A Whale of a Tale: Local short about overlap between music, literacy, and preservation

“There are all these journeys of learning and being open to trying something even if someone tells you it’s not possible.” – Jen Long

The whale guitar is becoming an important artifact in the RI music and art scene. Jen Long turned her love of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick into an iconic piece of playable art that she uses to educate people on the nasty impact of climate change. The inscription on the guitar, “This Machine Kills Climate Denial,” puts an exclamation point on her mission, while the strap inscription, “Oh Ahab, not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist,” serves as a stark reminder that damage can be minimized or erased with some hard work and personal sacrifice.


“It draws people in, and people want to play it,” Long says of the guitar, which has been played by over 200 musicians. “It sounds and feels amazing.”

Actually sitting down to read and complete the book became her version of the white whale. Not that she wanted revenge, but the challenges she faced in sitting down long enough to complete the book were massive. She didn’t read it in high school as she was going through a rebellious phase. As an adult, she found misprinted versions and had others destroyed after a flood. She had all but given up on reading the epic novel.

“We went to Provincetown soon after I moved to RI in 1997 and I found another edition,” Long says of her ultimate success. “I got through the book after about a year of reading. I was fascinated by Melville’s lyrical and poetic writing.”

The idea for the whale guitar came about in 2013 after her husband, Brian, brought home a new guitar that initially reminded her of a canoe. She had recently started playing guitar through RIOT RI. She was playing in the Swamp Birds and singing in the Assembly of Light Choir.  

“I looked at it again and saw the guitar as a whale with the harpoon strings, and six pegs being whalers,” she adds. She ran the idea by a friend who is a luthier (and wishes to remain anonymous), who made an initial design. She then connected with her newfound friend William Schaff to do the final drawings on the guitar. 

The three of them got to work and spent the next year building and perfecting the guitar. They spent a lot of time doing research at the Whaling Museum and Providence Public Library, which has the world’s second-largest collection of whaling journals and scrimshaw. Gwen Forrester at Dismal Axe built the electronics of the guitar and Double Treble Guitar Straps made the strap.

“I got a sense of mission while it was being built,” Long says of the endeavor. “There is a lot of it that relates to the story of Moby-Dick, but I started seeing it as a metaphor for climate change. Our research led to two interesting realizations: the whale rising up as a symbol of climate rising because of the actions of humans, especially led by white male leadership, and our view that we can exploit nature and other people and our stratification that you can do whatever you want if you’re at the top.”

The whale guitar started gaining notoriety, as did Long’s musical prowess. She was able to share her message about the dangers of climate change. Motif publisher Michael Ryan approached her to be a musical performer at an environmental film screening taking place at R1 Karting. He requested she bring the whale guitar and a couple of musicians (Lauren King, Avi Jacob) to play it. 

Their conversations led to Ryan asking Long if she had a movie to play. She responded no, but added that she had a ton of footage of people playing the guitar and artwork that she’s done over the years. Ryan offered to turn that footage into a short film to be viewed at the event.

“I have always thought Jen’s whale guitar story was amazing, and it touches on many themes [motifs, if you will] that Motif finds important and covers regularly: music, environmental activism, collaborative projects, literacy,” Ryan says of his decision to produce the short. “We really felt it hit all the notes and made for a great story that isn’t widely known yet. We’d already written about it, and during COVID there wasn’t much to film, so we were trying to find projects for our little video production center. This seemed like a win all the way around. Plus, Jen is an amazing artist and generous with her time in helping others, and great to work with. She told us about all the random footage she’d gathered over the years, and we really wanted to show it at one of our monthly screenings dedicated to eco-supportive shorts. But the clips weren’t structured, so we shot a little new material featuring Jen to tie them together, and we structured it and turned it into a short. There’s a lot of meat there for a longer piece someday.”

Though some films are never completed in the eyes of the filmmakers, “Whale Guitar” has been receiving many accolades at local and national film festivals. Long has sent the film to a couple of dozen film festivals and has received laurels for Best Music and Sound (LA Documentary Short Feedback Festival). The film has been accepted at Flickers RI International Film Fest (August 3-7), Chain Film Festival in NY (August 3), and is a finalist at the Climate Futures Film Festival in PVD.

“I’ve been receiving these laurels, but I still have to make a movie poster to put them on,” Long says. “That’s one thing on my to-do list. As a designer, I have that weird thing where I’m more likely to do projects for other people than myself, but I’m working on it.” 

“I personally found the story of this guitar’s creation and journey to be extremely compelling,” says the film’s director Shawn Tetrault. “Jen’s vision for it as a symbol of change is both elegant and inspiring. She has accomplished so much simply through word of mouth that it’s nothing short of impressive. Getting the chance to help her tell this story in a more visual way and be a part of the journey that she is on has been an honor and a privilege. I feel that in their own way, this guitar and her message have the potential to move mountains. There is a larger story that has yet to be told to a large audience.” 

Long is still performing and using the whale guitar as a way to advocate for climate change. She has recently started performing for and educating youth. She puts a positive spin on those performances to try and not put too much fear into their future.

“Kids are getting so much climate anxiety, so I’m cautious with how I present it to kids,” Long says. “I want to leave them with a sense of how they can make a difference and inspiring aspects and projects that people are doing to fix the world.”

Long will continue to use the whale guitar as a springboard for education, and she is working hard to be a role model for those eager to protect the environment. She embraces the RI arts scene, which continues to assist her in spreading awareness, her message, and in having a lot of fun.

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