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[whitespace] Saw It All

Orchard workers' music lives on

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

THE SOUND of it is, well, pretty much indescribable.

Perhaps it is something akin to the wail of a Celtic banshee announcing impending death. The hollow howl of the Pacific storm winds rushing through the Golden Gate on a fogbound, winter night. A eunuch, singing to himself in the backroom of a harem. One of Dante's solitary lost souls, calling out his lonely despair on the echoing, rockbound steps of purgatory, maybe. Or just a tall, naked man, crying out his despair while someone slowly squeezes his testicles.

Beautiful? No. Musical? Certainly. Terms like eerie, ethereal, uncanny and unwordly come to mind.

It is the sound of someone playing a song on a handsaw.

There were about a hundred of them, spectators and performers and their families, wailing away at the annual Saw Player's Music Festival and Picnic at Roaring Camp in the Santa Cruz mountains last weekend, and though they were out there mostly to have themselves a good time, this was also a serious music event.

In individual performances by novices and longtime practitioners, as well as a jam session concert, sawing musicians performed everything from "Pomp and Circumstance" to folk tunes like "Danny Boy" and "Red River Valley" to the themes from Cats and Titanic. David Weiss, who plays first oboe for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, flew up from L.A. to give his rendition of a selection from Bach, and an absolutely straight-faced Simon and Garfunkel fan chimed in with "Scarborough Fair" and "El Condor Pasa."

The saw is played by placing its handle between the thighs and bending the tip firmly between the thumb and the fingers so that the saw bends into an S-shape. A bow is then drawn across the bended middle. Some players enhance the sound while shaking one knee as if they were in a great hurry to use the bathroom.

The night before the competition, participants played a sawing tribute at the Santa Cruz statue of saw-playing legend Tom Scribner, and then retired to the Roaring Camp festival grounds for a six-hour jam session on the meadow that lasted past midnight. "I guess we kept some of the other campers up," one participant conceded a little sheepishly.

The musical art, which is believed to have begun in the Ozarks or the Appalachians, is a part of South Bay industry. Many of the specially built saws are manufactured by Valley Saw Company in East San Jose, which specialized in manufacturing pruning tools until the collapse of Santa Clara Valley's orchard economy.

California Saw Players Association member Patrick Weldon of Redwood City operates one of many saw-playing websites at www.mtco.com/~wentwrth/musicsaw/musicsaw.html.

Today, saw playing is spreading around the world.

The Santa Cruz mountains festival was an international event, with this year's winners coming from the former Czechoslovakia and Japan. Last year's first-place winner was an Australian, and past years have seen competitors and participants from such countries as Canada, Kenya and Switzerland. The government of China once financed one of its national musicians to come and play at the Santa Cruz festival. And the festival program announced that the Saw Players World Championship would be held this year in August in the Czech Republic, sponsored by the Swedish company Sandvik, which gives its credentials as the maker of the "Sandvikens Stradivarius Musical Saw."

"I have no idea how other countries picked this up," says emcee Morgan Cowin. The tall, white-moustasched, distinguished looking San Rafael resident is vice president of the 150-member California Saw Players Association, which sponsors the Santa Cruz event. He has just returned from a trip to France to visit with members of the French saw-players association. He pulls a hefty, French-built saw out of a duffel bag. It has no teeth, and it is special-made for musical playing. It comes with a $280 price tag. "I guess they don't want to lower themselves to look like they're playing on a hand tool," he says with a pixieish smile.

He says the music form lends itself to creative modification, with players using everything from cello and violin bows to some strung with "miles of fishing line" or made out of plastic tubing.

Cowin encourages me to take up the instrument, saying the musical form is missing only one major component: African American players. Leaving the park with the wailing sounds of "Amazing Grace," "Over The Rainbow," "Love Me Tender," and "It's A Small World" following me to the car on the Santa Cruz mountain breeze, I cannot imagine why.

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From the July 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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