I Saw the Light – You’ve never heard the classics sound quite the way they play them at this Northern California festival
The last notes of “You Are My Sunshine” hang in the piney air like beads of dew on a spiderweb. Out of the corner of my eye I see my new pal Jenna wipe her cheek. Since our acquaintance is that day newly minted, I pretend not to notice her show of vulnerability, assuming people who wear earrings in their faces like to maintain a certain edge.
“That’s a nice tune,” I say as we applaud the song’s sweet finish.
“My mom and I used to sing it,” Jenna replies with a little smile.
“Yeah. Me and my mom, too.”
We are standing at the foot of the stage of the International Musical Saw Association’s festival. Since 1976, this festival, contest and picnic has been held at a little divot in time and geography known as Roaring Camp, about 10 miles northeast of Santa Cruz, California.
Roaring Camp occupies what was originally a logging site, established in these low-slung mountains in 1842. By 1875 it had become a tourist destination, the Santa Cruz & Felton narrow-gauge railroad its star attraction. Then as now, the steam engine shuttles tourists through stands of dignified redwoods and fern hillsides, down to the beach at Santa Cruz on a two-hour loop.
It’s a fine July morning, clear and blue as an aquamarine. Campfire smoke embroiders the main seating area where an enthusiastic throng of approximately 200 souls is gathered. The crowd is what one would expect if one were to give any thought to musical saw enthusiasts: fans of old-timey music (distinct by their vintage outfits), cowboys, geezers of every age. But peppering the audience are beret-wearing Frenchmen, Japanese families, and kids who look like they just left a Strokes concert. Betty Page look-alikes wearing baby doll dresses and Doc Martens compare mallet techniques with sunburned ranchers in gimme caps.
During a break between songs, Jenna takes the opportunity to show me her new saw. She gently unzips the black canvas case and removes her baby, which she spied in the Elderly Instruments catalogue and waited two weeks to get.
Its teeth all but ping in the morning sun, and the handle is an elegant mahogany. Indeed, this instrument is something to be proud of. Gingerly, not wanting to overstep my boundaries, I run my finger along the saw’s smooth face. “It’s lovely,” I murmur. Jenna beams.
Her openness is refreshing, and it gives me the courage to ask a question that seems reasonable enough but could easily brand me as an interloper. I can tell Jenna will be kind, but still, I lower my voice so as not to embarrass her or myself, “This may sound dumb, but bear with me. Could you actually saw something with that?”
Her eyes widen and just for a second she looks aghast, subtly tightening her hold on the saw’s polished handle, but in a beat she’s recovered. “Not with these. The ones made just to play are too thin. I learned on one of my dad’s old hand saws.”
“That must have been stiff.”
“It was. But I loved the sound, it was so trippy.”
Most of the musicians (or “sawyers”) use ordinary, inexpensive fiddle bows to coax the music out of their saws. A fledgling sawyer will start with a mallet fashioned from a tightly rolled strip of T-shirt attached with duct tape to a dowel or straightened-out coat hanger. They’ll place the saw between their knees and start giving chase to the music, testing notes around the steel until they get the feel for their instrument. Accomplishing that, they usually graduate to a bow. You need a subtle touch and patient ear to master the bow-against-blade technique, but the payoff is in a softer, more dulcet tone.
“Moon River” glides from a performer’s saw and eddies around Jenna and me, the theremin warble imbuing the chestnut with an otherworldly air. She’s right. It is trippy.
A twentysomething guy sporting peroxided hair and a nose ring hurries up to Jenna. He acknowledges me with a quick “Heyhowyadoin,” but his body language asserts “I’ve gotta see a woman about a saw.”
“Come on, man,” he urges, tugging her elbow, shepherding her toward a jam circle on a grassy swale about twenty paces from the main area. “They’re getting ready to play some honky-tonk over there. If we hurry we can catch a break on “Jambalaya.”
Before I can say “Hank Williams rocks,” they’re gone.