He plays the saw on the streets

Dwight Hawkins lives an unconventional life. You may have spotted him on the streets downtown. It’s not every day you see someone on the street playing music with a large handsaw. 

Hawkins pictured here w/ a couple of his bandmates from Blind Boy Chocolate & the Milk Sheiks

I often stop and check out street musicians, but usually have to scurry off to work. I see street performers most every day; they’re part of the fabric and feel of towns like Asheville (or Austin, New Orleans, Santa Cruz, Savannah, San Francisco). One day, outside on a lunch break, I happened to be next to a street musician, and stopped to think about how good it is that our town has them. I imagined how Asheville would feel quite a bit different if suddenly there were no musicians on the streets … as in many cities. I began to wonder, were the street musicians I see around town homeless — or were they in a band and just killing time and practicing during the day? Or maybe they have another job and are just out enjoying a hobby?

They all fall into different categories and have different stories. Even though (like many Ashevilleans), I’m financially challenged, I recently started throwing down a dollar when someone on the street blows me away. This is how I met Dwight Hawkins. Of course I was intrigued with the wild sound that comes from him playing. Also, visually, it’s pretty striking seeing someone sitting on a bucket, holding the saw like a violin. He holds and bends a large handsaw and plays it with a violin bow. But then he sang and strummed guitar and played some really great acoustic blues. Later on, I saw a family walk up and he began to give a kid a saw-playing lesson.

Hawkins is a full-time street musician; this is how he makes his living. He refers to whatever spot he’s playing at as his “office.” His office chair is a large-size bucket, and his open guitar case acts as the cash register. He has learned things over the years, like the importance of buckets. He sometime plays for 10 hours per day, so it’s critical to have somewhere to sit. He even has buckets stashed around town for easy access no matter what street he’s on. 

His childhood wasn’t that uncommon. He grew up in Raleigh with strict parents who were serious about education and stringently enforced good grades. He excelled in school and even won a few state science-project awards. But like many youngsters, he began to experiment in his life to satisfy the craving for adventure. He even ran away a few times and lived on the streets. He got really into music — lots of punk rock, but also older folk-oriented stuff. He was especially into Woody Guthrie. “It’s all similar, it’s all dissonant music with strong messages and emotions,” Hawkins says. He learned his first instrument and began playing the violin at age 7. Hawkins, who is now 29, has played music and continuously learned new instruments his whole life. By 10 years old, he also played the trombone, tuba and piano. In his teens, his main focus became the guitar.

Besides music, traveling is his other passion. When younger, he’d get permission to spend the night with friends. He’d actually go traveling, ending up as far away as Philadelphia or New Orleans, just to check out new places and catch some of his favorite bands. Traveling is still in his blood, and he often pops out of town on freight trains.  I was surprised when he nonchalantly referred to himself (and some of his good friends) as hobos. Asked which states he’s been to, he said he’s had to remember to recall them alphabetically: “Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, D.C., Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts …” (etc., etc.)

I guess it’s not a huge surprise he’d end up specializing in an uncommon instrument like the saw. It has a unique high-pitched sound … sometimes flowing, other times wild and out-there sounding, like someone getting really creative on an electric piano or synth. There aren’t many people who’ve dedicated themselves to the musical saw. He continuously practices, plays with others, and searches for new sounds and rhythms. His interests, personality and experiences are incredibly varied. He attended Warren Wilson College for a year before deciding that’s not where he wanted to be. He naturally picked up building and carpentry and has worked on renovating and building homes. He even worked for a while with a green-building company. 

Around 2005, he decided to move from North Carolina for some new experiences, and moved out West to Portland, Ore. He was working construction, so he had a saw. Construction is work Hawkins still likes and falls back on. He also did what he really loves, and played guitar and other instruments on the streets of Portland for fun, and to earn some extra income. This is when he met “Captain Shirt,” who played the saw. He received a five-minute crash course, and has been obsessed with it ever since. There are long stretches of dreary weather in Oregon, so he had many days off to practice his new instrument. He spent hours and hours in a basement practicing. He listened to classical pieces, and learned to match the exact notes and tones of violins and other instruments.

Nowadays he spends about half of his days in Asheville and about half of his days in New Orleans, which he refers to as “The Big Dance” (as it’s a mecca for street performers). The money varies, and it can be tough not having a dependable income. Yet the money’s not bad either. He has friends and makes affordable living arrangements every where he goes. Not to mention the cost-effectiveness of riding the trains. Though there are some rare, really good days he’s been known to walk away with $200 — all the while smiling, practicing and spreading his joy. 

His latest passion is the band he hooked up a year ago here in Asheville: Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks. He says they play “a lot of 1920s/30s jug-band music.”  He says this is the most serious he’s felt about the bands he’s been in — and is tight with his bandmates on a personal level, beyond just practicing and performing. BBC & the MS will be opening up the big Moogus Operandi at the Orange Peel. Bob Moog’s source instrument was the theremin, which shares many similar sounds that Hawkins makes from bowing and bending the saw, so it seems the perfect match.

The more you speak with Hawkins, the more you realize his complexities. Along with his buckets, which he uses as luggage as well as places to sit while playing, he’s also got a laptop, memory cards and a video camera. He’s seen and done more traveling than many. Most importantly, he’s found that experimenting and creating his own life is far more logical and satisfying that just falling into the “standard conventions and protocols” set up for us by society.

Photo by Jerry Nelson.


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3 thoughts on “He plays the saw on the streets

  1. Michelle

    Just like in NYC, where the ‘Saw Lady'(www.sawlady.com/blog ) has been a fixture in the subway for probably close to two decades!
    I totally agree – we are blessed to have street musicians liven up the town for us.

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