Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Saw Sings. Man wins.

Joel Clark* used to take his saw to sacrament meetings.

Not to work on the ward house. But to play hymns.

On the musical saw.

But then, because of the instrument's less-than-heavenly reputation earned in jug bands and vaudeville acts, someone decided it didn’t belong in church.

"People kinda go, ‘what you’re gonna play that in a sacrament meeting?" Joel said.

Maybe they'll reconsider, now that Clark is a world class soloist.

The Utah County man just returned from International Musical Saw Festival in Felton, California, with the first-place trophy.

When he was a youngster, Clark got his musical saw education from his grandfather, Orson Clark, a popular Salt Lake Valley player in the 20's and 30s who often played at funerals.

Joel Clark was on his mission when his grandfather died and a package showed up in the mail. It was his grandfather’s mandolin and musical saw. And during his mission, Clark practiced and became a proficient player.

He toured the US and South America with the Lamanite Generation and played his grandfather’s saw during firesides.

Now he entertains at family reunions and ward banquets.

He plays hymns, his preferred musical saw selections, like “Oh, My Father,” one of his grandfather’s favorites.

And he plays for love.

When she was about six or seven years old, Shirley Clark’s mother took her to hear a Utah County saw player.

"Never forgot it the rest of my life," she said.

For years afterward, she hunted for saws. For a saw that would sing like the one she heard when she was a little girl.

She tucked one behind her couch. She hoped someday she’d find someone who could play it for her.

She found Joel Clark.

The first time she heard him play the saw, he performed “Over the Rainbow,” a musical saw standard. Over the telephone.

Very romantic.

“Oh, it was,” she said.

Joel and Shirley were married.

And now they play saw/piano duets.

But Joel Clark has musical saw dreams.

Soon after we featured Joel and Shirley and the saw on 2 News, he fulfilled one of them.

He and Shirley went to the International Saw Festival in the Santa Cruz area. Their first trip to the event.

Clark rented a Phantom of the Opera costume and performed a selection from the musical at the festival competition. And he won first place.

Legendary musical saw player David Weiss, who’s performed at the Hollywood Bowl and in the film “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” presented the coveted award.

“It was one of the greatest thrills in all my life,” Clark emailed.

Clark’s other dream is to play with a symphony orchestra.

But there’s that reputation.

The saw started singing years ago in the Ozarks or Appalachian Mountains or someplace else when some unnamed bored handyman hit it with a hammer.

A Missouri showman, Leon Weaver, took the act on the road and his sister-in-law, June, figured out how to play it with a fiddle bow. And it became a staple on the Vaudeville circuit.

The saw played some prominent roles. In the old “Frankenstein” film. Marlene Dietrich played it for the troops in World War Two. But during the war, the saw lost top billing.

The magical, ethereal, singing metal siren, became a novelty act.

So today there are few compositions written for orchestra and saw. There are no saw sections in the Utah Symphony. And few symphony soloists like David Weiss.

And no saws in sacrament meetings.

But Joel Clark still has hope. And his first-place trophy. And his grandfather’s saw.

*In the spirit of disclosure, I should mention that for a brief period many years ago Clark was a studio cameraman for KUTV. Goes to show, despite a career in TV news, someone can go on to accomplish great things.

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