From freedom tree to harp guitar
A story of heritage, heroes, and harmonies
Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho
A former Prisoner of War, a Norwegian immigrant, and a Freedom Tree that partially morphed into a Freedom Harp Guitar built by two brothers of Norwegian heritage—how to connect these dots?
It begins well over a century ago along Norway’s Sognefjord, where Johan Christian Kammen was born, and winds from Norway through Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington, Idaho, California, and Tennessee.
Meet the Powell brothers, a talented duo who make music with the harp guitars they manufacture on their wooded Idaho acreage, becoming the first in nearly a century to produce a line of such instruments in the U.S.
But what is a harp guitar? A Freedom Tree? And how does a former POW and the man from the Sognefjord fit into the picture?
Kammen, that long-ago immigrant, came of age in North Dakota, where he developed a trade as a mason, married his first cousin Anna Kammen, and changed his name to Chris Knutsen. By 1895 he had moved with his wife to Port Townsend, Washington, and developed a prototype for a “One Arm” guitar, later known as a harp guitar, and the following year his first patent for it was granted.
Affectionately referred to as “the unicorn of the guitar world,” a harp guitar is one “with any number additional ‘floating’ unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking.” According to Gregg Miner, who placed this definition in a brochure about the Harp Guitar Foundation, “The modern harp guitar must have at least one unfretted string lying off the main fretboard; these unfretted strings are played as an open string.” It is a unique instrument that grew in favor during Knutsen’s era and fell out again by the 1930s.
But before that happened, Knutsen developed various designs for his harp guitars and acquired patents in the U.S., England, and Canada. Of the ones he made himself, no two are exactly alike. In addition to harp guitars, Knutsen also made Hawaiian guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, and violas.
A 1999 book about Chris Knutsen by Don Must and Tom Noe states in its preface that “in the genesis of developing the modern steel guitar, Knutsen was at the forefront.” Dan Must resurrected many Knutsen instruments himself.
After his death in 1930, Knutsen’s legacy faded for some time, becoming relatively obscure. According to the Knutsen Archives online, a Knutsen harp guitar could be acquired 10 to 15 yeas ago for as little as $150-$1500; now they range from $1500-$10,000.
An indicator of the resurgence of harp guitars is the emergence of the annual Harp Guitar Gathering started by Stephen Bennett. This year the 12th annual gathering took place in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a highly successful event hosted by the Powell brothers.
Dave and Tony Powell have several parallels to Knutsen’s life: they too have Norwegian heritage, have spent time in Seattle and Los Angeles, and have family with North Dakota ties. And most importantly, they too are at the forefront of harp guitar development. They now design and build them, and were the first to produce harp guitars on U.S. soil in nearly 100 years. They have even built a Knutsen replica.
Their appreciation for Norwegian heritage stems largely from their maternal grandmother, Harriet Marek, a Sons of Norway member for many years before her death in 2009. Her grandsons now belong to her last lodge, Harald Haarfager in Coeur d’Alene.
During a lodge luncheon, the Powell Brothers played a song written by Dave entitled “Endelig Hjemme.” Inspired by a picture his grandma had copied, water colored, and hung on her wall years ago, Dave used its title and theme for the song, written after their return to Idaho following a sojourn to Nashville and Los Angeles.
Harriet Marek had written “Finally Home” beneath the printed title. Like the Viking depicted approaching shore aboard his dragon-head ship, the brothers knew they too were home at last.
But what led to the emergence of their company, Tonedevil Guitars? Though both are musicians, a guitar-building business was not one of their goals. More than a decade ago, Dave first spotted a harp guitar at Vintage Guitars in nearby Post Falls, Idaho. It was not for sale. Later he returned and asked if he could play it; the owner complied. “The bug set in,” acknowledges Dave.
Tony had already built a flat mandolin. At Dave’s urging, he tried to construct a harp guitar. “We don’t use it,” admits Tony. “It hangs on the wall.”
But four years ago he renewed his efforts, building two harp guitars, a 12-string for Dave and a 6-string to sell.
Then at a Nashville conference the pair met someone from Southern California who had imported harp guitars from China and also wanted to build them in the U.S., with the latter expected to sell for more money.
The brothers went to Los Angeles on a three-month contract, but when their time was up, the importer chose not to focus on U.S.-built harp guitars.
However, while working in California, Dave and Tony learned two key things: a market existed for harp guitars, and the two of them made a good team. They returned to Idaho and Tonedevil Guitars was born.
That was in 2011. It’s been a busy three years. In addition to perfecting their guitar-building skills and acquiring a large workshop plus individual homes, all on wooded acreage, they and a videographer produced an hour-length film on the harp guitar titled The Hollow Arm. Completed nearly a year ago, the movie can be viewed on YouTube but is not yet available through commercial distribution.
They have also completed over 50 instruments. Dave puts his computer skills to work creating designs and making blueprints. Tony’s expertise is in the actual construction. Both of them play together using the name Powell Brothers in a variety of venues including a weekly gig at Kelly’s Pub in Coeur d’Alene.
Joining them in this regular play date at Kelly’s is long-time friend and mentor, Arvid Lundin, who has a dollop of Swedish and a smidge of Norwegian plus Norman nobility in his ancestry. He owns Lundin’s Violins in Coeur d’Alene.
Growing up in a family focused on music with a dad who also owned a violin shop, Arvid recalls becoming fascinated by the Hardanger Fiddle in his early teens, and vowed to have one of his own. The realization of that dream began at 18 when his family acquired a hardingfele. Arvid stayed fascinated and four years later he purchased one for himself from an elderly woman who had inherited it from her Norwegian father. It had been built in Telemark.
Today Arvid plays one he built himself, inspired by his instrument from Telemark. To learn more, he visited the Telemark area twice, talking to both builders and players. In 2010 he played it at the Opening Ceremony for the Sons of Norway International Convention in Coeur d’Alene, coming down the aisle in the lead of the procession.
Arvid has made several instruments over the years, the most recent being his Nordic Viola d’Amore, a hybrid instrument with sympathetic strings similar to the Hardanger Fiddle. It is decorated in rosing, design work much like rosemaling but done in India ink. An artist friend of his produced a special feature amid the intricate rosing, the pink twin flower, his grandmother’s favorite that grows in the Scandinavian Peninsula and also in North Idaho. They are appreciated by Arvid too because he has twin daughters.
Arvid played his special viola at the Harp Guitar Gathering in Coeur d’Alene last month; the three of them played to a standing ovation just prior to the Grand Finale, which featured over 30 musicians on stage, most sporting harp guitars. This instrument’s versatility was amply demonstrated throughout the concert as varied musicians presented a broad range of songs.
Debuting at the conference was the Powell Brothers’ latest creation, dubbed “The Freedom Harp Guitar” because it has interior braces made from Coeur d’Alene’s first Freedom Tree, a 65-foot Norway Spruce felled earlier this year to make way for renovations in the city’s McEuen Park.
This lofty giant was planted in 1959 at the foot of Fourth Street as a symbol by those protesting development of Tubbs Hill, the 120-acre lake front woodland oasis that today is a cherished part of Coeur d’Alene’s downtown charm.
Somewhere across town during that same year a 14-year-old boy was receiving his Eagle Scout Award. Fred McMurray, who graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School in 1963, got a degree at the University of Idaho, and began a 21-year career with the United States Air Force in 1967.
While flying escort for bombers over North Vietnam, McMurray was shot down on September 12, 1972. Taken prisoner, Fred spent six months at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where he says he was “beaten but not tortured.” Solitary confinement in a 7’ x 7’ cell marked his first two months.
Released as part of “Operation Homecoming,” McMurray landed at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane where he was met by a large crowd and escorted in a caravan directly to the foot of the Norway Spruce planted back when he was a young teenager. Nearly 15 years later it had become the Freedom Tree, so named for Fred in hopes of his eventual return. Neither his family nor his city had known he was a POW until the time of his release. He had been declared MIA.
On that tree were multiple strands of holiday lights. Replica dog tags had been placed in its branches over the years to honor other soldiers. Though initially named in McMurray’s honor, the Freedom Tree had come to symbolize hope and support for all POWs and MIAs.
Over the next 40 years McMurray brought many visitors to the tree with the plaque bearing his name. About a decade ago a drive was held to purchase large ornaments for the tree in honor of more veterans. Dave and Tony’s grandma bought one in memory of Grandpa Jim.
Then came the decision to fell the tree in preparation for the park’s renovation. It was considered too large and old to move successfully. Instead, portions have been preserved, an effort is being made to foster seedlings, and a new Norway Spruce Freedom Tree has been planted closer to the lake as part of a new Veterans Memorial. Fred McMurray has a pen created from a piece of the tree and has been promised a larger portion to be carved or sculpted as he sees fit.
The Powell brothers, whose dad is also a Vietnam veteran, learned that ways were being sought to memorialize the tree. The idea of the Freedom Harp Guitar arose out of their desire to honor not only their dad but all other veterans, and to “commemorate the freedom we love,” said Tony in an interview with the Coeur d’Alene Press.
Using a photo of the Freedom Tree complete with Christmas lights, the brothers designed the new harp guitar, adding “the roots of freedom” noted Tony, in reference to the extensive spread beneath the tree.
Once their design was finished, they had it laser engraved onto the harp guitar made in their popular S-12 Symphony model.
Prior to the Harp Guitar Gathering in early October, the new “Freedom Harp Guitar” was on display at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library a bare block from where the original Freedom Tree stood for 54 years.
At the October 4 concert on the North Idaho College Campus, the Powell Brothers opened with a dedication to all veterans, playing “America the Beautiful” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the Freedom Harp Guitar before an audience of 258, the largest ever at a Harp Guitar Gathering.
On Veterans Day 2014 a recently planted 30 ft. Norway Spruce was dedicated at the new McEuen Park Veterans Plaza just a half block from the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene. The Plaza also features a semi-circle of flags from all branches of the military plus the somber black and white POW flag. Sweeping views of Lake Coeur d’Alene, mountains, and marina stretch in one direction while the city, park, and Tubbs Hill abut the plaza’s other edges.
At that November 11 ceremony handmade Quilts of Valor in red, white, and blue patterns were presented to five veterans, including Fred McMurrray. Each was sewn by a member of North Idaho Quilts of Valor.
Attendees wore winter hats, gloves, and jackets to brace against the 27 degrees and chilly wind in a cloudless sky as they stood listening to patriotic songs from the Powell Brothers on their Freedom Harp Guitar and a speech by the highly decorated Lt. Colonel Fred McMurray, Retired.
“For the men and women of the armed forces this tree will serve as a reminder that should they be captured, we will not forget,” said McMurray. “For all our active duty men and women, when you come home, come to this Veterans Plaza. Look at the Freedom Tree and remember that we, the citizens of Coeur d’Alene and North Idaho thank you, love you, and respect you.”
This Veterans Day service epitomizes what the Powell Brothers have done. Not yet born when McMurray was captured, but proud of their Norse heritage and of their American freedoms, they infused both into an instrument that honors it all, from Chris Knutsen’s legacy to sacrifices by soldiers, from a 65-foot Norway Spruce to a unique harp guitar.
As was noted in a local newspaper headline about the new instrument, “Let Freedom String.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 28, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.