Music - He Makes the Saw Sing
Alamedan Earns World Renown on Unusual Instrument
By Keith Gleason
Alamedan Charlie Blacklock has been playing music for most of his 88 years. As a boy growing up on a farm in Hollister, he played clarinet, mandolin and harmonica. Mostly a self-taught musician, Blacklock learned to play the harmonica while driving a Fordson tractor at age 10.
In the late 1920s, Blacklock first heard the sound of a musical saw on a radio show, The Cross Cut Boys from the X Bar B Ranch. He was fascinated by the saw and wanted to play it.
Although obscure today, the musical saw was very popular at the dawn of the 20th century. It reached its peak of popularity during Vaudeville’s heyday, from the 1890s to about 1920. Actress Marlene Dietrich was a saw virtuosa and played it at performances for soldiers during World War II.
More recently, the saw was seen as a musical instrument in the movies Delicatessen and Cabaret.
When he first took up the saw, Blacklock would go to a park with his family, sit under a tree, and play.“People would gather around. Well, then that made it more interesting,” he says.
Blacklock recalls people’s bewildered looks when he played the saw on the streets of San Francisco. “So many people would say, ‘Where does the sound come from?’ And I’d say,‘I believe it’s coming out of that little hole [in the handle].’”
Saw players, or sawyers, place the saw between their legs and hold the end of the blade with one hand. They can use their other hand to either bow the toothless edge of the saw like a violin, or strike the body of the blade with a mallet like a drum. When bowed, the saw’s ethereal range of sounds comes from the vibration of the blade and the player’s ability to bend it.“The best saw players can get about two and a half octaves,” says Blacklock.
As a saw designer and seller, too, Blacklock’s instruments range in size from the smallest 26-inch, or tenor model, up to the 36-inch mini-bass blade. Each saw comes with Blacklock’s hand-made mallet and instruction booklet, while bows and cases are extra. He’s taught saw playing and has produced a video on how to play the saw.“There isn’t anything you can’t play on the saw if you practice it,” he says.
A San Jose company manufactures the stainless steel saw blades and wood handles to Blacklock’s specifications. Ever the musician, he designs his saw handles at a special angle, which exposes more of the blade, in order to gain a couple of notes on the instrument. Each handle features an engraving that reads,“C. Blacklock Special, Musical Saw.”
He sells saws to people all over the world, from Scotland to Japan. Over the years, he’s also sold the instrument out of the back of his car at music festivals, from his house, and now, increasingly, through two music store catalogs and on the Internet.
But don’t confuse a blade with a real saw, which has teeth, warns Blacklock. “They are making them in other countries now as blades. Guys come to music festivals and call them saws, but they’re not, they’re blades,” he says. It’s an important distinction since the first saw he bought to play from Sears, Roebuck and Co. he also used to make the first set of beds for himself and his wife when they were newlyweds.
Married when they were both 19, Blacklock and his wife, Viola, moved to Alameda in 1946, where they raised three sons and still live today. After working 34 years as an electrician, Blacklock retired in 1980 and devoted himself full time to the saw.
Blacklock formed a band, Charlie’s Band, which produced a CD that features American favorites such as “The Old Spinning Wheel,” “Redwing” and “Margie.” He played on local TV shows, a radio commercial, weddings and at county fairs. In 1995, Blacklock went to China to play at a multicultural concert and to meet Chinese saw players.
Eventually, he had the idea of playing the harmonica and saw together—effectively accompanying himself. “For a long time, I just played the saw only, but then I got to thinking, why not combine the saw and harmonica? I’d actually have people dancing in the streets.”
Sawyer Luciano Chessa, who holds a doctorate in musicology from UC Davis and lives in Berkeley, bought a 36-inch Blacklock Special in 2001.“I’d been thinking of playing a saw for some years. It was so nice to find the center of saw-playing was in Alameda,” he says.
He went to visit Blacklock at his house and was bowled over by Blacklock’s simultaneous playing of the harmonica and the saw.“The saw is difficult enough to play, but to add another instrument and rhythmical element, that’s amazing,” says Chessa.
In 1999, Blacklock was inducted into America’s Old-Time Country Music Hall of Fame, joining such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Gene Autry and Dolly Parton. He is the past president of the International Musical Saw Association and the California Saw Player’s Association.
An affable man who loves to tell stories about his life, Blacklock is the musical patriarch of a family that includes three sons, eight grandchildren and 15 greatgrandchildren. His oldest son, Kenneth, played first clarinet in the Santa Rosa Symphony for 30 years while his youngest great-grandchild, Mareka, age 5, plays the violin.
Each August, Blacklock and sawyers from around the world gather at the Saw Player’s Picnic and Music Festival at Roaring Camp near Santa Cruz. A highlight is the Chorus of Saws, in which all the sawyers play on stage together—many of them on C. Blacklock Specials. His grandson, Kenny Blacklock, performs at the festival.
Although he still plays at home, Blacklock’s loss of hearing and other health problems the past couple of years have made him stop playing the saw in public. “There was never much money in it, but it was fun,” he says with a smile.