Players gather in the Santa Cruz Mountains to make music from saws
Devotees of the old art form – including everyone from college professors to vaudeville performers – produce a symphony of sounds that are at once Halloween eerie and songbird sweet.
As the evening light dies over a dusty parking lot in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a small group of musicians pick up their bows. They balance their saws between their knees, bend back the sharp, toothy blades, and produce a sound at once Halloween eerie and songbird sweet.Skip to next paragraph
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The 30th annual Saw Players Picnic & Music Festival – held each summer in this small northern California community – officially takes place on the second Sunday in August. But tradition has it that sawyers begin jamming the day before. They play their tools-cum-instruments in the parking lot until 1 or 2 a.m., then toss and turn for a couple of hours in the back seats of their cars.
The saw players, like their instruments, are an admittedly shy and quirky bunch. There’s a social worker from Minneapolis, a traveling vaudeville performer from the Czech Republic, a community college instructor from Seattle – all drawn together by their shared desire to extract a haunting whistle from a carpenter’s tool.
During much of the year, they practice the melancholy music alone in their basements, or play backup to the saw’s often louder, more popular brethren: the fiddle, the banjo, the guitar.
So, for the handful who have gathered for this pre-festival jam session, the night is a rare opportunity to trade tips, unite melodies, and bask in a shared adoration of the oft-overshadowed musical saw.
“More saw! More saw!” cries Morgan Cowin, the tall, white-haired president of the International Musical Saw Association, during one tune in which the instruments are being drowned out by a rowdy guitarist.
“More saw!” another player echoes.
The evening feels both awkward and affectionate, like a reunion of distant relatives. But there is a strange wonder to it, too, this group of musicians playing John Lennon and the Indigo Girls a few yards away from a green plastic Port-A-Potty. Beauty can emerge at the most improbable times and places, after all. The saw is a ready reminder of that.
Sawyers like to say their instrument is easy to learn, but difficult to master. Players grip the saw’s handle between their legs, teeth pointing toward them. They produce notes by gliding a violin bow across the flat side while bending the blade into an S curve. Though beginners can often coax out only a squeaky warble, in the hands of the best, the saw sounds like a melancholy flute.
Most players say they were immediately struck by the saw’s peculiar sound – which Mr. Cowin believes was discovered by factory workers and carpenters in the 1700s or 1800s, before being widely popularized during the 1920s and ’30s in vaudeville.
“I was like, ‘You can play a song on this thing?’ ” says Jodi Golden-White, the community college instructor from Seattle.
Others came to it more gradually, after being put off by the instrument’s inherent weirdness. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is really strange,’ ” says Steve Cook, the social worker from Minneapolis. He’d shunned most of his father’s attempts to teach him the instrument, then picked it up after his father’s death.
Musicians here recognize the saw’s weirdness as much as anyone. References to ripped pants abound, and puns about “C-saws” and “sharp students” are plentiful. Although saw players tend to be shier than their guitar-playing counterparts, they can’t help but enjoy the impressed murmurs: You can make music out of that?
“Everybody and their brother plays guitar,” says Cowin. “Nobody plays the saw. If you’re a saw player, you’re immediately a star.”