It’s the whispering foil, the flexatone, or simply, the musical saw.
Some consider the musical saw an American folk musical instrument believed to have gotten its start somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains in the 19th century (oh, I suppose we can allow that carpenters and lumberjacks all over the world have discovered that their tool could make sounds, but still….)
The region has a rich history of improvised instruments and the peculiar melodic nature of the saw would tend to lend itself quite nicely to mountain music. Instruments always have a grouping of other instruments that work particularly well as a musical blend. For the musical saw, it would be those we traditionally identify with the music of Appalachia: Harmonica, fiddle, dulcimer, and various rhythm instruments.
To create a note, the player (or sawist) bends the blade into an S-curve. The parts of the blade which are curved are dampened from vibration, and do not sound, while at the center of the S-curve a section of the blade remains relatively flat. This is called the sweet spot, which vibrates across the width of the blade, producing a distinct pitch. The sound is created by drawing the bow across the back edge of the saw at the sweet spot, or by striking the sweet spot with a mallet.
Musical saws have been produced for over a century. In the early 1900s, there were over ten companies in the United States alone manufacturing saws. These saws ranged from the familiar steel variety to gold-plated masterpieces. The first major U.S. marketer of musical saws, Mussehl & Westphal of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, sold over 30,000 units a year during the 1920s and early 1930s.
A traveling Missouri showman named Leon Weaver was among the first to have great success with saw music as he traveled across the South, performing the act “Weaver Brothers n’ Elviry.”
From this humble beginning, the musical saw has now branched out into every conceivable musical genre. Even respected music critic Lucille Fletcher predicted in her 1938 New Yorker article, “The Apotheosis of the Saw,” that the saw would outgrow its vaudeville roots to become an accepted orchestral instrument.
But wherever it goes, its haunting wail harkens back to the mountains of its birth.