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The Launch and the Landing

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
February 24, 2009 - 10:00 pm

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

The Clark F5 shines to the eyes and the distinctive varnish smell still wafts in the air when it first comes out of its case, while the Harwood bowlback's finish is weathered and the mandolin always smells of closet dust.

One is just beginning its musical career on a journey to who knows where? The other I recently reeled in from Wisconsin via eBay, bringing it back to the city where its wooden pieces were shaped and glued together.

I've never been able to hold a mandolin in my hands and consider it just a tool for making music.

Happiness, anger, grief, love, despair, hope and joy will all come out of a human's hands, pass through the wood and strings, and hang in the air as tones for a moment.

An instrument is not alive but so much life passes through it. What has been lived, and what will be lived with them, that's what I wonder about the Harwood and Clark that both arrived in my life about the same time.

Their mysteries differ.

I know exactly who built the F5 and what woods he used. Austin Clark sat in a shop in Boise, Idaho, working by himself to cut sugar maple and Engelmann spruce into backs, sides and tops. The chef turned luthier sent me e-mails with photographs of it under construction, and we discussed the merits of design and dimensions the same way.

When it arrived via overnight shipping, I was day dreaming of the music I would make on it and imagined myself instantly a better bluegrass player with it in my hands. And I've not been disappointed on any count.

But I can't help but think that I'm just breaking this mandolin in for the owners who will follow my time.

Gibson A-model mandolins a century old are out there on the market, and people are fixing them up and playing them.

I suspect the Clark with its carbon fiber rod to keep the neck straight, varnish finish and extra-fine construction will just be hitting its fullest musical stride by 2109. Instruments also get better care these days with quality cases and climate-controlled homes. People have also learned their lesson from the first Gibson F5 mandolins about how classics retain value when cared for.

Someone in the next century is going to hit a chop chord and marvel at the power, then test the ringing open notes before doing a run by fretting notes up the fingerboard. They'll be grateful someone built this mandolin. But they'll also wonder how the heck it sounded and looked brand spanking new.

Much like I do with the Harwood.

The names of the men who made it are lost to time. What I do know, courtesy of my friend Bob Jenkins, is that the former J.W. Jenkins and Sons Music Co. of Kansas City in the late 1800s and early 1900s operated a mandolin, guitar and harp guitar factory near their main store.

Whether the Harwoods that bear the stamp "J.W. Jenkins New York" were made there or elsewhere is still a mystery, although we believe they all were made in Kansas City before World War I. This mandolin does not have that stamp, so it's the best example we've seen of a Harwood that certainly seems to have been made in our town. Who the craftsmen were, we don't know.

But what is certain is that someone cared a great deal about this gentle mandolin's appearance and quality.

The bowl's ribs are alternating strips of Brazilian rosewood and mahogany, with extra dark and matching strips of rosewood flanking each side of the top. Intricate wood inlays circle the outside edge of the even-grained spruce top and around the oval sound hole, and the sound hole is bound in ivoroid. The fingerboard is inlaid with pearl and the headstock has a gleaming pearl "Harwood." On the back of the headstock, a metal plate covering the tuners is etched with patterns and the brand name.

The sound?

Well the voice is delicate but strong, lean but rich. It's minus the power of a Gibson-style A or F mandolin, but the Harwood rings with a sweet, lyrical voice.

I understand now why people liked bowlbacks back in the day and still enjoy them now.

This one has been played hard, according to the scuffles on the back ribs where it would be held against shirt buttons while you pluck it, and some wear in the first positions on the ebony fingerboard.

Somebody may have gone into a Jenkins store and bought it, as the company had them in several towns.

But there's a good chance somebody ordered it from a catalog, and just like I did with the Clark, they opened it up brand new from a box in the mail.

I like to think of them tuning it up in 1903, and marveling at its sound and getting the feeling that they will instantly play better with such a fine instrument in their hands.

On the end of the headstock, on the back side, there's some funny wear that makes no sense to look at. It appears like wear from the mandolin repeatedly rubbing against a hard surface while traveling in some sort of moving vehicle.

I prefer to think that a railroad conductor owned it and carried it with him for years in a caboose, playing old tunes between towns as the countryside rolled by. In between picking sessions he may have laid it behind a seat on some clothes, where just the headstock rubbed up against steel walls as the train went down the tracks.

Maybe my daydreams are more romantic than the reality. But who knows? I do know another mandolin that I bought new and later sold to Nashville fiddler Aubrey Haynie started humbly and now has spent time in Music City USA.

The people who make mandolins and those who play them are usually colorful, fascinating human beings obsessed with discovery, skills and expression.

How can I help but wonder where the Harwood has been and where the Clark is going?

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