The musical saw is an American folk musical instrument with its roots in the early 19th century. It was somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains that a musically-inclined resident who remains nameless, first took a fiddle bow to the bent blade of his hand saw which he held firmly clamped between his knees. What probably began in a moment inspired by bordom soon caught on and before long “mountain music” bands throughout the area had a member manipulating the blade of a common carpenter’s saw and stroking it with a well rosined bow.

While before 1900 saw playing was fairly uncommon outside that area, since the early 1900s, its use has become world-wide, with its greatest popularity in the central United States on the musical-hall stage of the 20s & 30s. During the vaudeville days of the 1920s much of the acclaim the instrument gained was due to its use by the “Weaver Brothers”, one of America's most successful entertainment groups of that era. It was not uncommon to be entertained by a musician with a Mussehl and Westphal saw clamped between his knees and bent in the distinctive shallow “S” curve while the player stroked or tapped out the popular tunes of the day.
In 1919, Clarence Mussehl (pictured at right) began perfecting the manufacture of the instrument. His innovations included using a special steel which was much more malleable and gave the plaintive tones more sustain and vibratto. Through using thinner steel and experimenting with the width Mussehl was able to create a saw capable of producing approximately 16 to 20 notes. It was in 1921 that he began selling them commercially for the express purpose of playing music…not cutting wood. For a few years during it’s peak, sales of the saw averaged approximately 25,000 per year.

By mid-1930, however, live musical entertainment was largely replaced by recorded. Consequently, the opportunities to see and hear many types of worthwhile musical art forms were gone. Few persons in the coming generations replaced the aging vaudevillians hence the lack of contemporary use of the musical saw which, with it’s singularly beautiful voice is also known as “the singing saw”.
Around 1968, Dan Wallace (pictured at left) found in the attic his grandfather’s old musical saw, the same which his grandmother had shown him as a child. He soon decided that he would contact the company, whose legend was imprinted on the saw: “Mussehl & Westphal, Fort Atkinson.” When Wallace did contact Clarence in the mid-70s it led to a special friendship between the two music lovers. Before Clarence died in 1978 at the age of 84, he had asked Dan to carry on his unique business. Retaining the name the company had held for over 50 years Wallace, who was also a pilot for American Airlines, took control of the business in a manner respectful to the integrity of the instrument. In his travels, he began to promote it nationwide and sales began to rebound. Dan, who lived in Delavan, Wisconsin had another passion, and that was flying his small private airplane. In October of 1982 the many friends he had met through his life travels were shocked to hear of his untimely death in the tragic crash of his aircraft.

Since then, his wife Mary Kay has carried the dream of preserving this unique piece of American musical heritage and brought it into the 21st century. In recent years, through a world-wide network, interest has actually increased and Mary Kay regularly ships her product around the globe. As Dan used to say, “The saw is so popular because anyone who can whistle can play it. If a person has any ear at all for music, he should be able to play a simple tune in about 30 minutes.”

Renowned composers have written entire compositions and solos for the saw. Some examples are the solo in Katchaturian’s “Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra”, Henri Sauguet’s “Plainte” and Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children”. These pieces have been performed nationally since their introduction. Today the sound of the saw is still heard primarily in bluegrass and country western music, however it has been featured in various genres, including by Neil Young on his “Hawks and Doves” album and on various television episodes and motion pictures, everything from “Gilligan’s Island” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Sawers from all over the world continue to keep in contact with one another and frequently meet up at area bluegrass festivals and entertain in local communities with their unique brand of musical Americana. If you have questions, stories or would like to contact other musical sawers, contact us at:

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