Shane Speal’s goal is simply stated: “I want to help make New Orleans home to the premier cigar box festival in the world.”
A musician and historian hailed as “King of the Cigar Box Guitar” and the man responsible for the instrument’s recent revival, Speal spoke with OffBeat from his backyard woodshop in York, Pennsylvania as he put final touches on a handmade cigar box guitar—he’s built more than 2,000 since 1993. “The cigar box guitar had been completely forgotten about,” Speal explains. “In the early 2000s—I had been building them for years by then—I was searching Google for information on them but couldn’t find anything. So I published online a free set of plans [for] how to build one and it took off. I continued to publish anything I could find on cigar box guitars just to help bring my favorite instrument back to life. Soon I had a chat room with several thousand members and from there built CigarBoxNation.com, an online community of more than 14,000. Three years ago, Paul McCartney played a cigar box guitar with the remaining members of Nirvana [at the 12.12.12 Hurricane Sandy benefit concert and then on “Saturday Night Live”].”
Billed as “a celebration of the cultural and musical dimensions of improvised stringed instruments,” the inaugural New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival has Speal, 45, excited. And for good reason. During his exhaustive research into the instrument’s origins (which traces back to the mid-1800s, when cigar imports began arriving in small boxes to avoid hefty taxation), Speal learned about New Orleans’ Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band. Largely credited as the first band to bear the “jazz” label, the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band played in Storyville in the 1890s and featured a cigar box guitar.
Though the instrument was born of crushing poverty among aspiring African-American musicians in the lower Mississippi Delta, the cigar box guitar revival today is a global phenomenon. Exploring its past while celebrating its present and building its foundation, the New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival features a documentary film screening, history seminars, handmade instrument contest, building workshops and demos, plus performances from national (April Mae & the June Bugs) and local (New Orleans Swinging Gypsies) acts, headlined by Shane Speal’s Snake Oil Band, “the world’s loudest jug band.”
“I get emotional even talking about playing in New Orleans,” says Speal, who has recorded more than 10 albums on the instrument. “I’ve never been more excited to play anywhere before in my life.”
The New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival takes place Thursday–Saturday, January 14–16, at Frenchmen Theatre (514 Frenchmen St., back of Bamboula’s). Tickets $11–26. More info at neworleanscbg.com.