By Jay Hardwig
JULY 20, 1998: The sound of a musical saw is unlike that of any other instrument. It's a winsome, ethereal sound, a high quavery moan that crawls in through your ears and chews on parts of the brain you don't often use. It's a vibrating, pulsating splotch of noise, not unlike a will-o'-the-wisp, singing junebugs, or cats in pain. It's a little beautiful, a little creepy - an arcane voice from a time long past. "The saw has so much character to it," says Guy Forsyth, local bluesman, amateur folklorist, and nascent saw aficionado. "It can cry, it can scream. It's like a lot of folk instruments that really are doing their best to emulate the human voice, because that's the most natural sort of expression, and that's what the ear hears the easiest.
"That's why African-Americans in the South would nail a piece of baling wire on the barn, separated by two spools, and play it with a bottle, because you could get it to sing. You could get it to imitate your voice. You could get it to imitate the pentatonic scale, which is hard-wired in your head - which is the sound of a wolf in the darkness, which is the sound of a crying baby, which is the sound of laughter."
But not everyone likes the sound of the saw. It has been described as caterwauling, banshee-like, and even high frequency Jell-O. The Grove Dictionary of Music laments its "dismally whining effect," suggesting that it's only fit for vaudeville and novelty circuits. Olivier Giraud, guitarist for 81/2 Souvenirs and a sawyer in his own right, disagrees, calling the sound of the saw both haunting and pure.
"It's an instrument that really sets an atmosphere. It's like a mermaid. It's amazing. There's a mystery about it. You hear it once and don't forget it."
Magical or maddening, mermaid or banshee, the much-maligned musical saw has seen a local revival of late. Both Forsyth and Giraud have been playing it for a couple of years now, with their respective bands as well as with the Asylum Street Spankers, and recently Spanker and Jubilette Christina Marrs has taken it up also. Sawyer Beverly Wachtel once graced an Austin stage as part of a quartet featuring saw, banjo, bass, and didgeridoo, an instrumental amalgam not likely to be repeated elsewhere. There are doubtless others, sideline sawyers whose passion isn't as public as Forsyth, Wachtel, and Giraud's.
Played by running a bow over the vibrating, curved blade of a handsaw (the side without teeth), the saw's pitch is determined by the bend of the blade: a buckled saw sings high, while a (nearly) straight saw moans low. Volume is controlled by the force of the bow (the blade can also be struck with a mallet). Simple enough, on the face of it, but there are two critical refinements.
First, the curve of the blade must be an "S" curve, a double bend achieved by pushing the blade out with the thumb and pulling it back with the fingers. Holding the "S" curve is tiring, but essential.
"It requires a certain amount of wrist strength," says Forsyth. "Your practice time will be completely limited by how long until your hand gives out."
In addition to maintaining the "S" curve, a sawyer must keep the blade vibrating; it's these vibrations that allow the song to escape the saw. Most players create this "vibrato" by clutching the handle of the saw in their lap and lightly jiggling their legs. Too much vibrato and the saw sounds garish or maudlin, too little and the saw fails to sing. The saw is very sensitive, the good sawyer subtle.
"Even a heartbeat can make the note fluctuate," warns Giraud.
A lot to keep in mind, but according to Giraud, once you get the knack, the saw is a simple instrument.
"It's very easy," he asserts. "It's so easy compared to guitar. Guitar is astronomically difficult. It's ridiculous how hard guitar is. In comparison, the saw is a dream. Once you know where [a note] is, you just hit it. There's not really a mistake possible."
"You don't need to have any sort of musical training to do it. It's just by ear. If you can hear a song, and you fool around on a saw, you'll find it eventually."
It's that simp- licity, one imagines, that made the saw a popular instrument in the first place. No one knows who first coaxed music from the blade of a saw, but it's likely he or she was not alone: There is evidence of the spontaneous generation of saw music on at least four continents going as far back as the early 1700s. One legend has it that a Pennsylvania Dutch lumberjack by the name of John Schmidt had a dream in which his favorite saw came to him with one request: "John, my back itches something awful. If you'll just scratch it, I'll hum some of the most beautiful music you've heard this side of heaven."
Popularization of the instrument is usually traced back to the vaudeville circuit of the early 20th century, and in particular to a traveling Missouri showman named Leon Weaver. Crossing the South with his "Weaver Brothers n' Elviry" act, Weaver is credited with spreading the good word of the musical saw, earning himself a place in the Ozarks Hall of Fame because of it. It was his sister-in-law, though, June Weaver, who made two critical innovations: First, she refined the "tremolo" effect by pioneering the lap-style of playing, allowing for more vibration; second, she was the first to lay down the mallet and pick up a violin bow, inventing the dismal whine we know and love today.
There were skeptics at first, doubting Thomases who insisted that performers were whistling their melodies rather than coaxing them from a saw: A Swedish sawyer named Martin Larrson was once forced to play under the bridges of Paris with a bun stuck in his mouth. Generally relegated to the vaudeville circuit, the music of the saw nevertheless found its way into some strange surroundings: country, blues, swing, and Japanese folk, to name a few. Marlene Dietrich, among others, played the musical saw, and saw hero Tom Scribner can boast sessions with Neil Young, George Harrison, Willie Nelson, and Muddy Waters. Scribner remains the only sawyer to have a statue cast in his honor; you can see it in Santa Cruz, California.
The saw's assault on the classical world was less successful. While music critic Lucille Fletcher predicted in her 1938 New Yorker article, "The Apotheosis of the Saw," that the saw would outgrow its vaudeville roots to become an accepted orchestral instrument, she has been proven less than prescient on that point. However, David Weiss did play a feature saw solo for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1985, following with a medley of American popular music.
Over the years, the saw has gained loyal fans around the world, from the U.S. to Europe to Japan. The French call it la lame musicale or la lame sonore. The Germans call it die singende Sage. Americans call it the singing saw, the whispering foil, and the flexatone. No word on what the Japanese call it.
That's a lot of passion for an instrument you can get at Home Depot, as Giraud did when it came time to buy a saw of his own. He simply went down to Home Depot with his cello bow, sat down in the saw aisle, and tried out all the blades before settling on a 26-inch Stanley crosscut. Giraud reports that he did get some strange looks from "the old grandpas with the overalls."
Forsyth got his Stanley at Builder's Square, a point that brings him evident pride.
"The fact that it's a common saw is one of the great things about it," enthuses Forsyth. "I think there's so much beauty and poetry in making music from common objects, because it gets back to a place in musical expression when music was something people did for their own enjoyment. It wouldn't have been a $2,000 violin bow or the $3,000 handmade guitar. It would have been the $5 banjo you ordered by mail and hung up on a nail in the shed, because music wasn't a question of fashion. It wasn't anything other than this thing you did, sort of like scratching your back, for your own pleasure."
Plus they're easy to care for. While Beverly Wachtel carries hers in a hand-stitched, velvet-lined case, most saws require no such comfort. Giraud carries his in its original cardboard bladeguard, and when it comes time to clean it, he just whips out the old Scotch-Brite pad and gives it a scrubbing. And the saws do cut wood: Faced with non-believers, sawyers have been known to cut the legs off the chairs they are sitting in, and many a lumberjack played by night what he worked with by day.
This is not to say that a Stanley can't be improved upon: There are several companies that make specially crafted musical saws, many of which have blunted teeth or no teeth at all ("edentulous" is the technical term). Thinner and longer, they offer more flexibility and a larger musical range - up to three octaves, compared to just over an octave on a 26-inch handsaw.
The oldest name in the business is Mussehl & Westphal of Wisconsin, which sold upward of 30,000 musical saws a year in the Twenties and is still making them (although they've discontinued their Cadillac of saws, a jeweled, gold-plated blade that's now a collector's item). Austin's Breed & Company carries a Swedish Sandvik "Stradivarius" musical saw, which are factory-tested by a symphony violinist.
While Forsyth admits to a secret lust for the Stradivarius, Giraud is content with his Stanleys; he's worn out seven or eight of them in his three years of playing, replacing them when they are no longer flexible enough to get the high notes. If anyone has some carpentry work and wants to make an offer, Giraud says call him.
Eight saws in three years: This is not the work of a dilettante. This does not smack of novelty. Giraud is serious about the saw, and doesn't see why everyone else shouldn't be, too.
"I've never seen people laugh when I play the saw," says Giraud. "The melodies that you can get out of a saw are so accurate, so defined, that if someone plays it properly, it can be assimilated with regular musical instruments. I take it just as seriously [as guitar], because I enjoy it as much if not more."
Still, there's that nagging novelty tag, a deep-rooted disrespect for the saw as a serious musical instrument. Forsyth responds to the novelty charge more obliquely:
"There are some songs out there that just have to be played with two trashcans banged together, and nothing else. And if that's the song, that's what you need to play it with. And there are some songs that need a saw more than they need Steve Vai."
Forsyth gives the example of "Thibodeaux Furlough," a song he wrote specifically for the saw. He plays it for me. He's right. It doesn't need Steve Vai. In fact, it's the saw's humility that attracts Forsyth. The saw is a straightforward, honest instrument, utterly lacking in pretension.
"In this goofy little folk instrument, like in other goofy little folk instruments like the nose flute or the kazoo or the harmonica, there is ... incredible story, incredible irony, incredible history, texture, smells. I am able to hear in it nothing more than collective conscious and some sort of ghost thread of racial memory of the bloodline - a whole universe of sepia-toned history."
Collective conscious? Ghost thread of racial memory? A whole universe of sepia-toned history? Not bad for a holdout from the hardware aisle. Not bad at all.
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