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News and Features
08.12.09

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Cutting-Edge Music

An afternoon at the 31st annual Musical Saw Festival in Felton.

By Kat Lynch


THE SUN intrudes on my personal space. Loud whistles from the train greet me as I head through the small covered bridge leading into Roaring Camp. In a small open field next to the dirt-and-gravel pathway I'm on, a mountain man is throwing his axe for the passing train. He doesn't appear to have practiced much since last year's Mountain Men festival, as the lone axe continues to bounce off the tree stump target.

With Lee Marvin's voice in my head, I hum show tunes from Paint Your Wagon as I pass the Mountain Men's settlement. Beneath the sounds of the accordion emanating from the camp is a soft, unfamiliar warble. As I arrive at the stage, the plucking of a mandolin and the warble become louder. Then I spy the source of the unfamiliar sound: a man with a violin bow and a saw at the far right side of the bandstand.

A banner explains everything. "Saw Player's Picnic & Music Festival," it reads. Beneath it, four musicians are finishing up an old-fashioned tune. The mandolin player announces the group's final number. "Our last song for you is 'Ashokan Farewell,'" she says. The low yodel of the saw adds a newer element of heartache and authenticity to one of my old favorites as the saw player moves in time to his rhythmic bow movements.

Flashes of red catch my eye from the bandstand. Seven full-grown adults take the stage dressed in bright red long johns. "We're the PT Wranglers," says a woman in braids, holding one of the band's two saws. PJ Wranglers seems more appropriate, I think as I settle in for the next phase of the hoedown. Accompanied by a dobro, ukulele, chimes and harmonica, the players smile as they bend the saws back and forth and move the bows up and down. Little girls twirl around on the dance floor with their fathers to an upbeat tune: "What are we gonna do with our old home brew?"

At a clearing further up the hill, I catch the tail end of the annual saw players' competition. A drum and harmonica accompany the saw in a new arrangement of Ennio Morricone's famous The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Theme. I can almost hear the desert grasses rustling in the dry heat. It's a good day for the saw players.


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