I once saw the renowned Moses Josiah. Renowned, I say, but in very small circles. Josiah played the musical saw. His repertoire included some classical pieces, John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and a hymn I associate with my Sunday School days.
The brief program notes said that Josiah said that was recognized as a Master Sawyer by the Sawyer Association Worldwide. I did not know that one who played the saw was a sawyer (some not-in-depth research also found the term “sawist” and “sawplayer”), and I had never heard of SAW. (My research revealed other striking factoids, including that a member of The Pogues as well as Marlene Dietrich played the musical saw, sometimes referred to as the “singing saw.” Don’t you wish you had seen Marlene, bent blade clasped between her knees, bow a saw?)
At the performance, Josiah was briefly interviewed and said that he had learned the instrument in his native Guyana, had been a winner on “The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour”, and had played for England’s Queen Elizabeth. Josiah then went on to thank the Lord, referring to his musical ability as a gift from God.
I thought of Josiah again as I was reading an Elmore Leonard book published a dozen or so years ago. Tishommingo Blues recounts the oft-told and alluded-to story of Robert Johnson, the seminal guitarist and legendary Delta bluesman. Not much is really known about his life, or death (he was only 27 when he died). Apparently, however, when people first became aware of him, Johnson was merely an acceptable musician and was struggling to play better. He dropped out of sight for a while. When he reappeared, he played the guitar in a style not heard before, a style that has influenced a generation of guitarists, including Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. What caused this transformation? If Johnson ever explained it, that explanation has not come down to us, but the story soon circulated that he sold his soul to the devil. The legend maintains that Johnson met the devil in the shape of a large black man at midnight at a crossroads, and after this meeting, Johnson had a mastery of the guitar like no one before him.
The supernatural notwithstanding, human activity surely played a great role for both Josiah and Johnson. Josiah from birth did not play like he later did. His “gift” was no doubt developed through practice, study, and experimentation, and then more practice, study, and experimentation. And, no doubt, while he was out of sight, Johnson also practiced and experimented until he found his new style, and then he practiced it some more. But some sort of gift was also involved for them and others. I know that no matter how much I practiced, studied, and experimented, I could never have sung like Pavarotti, hit a ball like Roger Federer, or painted like Matisse. They all had something I did not have and will never have no matter what I do.
But why the different ascriptions? Why is Moses Josiah’s ability or Joan Sutherland’s voice a gift from God while Johnson’s playing came from an unholy bargain with the devil? Why does one come from heaven and one from hell? I suppose an answer is that for many the blues, played in juke joints and roadhouses, is the devil’s music, but do you really believe in a God who favors a musical saw’s rendition of “Imagine” over Johnson’s guitar playing? And is hell really so bad if it has Robert Johnson down there playing?