VERMILLION, S.D. | Where in this area can one go to see a guitar that Elvis once pitched off a stage? Or an American flag-painted saxophone gifted to President Bill Clinton?
At the National Music Museum in Vermillion, visitors can gawk at these and other instruments that, in some form or fashion, were associated with famous names.
Here is a small list of of the museum’s exhibits that were owned or played by celebrated musicians.
The Elvis guitar
This 1975 Martin guitar was the subject of a well-publicized legal battle between the museum and a man who claimed to be the guitar’s rightful owner. The man, Robert Johnson, says he bought the guitar from its owner, Larry Moss, but never took possession of it. Moss later donated the guitar to the museum, and all three ended up in court. The museum won that legal battle in January, though Johnson recently asked an appellate court to overturn that decision.
But the guitar’s stormy history goes back farther than that. At a concert in Florida in February 1977, Elvis threw the guitar offstage during a show. This was a pre-planned stunt, in which a crew member would catch the guitar. But Elvis threw it at the wrong time and the guitar fell to the floor, damaging its bottom. Elvis then gave the guitar to an audience member as a gift.
Today, the guitar — still showing the damage done to it by Elvis — is in a glass case at the museum. Patricia Bornhofen, the museum’s manager of communications, said a group of young children was recently led through the museum, and the tour leader asked the children if they knew why the museum didn’t repair the Elvis guitar.
Some children guessed that repairing the guitar would be too expensive, or that the museum didn’t know how to do so.
“Finally this little kid in the back goes, ‘You wouldn’t have a good story to tell,'” if the guitar were repaired, Bornhofen said.
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash guitars
One guitar at the National Music Museum was intimately connected with Johnny Cash — his 1971 Martin D-28 known as “The Bon Aqua.” This guitar was kept by Cash at his farm near Bon Aqua, Tennessee, where he would go in search of peace and solitude. He used it while composing during the last 30 years of his life.
There are actually two Johnny Cash guitars at the museum. The other is a Grammer-brand guitar, circa 1966-67, that was custom-made for Cash.
June Carter Cash’s guitar, a circa-1967 Gibson Hummingbird, was one of her favorite guitars, and she played it for many years. It features a deep red, intricately carved pick guard. The guitar has a number of visible cracks on its front — but unlike the Elvis guitar, this wasn’t the result of misuse.
“Gibson was using this really, really thick lacquer in this period, and what happened as it dried out and as the wood of the guitar would expand and contract, it would develop these fine little cracks in it,” Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments, said. “It’s very typical of a late ’60s Gibson finish.”
Bob Dylan guitar and harmonica
Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Dylan didn’t actually own the acoustic 1960 Villar-brand guitar on display at the museum, but he did play it while he lived in New York City between 1961 and 1963. At the time, Dylan was staying with Eve and Peter McKenzie, who owned the guitar. There are a number of surviving recordings of Dylan playing the guitar, including “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Only a Hobo” and several others.
The guitar today looks a bit worse for wear, with its wood darkly discolored in several spots as though it were scorched or suffered water damage. In reality, Sheets said the discoloration is the result of dirt.
The harmonica, a Hohner Marine Band model, was played by Dylan in the mid-1980s. Dylan is apparently fond of the Hohner Marine Band harmonica, as he has often been photographed playing one. It was a gift from his friend and guitar technician César Díaz.
Bill Clinton saxophone
This saxophone, described by then-President Bill Clinton as “the most beautiful saxophone I have ever seen,” was presented to him on May 16, 1994. Manufactured by L.A. Sax, it features a red, white and blue paint scheme, and was one of a limited edition of 150. Clinton gave the saxophone to the National Music Museum the same year it was given to him.
The museum has a few other fame-affiliated instruments in its collection, including a Gibson “Lucille” model guitar signed by B.B. King, and a Gibson guitar once owned by John Entwistle of The Who.
But the real “stars” of the museum, Bornhofen and Sheets said, aren’t necessarily the instruments affiliated with popular music greats. Rather, instruments made by venerated masters, like Antonio Stradivari or Adolph Sax, are the focal point of the museum.
“Most of our collection, the celebrity is more the maker than the player,” Bornhofen said.