Faulkner and the Musical Saw


Sometimes the musical saw shows up in unexpected places. I wouldn’t expect the saw to play a part in literature, but much to my surprise, the musical saw shows up in a short story by William Faulkner.

Faulkner is one of my favorite writers. In 1925, when he lived in New Orleans, he published some of his first fiction. He wrote a series of short pieces called New Orleans Sketches, which were published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, several years before great works such as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.

One of these sketches is a story called “Home,” and it’s a character study of a young immigrant man pondering his options in life, whether to enter a life of crime or avoid it. The story begins with the main character, Jean-Baptiste, watching a street musician:

“A man sat on the curb. In his hands were a carpenter’s saw and a violin bow. The saw he held like a violin and from the bow there rose a sound, a resonant singing, half string and half pipe, which the very atmosphere, which silence itself, seemed to find strange and hard to digest: toying with it when the bow ceased– a lilting provencal air played in a virginal tone scale, and somehow ambiguously martial.”

The last words about the saw appear in the final paragraph of the story, a few pages later:

“The strange yet familiar air rose and fell, and Jean-Baptiste lurched from his hiding place and went swiftly down the street. The musician sat on the curb, drawing his bow across his strange instrument: and so Jean-Baptiste passed swiftly on without disturbing him. At the end of the street the sky was rumorous with dawn, a new day.”

The story begins with the strange “provencal air” and ends with it, music native to the young man’s home.  The music of the saw frames the plot, and in a way, it helps to save the young man from a life of crime because it reminds him of home. I love that the saw music in this story is described as a “resonant singing” and a bit dream-like, not a novelty.

One of the technical aspects of the story that interests me is the description of the saw player. He is described as holding the saw “like a violin.” These days most sawyers I know hold the saw between their knees. I have seen photos of people playing the saw like a violin, but I’ve only heard someone play like this once. It could be poetic license in the story, of course, but my guess is that Faulkner must have seen a skilled saw player at some point since he presents the saw music as something melodic and beautiful, almost transformative.

The story “Home” is from New Orleans Sketches and the stories are a fine introduction to Faulkner. They give a preview of some of the themes he included in his later works, and those of us who enjoy the saw can take pleasure in the fact that a Nobel Prize winning author included one in this story.

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Rowena Southard, your blog hostess, is a musical saw enthusiast who lives in California. She loves all kinds of music and has a special fondness for unusual instruments.