Don Walker's Gibson  

The 71st anniversary of the D-day invasion, which launched the Invasion of Normandy was June 6. This historic event was the beginning of the end for the Nazis and the first step for the Allies retaking Europe. For most of my life, my connection to this important battle was kind of vague. As a Canadian, I was grateful for the sacrifices of so many brave souls who fought there but I had no personal link. None of my family, as far as I knew, had been involved. But then something changed to bring it into better perspective for me.

It’s almost two years ago now. That’s when I became the proud keeper of a vintage Gibson acoustic guitar, courtesy of my brother-in-law Don Walker. I saw it first late one night after playing a gig at the slanted palace that is Salty Towers in St Andrew’s, New Brunswick. Rob MacDonald and I finished the show and headed back to Don and my sister Kathy’s home about 20 minutes west of St Andrews in St Stephen, NB, right on the U.S. border. We sat down at the dinner table, cracked a beer and Don pulled out a brown concert size guitar case and passed it to me. Inside was a gorgeous, slightly weathered and unbelievably resonant small-body acoustic, a 1934 Gibson L-00. I took it out gingerly, as if I was handling a delicate piece of sculpture, but soon felt its impeccable construction and durability. This guitar was rock solid.  I played it for a while that night. It seemed to have the tone and sonic strength of 10 guitars, which more than compensated for its slightly tough ‟action.” I put it away, thanked Don, and was happy for the chance to have played it.

Less than a year later, Don and Kath came to visit us in our new house in Pointe-Claire, about 20 minutes from downtown Montreal. We had just moved in and they had come to see it and our new baby Simone. Don had told me a few weeks earlier that he was bringing the guitar. He couldn’t use it.

He had just retired after 30 some years as a Phys Ed teacher at St Stephen High School and had taken up guitar. It was something he’d been planning for a while. An avid music fan, Don was up on every country hit of the past 20 years and also versed in the music of the 50s, 60s and 70s. If there was a dance tape or disc to be made for an event or party, Don was the one to make it.

But he was left-handed.

And he was not going to have a 1934 Gibson L-00 altered to suit him. That kind of change would include mounting a new bridge and surely messing with the magic a guitar acquires over 80 years of seasoning.

So Don was passing the guitar down, to the most logical place in our family: me. I would be the keeper, the custodian of this very special instrument until it was time for another move down the family chain, to another guitarist to come.

The reason I mention this stunning Gibson guitar now goes back to Normandy and connection.

You see, this guitar’s first owner, the one who bought it in 1934 for a then not insignificant retail tag of $25, and the person who played it for its first 10 years, was Don’s uncle and namesake, the late Don Walker, an older brother of Don’s dad, Gerry. That Don Walker was one of the soldiers who set out in landing craft from the south coast of England on that fateful morning in June 1944 to break the Nazi’s hold on Europe by penetrating their Atlantic Wall along the coast of France. The force, comprised primarily of British, American and Canadian troops, made amphibious landings on five beaches on the Normandy coast. The Canadian troops landed in the early morning hours at Juno Beach, waged a terrifying battle against Nazi positions along the shore, and, in time, moved inland to begin the liberation of France. The Juno Beach invasion was a success, but with a high price for the Canadian contingent: 340 killed, 574 wounded and 47 taken prisoner. Don Walker of St Stephen, New Brunswick was one of the young men killed.

So often when I play this guitar, I get a real sense of this courageous young man who first owned it and played songs on it, but who didn't get to enjoy it nearly as long as he should have.


I recently recorded a new album with a project called Sussex, after the NB town not far from where I grew up. We recorded at Studio Frisson, one of Montreal’s most renowned studios, located in a converted chapel in the northeast part of the city. It’s a stunning small wood and brick structure that was built in the early 1900s. This building that looks like it should be in the English countryside somewhere is surrounded by modern duplexes and condos, gas stations, fast-food joints and wide boulevards in a now densely populated area of Montreal.

The music on this new album is original but it is channelling the blues and jazz of the 20s and 30s. The studio and the songs were the perfect occasion for the Gibson to make its recording debut. I used it for several takes on a few songs during the sessions, and above and beyond the fact of its huge, rich sound, it also just felt right.  It was having its moment. When the Sussex album is released in the fall of this year, this guitar will be heard in homes and across the airwaves around the world.

And there is a part of me that wants to believe in the kind of heaven where Don Walker could be listening and enjoying his guitar in action. 



 

Don Walker, guitarist, soldier, early 1940s.

13 comments

  • J.D.Sage

    J.D.Sage Montreal

    Nice story.Glad you are the one who got the old guitar that has a lot more to play.Best.

    Nice story.Glad you are the one who got the old guitar that has a lot more to play.Best.

  • Rob Lutes

    Rob Lutes

    Thanks J.D.! It definitely has lots of music left in it.

    Thanks J.D.! It definitely has lots of music left in it.

  • Claire

    Claire

    Very touching story Rob. Well done! You are a true story teller.

    Very touching story Rob. Well done! You are a true story teller.

  • Rob Lutes

    Rob Lutes

    Thanks Claire. I hope to see you soon.

    Thanks Claire. I hope to see you soon.

  • Alison

    Alison Boulder, CO

    I wanted to thank you for writing this and express how excited I am that this special instrument will continue to make music. Don Walker is my uncle (my mom’s brother) and that guitar was a big part of my childhood. You see, before that instrument ended up back in St Stephen, NB with my uncle Don, it spent over 25 years with a different keeper, my dad Mike Strang. The guitar was given to Dad by my grandfather, the late Don Walker’s brother Gerry Walker. It was battered and bruised after years of neglect and it was in need of some TLC. My dad has always been a music lover as well as a sentimental and the Walkers knew that it would be appreciated not only for its ability to make beautiful music but as a family heirloom. Dad knew that he had acquired a special piece and now it was a matter of bringing it back to life. After several years of safe keeping under the bed in our guest room, the guitar was expertly restored and so was my father’s passion for music. Over the next two decades and beyond, the instrument and the man were inseparable. Our close friend, neighbor and accomplished musician, Dave Webb moved in next door and further inspired Dad’s musical awakening. I can remember countless jam sessions between those two wonderful friends over the years. In fact, our little house in Orrington, Maine was absolutely full of music and song ever since the guitar came out from under the bed, never to be hidden away again. A few years ago my mother Nancy surprised Dad at Christmas with a new muse in the form of a beautiful blonde Guild acoustic guitar. It was love at first sight. I’ll never forget the joy on his face when he opened that gift and strummed the first chord. It was around this time when my uncle Don retired from teaching and expressed an interest in learning the guitar. Dad decided that after decades of making beautiful music together, it was time that he retire the Gibson and send it back to Canada to the Walker family. He knew it had the spark to ignite his own musical obsession and he hoped that uncle Don would be similarly inspired. We were at Don and Kathy’s house over Christmas and Dad brought the guitar along. With a handwritten note, he left the guitar under the tree for Don to find on Christmas morning. I can remember him sitting and playing it one last time. There were tears as he said goodbye to his old friend after so many years together. Don was touched by the gift, but concerned because he is left-handed and the guitar was built to be played right-handed. Ultimately the guitar was in good hands and that is all that mattered to Dad. You see, it is apparent to me that this instrument is destined to be in the hands of inspiring men. From Don Walker, war hero to Mike Strang, my hero back to Don Walker and now on to you. It means so much that this guitar continues to be played and appreciated. I just wanted to fill in the gaps of the story and give you some more insight into how Don Walker’s Gibson got its groove back. All the best, Alison (Strang) VanKempen

    I wanted to thank you for writing this and express how excited I am that this special instrument will continue to make music. Don Walker is my uncle (my mom’s brother) and that guitar was a big part of my childhood. You see, before that instrument ended up back in St Stephen, NB with my uncle Don, it spent over 25 years with a different keeper, my dad Mike Strang.
    The guitar was given to Dad by my grandfather, the late Don Walker’s brother Gerry Walker. It was battered and bruised after years of neglect and it was in need of some TLC. My dad has always been a music lover as well as a sentimental and the Walkers knew that it would be appreciated not only for its ability to make beautiful music but as a family heirloom. Dad knew that he had acquired a special piece and now it was a matter of bringing it back to life.
    After several years of safe keeping under the bed in our guest room, the guitar was expertly restored and so was my father’s passion for music. Over the next two decades and beyond, the instrument and the man were inseparable. Our close friend, neighbor and accomplished musician, Dave Webb moved in next door and further inspired Dad’s musical awakening. I can remember countless jam sessions between those two wonderful friends over the years. In fact, our little house in Orrington, Maine was absolutely full of music and song ever since the guitar came out from under the bed, never to be hidden away again.
    A few years ago my mother Nancy surprised Dad at Christmas with a new muse in the form of a beautiful blonde Guild acoustic guitar. It was love at first sight. I’ll never forget the joy on his face when he opened that gift and strummed the first chord. It was around this time when my uncle Don retired from teaching and expressed an interest in learning the guitar. Dad decided that after decades of making beautiful music together, it was time that he retire the Gibson and send it back to Canada to the Walker family. He knew it had the spark to ignite his own musical obsession and he hoped that uncle Don would be similarly inspired.
    We were at Don and Kathy’s house over Christmas and Dad brought the guitar along. With a handwritten note, he left the guitar under the tree for Don to find on Christmas morning. I can remember him sitting and playing it one last time. There were tears as he said goodbye to his old friend after so many years together.
    Don was touched by the gift, but concerned because he is left-handed and the guitar was built to be played right-handed. Ultimately the guitar was in good hands and that is all that mattered to Dad. You see, it is apparent to me that this instrument is destined to be in the hands of inspiring men. From Don Walker, war hero to Mike Strang, my hero back to Don Walker and now on to you. It means so much that this guitar continues to be played and appreciated. I just wanted to fill in the gaps of the story and give you some more insight into how Don Walker’s Gibson got its groove back.
    All the best,
    Alison (Strang) VanKempen

  • Nancy Strang

    Nancy Strang Orrington,Me

    Rob,i was happy to read your blog,I happened to read the story and was interrupted before i could listen to the song.In the meantime i see my oldest daughter Alison has shared her fondest memories of the 'Gibson'. Both of your stories brought big tears to my eyes, yes, all my family knows i cry easily but this is a rare and precious instrument and i had the privilege of seeing it and my husband be reborn.As years went by and my husband talents grew he was always so afraid to take it anywhere,hence the "Guild". So after a 30 year love affair/friendship it was time to pass the "Gibson" back to my brother Don Walker.Though I always knew that my girls knew how special this guitar is ,but after reading my daughters response I didn't realized just how profound it was,you see we all had tears in our eyes the day the "Gibson"went back home! So please take good care of her,she is a sweet and precious thing. Happy picking' Nancy( Walker )Strang

    Rob,i was happy to read your blog,I happened to read the story and was interrupted before i could listen to the song.In the meantime i see my oldest daughter Alison has shared her fondest memories of the 'Gibson'. Both of your stories brought big tears to my eyes, yes, all my family knows i cry easily but this is a rare and precious instrument and i had the privilege of seeing it and my husband be reborn.As years went by and my husband talents grew he was always so afraid to take it anywhere,hence the "Guild". So after a 30 year love affair/friendship it was time to pass the "Gibson" back to my brother Don Walker.Though I always knew that my girls knew how special this guitar is ,but after reading my daughters response I didn't realized just how profound it was,you see we all had tears in our eyes the day the "Gibson"went back home!
    So please take good care of her,she is a sweet and precious thing.
    Happy picking'
    Nancy( Walker )Strang

  • Emily Strang

    Emily Strang Bangor, ME

    Rob, It means so much to us to see Great Uncle Don's story shared with the world and knowing that this very special instrument will be heard and enjoyed by so many. My entire life is full of fond memories of my father playing "The Gibson" and it was watching his talent and passion grow over the years that shaped my own love and appreciation for music. There is nothing on this earth that can speak to my soul quite the way a song can, and the song of "The Gibson" lies at the heart of it. I am so grateful that Uncle Don's guitar found its way to you and you have brought the old girl to life yet again. My sister said it best when she said that the guitar was meant to be in the hands of inspiring men and I just wanted you to know how much that precious 1934 Gibson inspired me. Take good care of her. All my best, Emily Strang

    Rob,
    It means so much to us to see Great Uncle Don's story shared with the world and knowing that this very special instrument will be heard and enjoyed by so many.
    My entire life is full of fond memories of my father playing "The Gibson" and it was watching his talent and passion grow over the years that shaped my own love and appreciation for music. There is nothing on this earth that can speak to my soul quite the way a song can, and the song of "The Gibson" lies at the heart of it.
    I am so grateful that Uncle Don's guitar found its way to you and you have brought the old girl to life yet again. My sister said it best when she said that the guitar was meant to be in the hands of inspiring men and I just wanted you to know how much that precious 1934 Gibson inspired me.
    Take good care of her.
    All my best,
    Emily Strang

  • Desiree Jardine

    Desiree Jardine Montreal

    Isn't it lovely how things that are meant to be ,come to be. this Gibson guitar is sharing its own journey with the musicians that have treasured it and now with you, and then another guitarist to come, and the music continues! somewhat reminds me of the story of the" Red Violin". I like your music very much and am now quite intrigued to hear the sounds of the Gibson. looking forward to the release of the new Album... well done!

    Isn't it lovely how things that are meant to be ,come to be.
    this Gibson guitar is sharing its own journey with the musicians that have treasured it
    and now with you, and then another guitarist to come, and the music continues!
    somewhat reminds me of the story of the" Red Violin".
    I like your music very much and am now quite intrigued to hear the sounds of the Gibson.
    looking forward to the release of the new Album...
    well done!

  • Rob Lutes

    Rob Lutes

    Thank you all for these comments, Emily, Nancy and Alison, I am really glad you wrote and shared with me the details of the story. I knew that Mike had had the guitar, and had it restored, and I am really touched by how much the guitar touched you all. It's kind of amazing how it seems to have that power. I will take good care of her, and I fully understand the the guitar's journey will continue long after I've stopped playing. It is a testament of sorts to some sort of fate that your Uncle/Great Uncle Don bought this guitar and that we are all talking about it now. I am a real believer in the magic of music, and it sounds like Mike's reawakening to music with the 'Gibson' was another example. I played at a seniors residence this afternoon and, though I rarely take that guitar out, I decided to today since I thought the residents would appreciate the age of it and the story, and it was so fresh in my mind. I brought it out about midway in the set, told them the story of the guitar and your Uncle Don, and then played an old ragtime piece from the 20s. They loved it, and one of the ladies said after I was finished, 'You have a real jewel there.' So true. Again, thanks for sharing your stories and how the guitar touched you all. It really adds a dimension to its lore and its power. I hope we cross paths. Please stay in touch and I will get you copies of the CD when it comes out. All the best, Rob

    Thank you all for these comments, Emily, Nancy and Alison, I am really glad you wrote and shared with me the details of the story. I knew that Mike had had the guitar, and had it restored, and I am really touched by how much the guitar touched you all. It's kind of amazing how it seems to have that power. I will take good care of her, and I fully understand the the guitar's journey will continue long after I've stopped playing. It is a testament of sorts to some sort of fate that your Uncle/Great Uncle Don bought this guitar and that we are all talking about it now. I am a real believer in the magic of music, and it sounds like Mike's reawakening to music with the 'Gibson' was another example.
    I played at a seniors residence this afternoon and, though I rarely take that guitar out, I decided to today since I thought the residents would appreciate the age of it and the story, and it was so fresh in my mind. I brought it out about midway in the set, told them the story of the guitar and your Uncle Don, and then played an old ragtime piece from the 20s. They loved it, and one of the ladies said after I was finished, 'You have a real jewel there.' So true. Again, thanks for sharing your stories and how the guitar touched you all. It really adds a dimension to its lore and its power. I hope we cross paths. Please stay in touch and I will get you copies of the CD when it comes out.
    All the best,
    Rob

  • Rob Lutes

    Rob Lutes

    Thanks for your comment Desiree. I love the story of the Red Violin but had not thought of it. As the Gibson story grows, it seems more and more a propos.

    Thanks for your comment Desiree. I love the story of the Red Violin but had not thought of it. As the Gibson story grows, it seems more and more a propos.

  • Sam Leo

    Sam Leo Pointe-Claire

    great story Rob ...

    great story Rob ...

  • Rob Lutes

    Rob Lutes

    Thanks Sam.

    Thanks Sam.

  • Patti Flanagan

    Patti Flanagan Arundel, QC

    Wow, a beautiful story for a beautiful guitar. A Gibson guitar is a jewel in any hands, I can't wait to hear how it sounds on your new album!

    Wow, a beautiful story for a beautiful guitar. A Gibson guitar is a jewel in any hands, I can't wait to hear how it sounds on your new album!

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