Not That Old Saw! Bowman Makes Tools Sing New Tune
“Don’t hold it that way; you’ll saw the hairs right off!” Jim Leonard said with a mixture of bemusement and alarm.
Perhaps I could be forgiven, inasmuch as most of us can count on one hand the number of times when we’re simultaneously holding a saw and a violin bow. Leonard was trying to show me how to get a musical tone out of the saw. I was trying, evidently, to cut his bow in two.
With the blade turned in the right direction, I was finally able to coax a few pained screeches out of the thing. In Leonard’s hands, though, the hack instrument becomes a true music maker.
“This is a beautiful piece for saw,” he announced, putting on a cassette of Richard Clayderman’s “Wonderland by Night.” He then sat with the bow handle between his knees, bent the blade into an S shape and began running the horsehair bow over its non-serrated edge.
Shaking one leg to get a vibrato--"You need a nervous leg"--and subtly altering the bend in the blade to determine the pitch, Leonard got results as note-perfect as they were eerie, sounding like a cross between a theremin (that quavering thing heard on science-fiction soundtracks and “Good Vibrations”) and ‘50s singing sensation Yma Sumak’s Andean warble.
Leonard is a 60-year-old self-employed gas appliance repairman, conducting his business out of the Santa Ana trailer where he lives. The trailer is distinguished from others in the park by a mailbox with a carved wood saw atop it reading “Supersaw.”
He may be weird, but he’s not alone. Leonard was given his Supersaw nickname in 1979 at the first Festival of the Saws in Santa Cruz, where his deft hacking through songs previously deemed too fast for the tool won him a standing ovation--indicating that there was an audience. He also was the first player to be awarded Master Sawyer status by the musical saw manufacturer Mussehl and Westphal, commemorated by a gold-plated saw.
He and co-author Janet Graebner penned the definitive, and certainly only , book on the musical saw, “Scratch My Back.” He has released three albums of his saw music and has helped organize biannual saw-offs at Disneyland that can attract 50 participants and even several fans.
Once there was a time when Leonard couldn’t cut it on the instrument.
He first heard it being played on Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour when he was a boy growing up in Nebraska. That sound stuck with him, and when he saw an ad for musical saws in Popular Mechanics in 1970, he sent for it.
Initially, “I sounded like everyone else starting off. You squeak and squawk and drive all the cats and dogs out of the neighborhood. You can end up in divorce court with this thing,” he said. He, indeed, was married when he got the saw, and isn’t now.
A certain amount of squawking has generally been expected of the instrument, much as a carpenter might expect certain flaws in his work if he tried using a clarinet to drive nails. The head of Mussehl and Westphal (an airline pilot named Dan Wallace, who died in a small plane crash in 1982) was prompted to come up with the Master Sawyer title for Leonard because he had developed a fast and squeak-free technique.
Leonard had heard an album of gospel saw music by an East Coast player named Moses Josiah and decided to make a record of his own.
“I’d never done any recording, but I bought a full multitrack recording studio and moved it into my bedroom, and for about a year nobody in the house could flush the toilet, close a door, turn the television on or have anybody in the house to play with. If an airplane went over, I’d have to do the track over again.”
More time-consuming than working around the extraneous noises was Leonard’s dissatisfaction with his own sound.
“Listening back to the tracks I’d recorded, I realized there were all these horrible sounds in the instrument, and I went to work on cleaning that up. That album wound up taking me 900 hours to get right, and I was the pioneer of that clean sound.”
Most modern players use saws made specifically to be played, generally costing around $45. (One is dubbed the Swedish Stradivarius.) They are made of a thinner English steel, and the teeth wouldn’t make it far through a plank. Leonard says standard saws can work fine, noting that Los Angeles sawyer David Weiss, who also is principal oboist with the L.A. Philharmonic, uses a Stanley Handyman. For beginners, he says, you can’t beat K mart’s $1.47 model.
Not discounting some of the things he’s seen under people’s ovens, his hobby has opened new worlds to him. He has been on several TV shows, including three forays onto “The Gong Show,” and was featured in a video by the rock group Kansas. He’s done stints playing at Disneyland and, on the other end of the spectrum, played the ill-fated alternative music clubs Safari Sam’s and Spanglers.
Joining a young band at the former locale, he recalls playing Sex Pistols tunes on his saw.
“Then Spanglers was the neatest place I ever played in my life. Everyone was wearing black makeup and earrings and dressing like a girl. I was supposed to play for 15 minutes, but those kids kept me up there an hour and a half. They just went bananas. I wound up playing there three times,” he said, still impressed that, given a choice of songs, the kids there requested he play “Ave Maria.”
His interest in the saw also took him to the Ozarks, where he researched the history of saw playing for the “Scratch My Back” book.
“I’d rather’ve had a Jeep than a station wagon going down some of these trails they called roads into these hollers. Some of these people seemed afraid I might be a revenuer, but most of them were just neat.” (In case they weren’t, Leonard knew how to play the “Dueling Banjos” theme from “Deliverance” on his saw).
“Some of them were living in places that were nearly log cabins way back in the hills. And, gee, when we started talking to them about the Weaver Brothers (saw pioneers in the early days of vaudeville) and saw playing, they just lit up and information poured out of them. They were the greatest people in the world. They would have given you the shirt off their back, and some of them didn’t even have a shirt. They’d’ve stole one for you if you’d needed it,” he said.
The 1989 book is a combined saw history, instructional guide and biography of contemporary players, with plenty of puns--such as references to “sawcappella music"--and poetic references to the saw, such as “the whispering foil” and “this rippling metal strip.” It sold well initially before it saturated the market, he said, which means 600 copies sold and another 1,400 are still sitting in a closet.
The books proved easier to move than his collection of 30 saw albums by other artists. He’s planning to move sometime soon and would like to find a good home for them.
“This has to be the largest collection in the world. I tried to give them to the Bowers and other museums, but no one wants them. My kids sure don’t want them,” he said. “One of these days I’m just going to package the rotten things up and send them to the Smithsonian Institution without a return address. If you listen to these things, you’ll go sick. Oh God, they’re terrible.”
Though he loves the saw and is friends with a good number of its adherents, he doesn’t always find they make a good combination.
He said: “One is a really nice guy, just a wonderful fellow, but he is the most godawful saw player I ever heard in my life. He was so off-pitch it would make your hair stand on end. In fact, it was so bad the hair hurt. I just couldn’t play with the guy, so instead I’d sit back and say, ‘Oh, you’re sounding great.’
“The saw has turned another friend into a monster. You can’t start a conversation with him without him switching it to the saw and all his feats of accomplishment on it. He can back it up: He can play it, but good. I just wish he’d quit telling me about it all the time.”
Then there’s oboist/sawyer Weiss, who has performed classical pieces on the saw at the Hollywood Bowl. He’s a friend, and Leonard maintains, “He’s forgotten more about music than I ever knew.” But he can be perplexing.
“I sent my books and tapes to Garrison Keillor to get me on the “Prairie Home Companion” So who got on there? David Weiss. But my one big ambition in saw playing was to be on the Carson show. I wanted my damnedest to be on the Johnny Carson show. What happens? A talent scout spotted David Weiss playing one night and asked him to be on the show. I wrote to Jay Leno too, but I just could not get my foot in the door.”
Leonard feels so thwarted that he hasn’t even picked up any of his 19 saws much lately. Instead he’s having a go at the harmonica. He’s planning to retire from his business in a year or two, chuck it all in and move out to the desert to pursue an interest in astronomy. The eight bullet holes in his trailer, the result of local gang activity, are also no small inducement to his pulling up stakes.
He doesn’t imagine he’ll ever quite give up the saw.
He said: “It’s a great instrument because at a jam session, say at a bluegrass festival where a bunch of musicians are all playing their best, I could come in with the damn musical saw and I’d steal the show. People lock in on something that’s so unusual, and you’re the highlight of the show right away. It’s never a contest; you’re first place every time, except when you try to get on the ‘Tonight’ show.”