over and over they change. You might not notice it from one chair to another, but every piece is a little different. Sometimes it’s because the material demands it. Right now I’m building a series of four armchairs in white oak, and the seat material is thicker than usual. I could spend some extra time planing it down, or I could slightly increase the thickness of the legs to look harmonious with the seat. Or increase the bevel on the seat to look harmonious with thinner legs. Either change might push my next set of chairs in that direction.
John Brown, the famous Welsh chairmaker, noted this sort of evolution in his columns for Good Woodworking magazine. After making seats using thick material for years, he was once backed into a situation where he had to use some thinner stock for the seat. It became a turning point for his work, and his chairs became lighter from that day forward. But they still looked unquestionably like Welsh stick chairs.
The change might be due to a mistake. The rake and splay of the front legs of my chairs changed when one day I set my bevel gauge to the wrong resultant angle – a full 6° off. But the result was pleasing, so that’s now the angle I use every day.
Other times, changes come because I’ve seen a beautiful old piece or a new piece by a fellow woodworker I admire. There might be something about it – a curve, an angle, an overall pose – that pushes my work in a different direction. I might not even realize I’m absorbing it at first.
And when I feel guilty for it, I again remember A.P. Carter. Collecting those songs preserved them from extinction and ensured their place in our nation’s memory. Likewise, the only way to ensure vernacular furniture survives against the onslaught of manufactured flat-pack pieces is to build the stuff again and again. To allow it to change with the needs of the maker and the tools and materials at hand.
I also think it’s healthy to reject dogma and allow techniques to change as well. Like when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
Vernacular stuff doesn’t have to be built out of riven green wood (just like folk music doesn’t require an acoustic guitar). It can be built out of what you have on hand. If that’s riven green wood, use that. If it’s poplar and oak from the home center, use that. The same goes for tools. Vernacular furniture generally requires a smaller tool kit than the high-style stuff, but almost anything can be in that kit. My first piece was built using a jigsaw, drill and block plane. Nothing more. Use what you got. Today I use a band saw, bench planes and lots of other tools. And the tool kit neither diminishes nor improves my work.
There are fewer limits than you think.
In fact, many times we think of “tradition” as a thing that reduces the scope of our work. I would argue that idea is false. Traditional music and traditional furniture – when disconnected from the high styles – offer immense freedom for you as a maker and a composer.
There is a vast supply of forms and melodies all around you, ready to be collected, changed, rebuilt and adored. Look for them and listen. They are the mundane objects that escape attention – the background music stitched into your heart.
And they are beautiful.
— Christopher Schwarz