Saw Notes

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Guest Author Brad Kay! Sam Moore: The Prodigal Saw

SAM MOORE

The Prodigal Saw

by

Brad Kay

 

THE KID HAD TALENT, that much is for certain. The Moores, of Monticello, Florida, already were a musical family before Sam was born, on June 28, 1887. Unlike the rest of his family, which like countless others in those years, took up music as a pleasant hobby, young Sam was keenly focused. He must have had perfect pitch, or something very close. He found and made music on whatever came to hand. That boy can make music out of anything,” said his admiring father, Sam Sr. in 1924. “When he was a small boy, I’ve seen him get music out of a pitchfork!”

   The musical Moore Family, at home in Florida, c. 1893. Sam, far right, with his violin

Sam soon outgrew the pitchfork stage, and at age seven, with his family’s backing, travelled two hundred miles north to study violin in Macon, Georgia, with a Professor W. C. Kaler. A photo of Sam at that age shows him with his five-string banjo, and also his curiously large and muscular hands, especially his left.

Young Sam and his five-string banjo. Note his strange, prematurely outsized and powerful left hand, both in this photo and in the one below of Moore and Davis.

 

Then, a providential, life-course-changing accident occurred: He broke his bowing arm! It healed badly, ending his big-time violin career.

Undaunted, Sam Moore took up ukulele, banjo and guitar. He also specialized in a peculiar eight-stringed instrument called the “Octochorda,” and returned – with a vengeance! – to deeply explore the musical possibilities in ordinary household objects. The rubber toy balloon was a special area of study. By inflating it, and “tweaking” the end, he could produce amazing, “Le Petomane”-like tones.* He made it a centerpiece of his stage act, “Spooning and Ballooning,” with Horace Davis:

“ ‘Spooning and Ballooning’ is more or less of a riot at the Golden Gate this week… He [Moore] claims to be the inventor of rubber balloon music, and says it was suggested to him by his small son, who found a way of making weird noises with a similar balloon even after the whistle that came with it had been lost.” – Undated item from a San Francisco paper.

 

I truly wish this benign form of flatulence had been recorded. The descriptor, “Spooning and Ballooning,” was used on the label of at least one of their Vocalion records, which for a moment filled me with giddy anticipation. But, dash it all! – Sam never gets around to playing that balloon.

 

Sam Moore (r) and Horace Davis in Vaudeville, early ’20s. Again, see how much bigger Sam’s strumming hand is than his partner’s

 

(At this point, I should assert my special, keen affinity for all “scorned” instruments – the kazoo, the jews-harp, the jug, the washboard, the slide whistle, and yes, the balloon and the saw. Of course, I love the standard, expensive, “virtuoso” piano, trumpet, violin and all. But nothing gives me more satisfaction than to hear someone produce exquisite music on of one of these cheap, “no talent” noisemakers. You may laugh at a kazoo, but still the kazoo will accept as much talent as you can put into it.)

*****

Meanwhile, Sam Moore’s reputation as man-of-all-music was growing. From 1906 into the teens, his fame spread through vaudeville. Then in 1919, he was summoned to New York to be auditioned by Florenz Ziegfeld. Let us pause to consider the importance of this: Besides presiding over his Follies, Ziegfeld was one of the greatest talent scouts and star-makers in history. Among many others, he had already discovered Anna Held, Bert Williams, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Jane Green (to name but a few), and the loveliest showgirls on Earth. From 1907, The Ziegfeld Follies set the pace and style for countless other shows. In 1919, Ziegfeld was the most important man in show business. Now, he had chosen Sam Moore. Sam soon joined the cast of the 1920 and 1921 editions of the Follies. We can hardly imagine what heady stuff this had to be for a kid from Monticello, Florida!

His recording career also started around this time. He waxed a score of sides for Gennett, Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Vocalion – all the major labels – within about four years. His 1921 Octochorda record of “Laughing Rag” (Victor 18849) was a sensational hit.

Sam Moore had arrived! He was Guest of Honor at a swanky New York party thrown by the Musical Courier, where he mesmerized Metropolitan Opera stars, including Enrico Caruso! A paper reported:

“Those eminent artists were so delighted by Mr. Moore’s playing on a carpenter’s hand saw, that they hovered so closely around him that he hardly had room to play.”

Which brings us to the main event – Sam Moore and his saw. Most fortunately for posterity, he recorded several times on saw. Perhaps he was the first ever to do so. You simply have to hear him! I own five of his saw performances on 78s, and each piece is hypnotic, drawing you in, seducing you down to your socks. His playing is pitch-perfect, note-secure and shimmeringly beautiful. His dynamic range is amazing. There’s a fast vibrato, slowing down to a discreet warble at certain key moments. Forget the “novelty” aspect of saw playing. This is as fine as music making gets.

Listening repeatedly, I am more and more deeply impressed by Moore’s ability to transcend the instrument – an ordinary carpenter’s saw, mind you! Not a special, fancy “musical” saw, with a thinner, longer, more pliable blade. These are slow numbers – “The Last Rose of Summer,” “Old Folks At Home,” “Annie Laurie” and the like – necessarily, owing to the unyielding, recalcitrant nature of his hardware store tool (he actually does get in a few fast notes here and there). The sonority, the timbre, the majestic portamento, is a continuous, fluctuating ribbon of sound, a hypnotic thread that holds you breathless for the length of the performance. You completely forget this is a man playing a saw. Forget the horsehair and steel! Instead, you are blindsided by an ethereal, lovely soprano voice. Sam’s playing is as riveting as Jascha Heifetz’ violin, or more appropriately, Clara Rockmore’s Theremin.

It’s worth pointing out that the saw is a mean, ornery instrument. It takes about two hundred pounds of sustained, focused pressure on blade and bow to produce any kind of sound on one, and then you have to control it. It easily can get away from you. It’s like training a weasel to sing. I’ve tried it a couple of times, and not only did the saw remain stubbornly silent, it CUT me.

I wish it could be reported that as the years flew by, Sam Moore glided from triumph to triumph, that he single-handedly turned the saw into the respected instrument it is today, heard in concert halls throughout the world; much like Larry Adler, whose artistry elevated the lowly harmonica to the Olympian status of “Mouth Organ.” Alas, no: After the giddy fame years, 1920 to 1924, Sam Moore settled into respectable obscurity, playing his musical arsenal in Vaudeville and then on radio. He worked for NBC for a number of years, composing scores for various shows. He eventually settled in San Francisco, working as late as the mid-‘50s on the KSFO “Country Store” program (any air checks out there??). Asthma claimed him at age 72, on November 13, 1959.

 

Sam Moore in the ’50s, on KSFO’s “Country Store.” Where are the air checks?

Sam’s legacy is in his records, of which there are eleven – twenty-one sides – altogether. Had he not recorded, he’d be just another forgotten vaudevillian, a fading picture in a scrapbook. As it is, his multi-instrumental talent is on hand for us all to appreciate. He recorded on guitar, banjo, octochorda and his otherworldly saw. But not the balloon, goddammit! Not the balloon!

I am deeply indebted to Allen Sutton of Mainspring Press, whose well-researched article, “Rediscovering Sam Moore” I pillaged mercilessly.

 

Moore & Davis “The Last Rose of Summer,”  April 1922

 

Sam Moore Discography

Searching through all listings of 1920-25 New York record labels for “Sam Moore,” I found the following:

Vocalion

14403   Moore & Davis Mother Machree (saw & guitar) / Mighty Lak’ a Rose (gtr duet) 1922

14430   Moore & Davis   Old Black Joe / Annie Laurie 1922

14572   Moore & Freed   Old Kentucky Home – Massa’s In The Cold Cold Ground / Auld Lang Syne – Old Oaken Bucket 1/1923

14696   Moore & Leroy Smeck Dear Old Pal of Mine (9/23) / I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls (saw) (9/22)

14865   Moore & Freed Harmonica Blues / Dixie Medley 8/24

14917   Moore & Freed Laughing Rag / Banjo Blues 10/24

Victor

18849   Sam Moore   Laughing Rag   (Octochorda) 8/24/21

Columbia

A3750   Moore & Davis The Last Rose of Summer / Old Black Joe 4/22

Gennett

4747   Sam Moore (saw solo) Mother Machree / (Octochorda solo) Laughing Rag 7/21 and 9/21

OKeh

4412   Sam Moore (Octochorda solo) Laughing Rag / Chain Gang Blues  7/29/21

4423   Sam Moore & Horace Davis   Wang Wang Blues / Tuck Me To Sleep in My Old Kentucky Home 8/10/21

 

* Parisian “Fartiste” (1857 – 1945). See Wikipedia!

 

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Brad Kay

BRAD KAY plays music on both legitimate (piano, cornet), and scorned (kazoo) instruments for a living. He is also a composer, entertainer, writer and snappy dresser. He lives in Venice, California.