By Norris Chambers

             Before we had radio and TV all sorts of entertaining troupes traveled through the rural districts and offered something for the residents to view. The prices were very reasonable and the entertainment was usually good. The show was held in the school auditorium, a church house or occasionally in a large tent furnished and erected by the entertainers. Sometimes the presentation was a movie or two, plays performed on stage, a traveling parson with a good group of singers, a free medicine show or a country western musical group. The musical group was usually well known to the few who had radios.

            Probably the western band that did the most traveling was The Shelton Brothers and the Sunshine Boys. Bob, Joe and Merle Shelton were the brothers and the other two members were various topnotch musicians. Bob was the comedian and played the fiddle on most shows while his brother Joe played the mandolin. Bob and Joe wrote many of the popular country songs of the thirties and early forties, including Just Because, Deep Elm Blues, etc. The Shelton band was my favorite and any time they were within a Model T’s reasonable driving distance I dug into my possum hunting funds and enjoyed the show. Clifton usually accompanied me when I had to see a Bob and Joe show but he was not quite as enthusiastic about the music as I was.

             I was attempting to learn to play the fiddle about this time and I was amazed at the things Bob did with a fiddle. He would loosen the bow and place the fiddle between the hair and the wooden handle and drag the bow hair across all the strings while he managed to play a tune with his fancy finger movement. This stunt always brought a wave of applause from the audience. He sometimes held the fiddle at arm’s length and Joe handled the bow while Bob did the finger work near the top of the neck. The type of music the two could play like this was almost unbelievable. Bob could also hold the fiddle and bow behind his back, completely out of sight, and continue playing with the band. He jokingly said that he was working on a way to make the fiddle play itself and bow to the audience when it finished a tune. I don’t believe he ever accomplished this feat!

            One of his novelty acts was playing a hand saw with a fiddle bow. He placed the saw handle against his upper leg and held the tip of the blade with his left hand. He then took the fiddle bow and moved it back and forth across the saw teeth. The saw produced a wild, eerie sound that he varied in pitch by flexing the blade with his left hand. He played the saw along with the band and it blended very well. He added a bit of comedy to the act by stuffing cotton in his ears before he started playing. He held up a big roll of cotton and told the audience that they had his permission to stuff their ears. There were no takers.

            I told Clifton that I wanted to try that. He told me that at least I could stuff the cotton in my ears and he indicated that if he were there he would probably join me in the cotton stuffing prelude!

            A day or two later I took my fiddle bow to the blacksmith shop where I removed a hand saw from its hook on the wall and prepared to make some beautiful music as I had seen Bob do. I covered the end of the blade with a wooden handle shaped from two thin pieces of wood. I clamped the handle to the blade with a small bolt. This made it easy to bend the blade. I could flex it almost to a 90 degree bend. I gently dragged the well-rosined bow across the teeth. I was surprised at the high volume of a weird wail the blade produced. Some of he chickens that were foraging around outside were terrorized and were screeching for help.

            Help soon arrived. My mother rushed into the shop and wanted to know what kind of varmint was making such a noise and how many chickens had it devoured. I told her it was nothing more than a fiddle bow and a hand saw. “See,” I said, “Like this!”  I dragged the bow across the teeth again. The sound was wilder and weirder than before. She quickly cupped her hands over her ears and told me to take that thing to the north forty if I had to play with it! There was more complaining from the chickens and my old donkey brayed his displeasure from the barn area. I tried a few more strokes and found that a tune could be played by bending the saw and dragging the bow.

            When I looked down at the fiddle bow several hairs had been severed by the saw teeth. I knew this was a problem that had to be conquered. The next time Bob and Joe’s band was in our area I asked him how to keep the bow hair from being cut on the saw teeth. He told me that the easiest way to remedy that problem was to buy a saw made for the purpose or take a small rat-tail file and smooth the teeth in the bowing area of a regular saw.

            I never bought a readymade saw or messed up a good tool. I decided that if the weird sound was going to disturb the chickens and my old donkey, cause Clifton to suffer severe ear pain and tempt my mother to send me to the north forty to practice I would give up the idea of playing a musical saw!