Cigar Box Blues – The Makers of a Revolution by Paul Atkinson & Virgina Heath to screen on BBC4
On Friday 18 December, the BBC are broadcasting a documentary by two Sheffield Hallam Professors from the Art & Design Research Centre.
The half-hour film, Cigar Box Blues – The Makers of a Revolution, directed by Virginia Heath, Professor of Film, and written by Paul Atkinson, Professor of Design and Design History, portrays the passionate makers and players of cigar box guitars. Many of these craftsmen and musicians are from post-industrial British towns, and have created a self-identity through making these unique three-stringed guitars. Born from the blues, their simple, low cost, ‘no rules’ approach means anyone can try their hand.
These are the fervent advocates of the ‘cigar box guitar revolution’ who express their love of designing and constructing hand-made instruments, recycled from almost anything. The democratic, pro-recycling, local-production ethos of the movement inspires new recruits, while the emotional connection they feel for their instruments creates a unique and evocative sound that totally transports musicians and audiences alike.
Although the cigar box guitar has a long history in the USA, where it formed part of the culture of traditional blues music, it has only recently become popular with musicians in the UK. This film reveals how just three chords, played on their unique, DIY, instruments, hand-made from recycled materials, connect them to their truth.
The starting point for this collaboration was a research article, Hairy Guys in Sheds, written by Paul Atkinson, which explored the phenomenon of the cigar box guitar and the DIY revolution that has accompanied its uptake in the UK. Emerging as a side project from research into a book on the design history of electric guitars (to be published by Reaktion Books next year), the article used a series of in-depth, semi-structured interviews to piece together the history and current state of the cigar box guitar movement. The article describes the design and making processes used, and explores the makers’ motivations for being involved. It is a particular form of DIY which entails many people (mainly hairy guys) working in isolation in sheds across the country to create their own instruments out of recycled scrap and upcycled components. The instruments and the resulting maker’s music are then shared among virtual communities of practice through extensive use of social media, and among real communities of players and audiences through public performance at concerts and festivals. This raises questions about their self-identity and their perceptions of themselves as being either amateur or professional as makers and players.
As a woman film director, in Cigar Box Blues – The Makers of a Revolution, Virginia Heath turns her female gaze on this male world of ‘hairy guys in sheds’, the cigar box guitar makers and players who create a sense of self-identity though making unique instruments from recycled materials. The contemporary UK scene, inspired by American precedents, is largely embedded in northern post-industrial towns. After factory and mine closures, makers like the ex-miner from Barnsley, have finally been able to pursue the creative path they always longed for. As a filmmaker, Heath is intrigued by the way in which the guitar makers see their DIY movement as part of a wider resistance against the way in which our culture has become so mass produced and standardised. There’s an interesting dichotomy between the simplicity and authenticity of hand-made instruments and the use of the internet to exchange ideas and grow the global movement.
Paul Atkinson is Professor of Design and Design History in the Art and Design Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University. He is the author of various books and articles that have explored the design history of the computer, the design history of the electric guitar, the relationship between amateur and professional design practice and the history of the DIY and Maker Movements.
Virginia Heath is Professor of Film in the Art and Design Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University. She is a multi-award winning writer/director with New Zealand and UK nationality. She directs documentary and drama films including the acclaimed, BAFTA nominated, From Scotland With Love and Berlinale award winning Relativity.