by Sue E. Barber


What folk instrument is

One more hint. The generic name identifies the scraps from which the original models were made. Ah yes. This has to be the bones.

 Despite their many appearances in various places and times during man's sojourn through history, the bones have not been widely known or played in the past fifty years. They have been displayed in some antique/junk shops in the "does-anybody-know-what-this-is" bin. Often people will exclaim, "Hey, I think my grandpa played those! But I've never seen any. What are they?"

 Fortunately, a recent revival of interest in folk music and culture has generated something of a bones revival as well. In the past several years they have clicked and clattered at folk festivals from Mariposa to Wolftrap. They clattered at the Smithsonian's Bicentennial Folk Arts Festival. Some of the remaining players of bygone days have sought out their counterparts to trade lore and techniques. A new generation of enthusiasts is demanding instruction from the few masters of this waning art.

 Their ancient origins and continued popularity notwithstanding, information on the history of the bones is sparse and scattered. The researcher most commonly finds a sentence or two concealed in a text on some other subject. The rare paragraph is an occasion for elation. Data on how to play the bones is virtually nonexistent. This paper is, then, a first gathering of the widely scattered information on bones playing in the United States and Europe. It is also a "how to" primer, describing the fundamental movements and combinations of bones playing technique. I have been fortunate in working with one of the masters of bones playing, Percy Danforth. It is to Percy that this paper owes its inspiration and a good deal of its information. He and I talked, taped, and analyzed bones playing in the attempt to transfer it from musical performance to verbal format. Percy learned to play the bones as a boy under the gas street lamps of Washington, D.C. in 1909. He has played off and on ever since. In the past five years he has traveled from his home in Ann Arbor to play at numerous folk festivals, seek out and talk with his fellow players, make video tapes for libraries and schools, and work with a pilot music program in Virginia. With his time, travels, and enthusiasm he has contributed to the revivals of interest in what he calls, "this bones thing."


According to the Sachs-Von Hornbostel classification of instruments, bones are most broadly defined as idiophones, "... the substance of the instrument itself, owing to its solidarity and elasticity, yields the sounds.... " Further, bones, numbered 111.1 in the Sachs-Von Hornbostel system are "... concussion idiophones or clappers, two or more complementary sonorous parts struck against each other." (Von Hornbostel and Sachs 1961: 14) Sachs adds that instruments of this type are extensions of striking or clapping hands or stamping feet. The two complementary sonorous parts were originally, indeed, two pieces of bone. Later, various types of woods were used. The two parts, held between the fingers of the hand, strike together as the player, manipulating wrist and arm, produces varied rhythmic patterns. The bones shown in the photograph are about six inches long and 1/4 inch thick, although the length and thickness can vary with the material of which particular bones are made. (the photograph is not available at this time) The pieces are usually slightly curved, allowing greater ease in holding them and greater flexibility of movement.

 Mention of the bones throughout available historical sources and eras invariably associates them with folk tradition. Folk music grows out of and is closely tied to daily life.

Folk instruments ... are usually made by the country people themselves. This is in contrast to art music instruments, which are the work of specialized instrument makers or factories. The basis of solo parts played on folk instruments is formed by song and dance. Whereas in the performance of art music the audience plays a purely passive part, folk music in its true surroundings forms an inseparable entity with dancing. For the folk musician his performance on a musical instrument is an artistic reflection of his own life, an organic component of his environment, a specific occasion without which musical expression could not exist in his consciousness... but music arises at the very moment when the musician feels the inner need of expressing himself in this way. (Buchner 1961: 6)

Bones certainly were often associated with dance and daily life, as this discussion will reveal. They have formed the rhythmic underpinnings for various kinds of religious and entertainment activities in many cultures and times.

Research reveals that bones in some form date back almost as far as man himself. The specific origins of the instrument are hidden in the mists of prehistory, but they were probably among the earliest instruments made by man. Archeological finds, while not numerous, do yield instruments made of stone and bone which have resisted the damages of time. Clappers of bone have been found in graves excavated at Uychvatince in Moldavia, dating from the second Millennium BC. Their primary functions seem to have been to drive away evil spirits, help cure the sick, and provide amusement for children. (Buchner 1961: 10) The relieves and mosaics of Ur document the existence of clappers in Mesopotamia. A number of centuries after Ur, clappers appear on Egyptian relieves of the New Kingdom. Vases dating prior to 3000 BC. show female dancers playing clappers, two held in each hand and struck against each other. These clappers were made of metal, bone and ivory. (Sachs 1940: 88) Called krotals or krotala in the ancient Greece, bone clappers appear on vases and amphora dating from 500 BC. The artist of ancient Greece "...interpreting in their art their impression of daily life..." show clappers of wood, bone, or ivory, many decorated with the head of Hathor, goddess of heaven, joy and death. Sachs notes that "The clapper seems to have been an instrument frequently associated with the worship of Hathor and probably every woman had her clapper to worship the goddess, as today every Catholic women owns a rosary." (Sachs 1940: 89)

After the demise of classical civilization there is a time gap of several centuries in the knowledge of the development of musical instruments. This turbulent period of migration of peoples has left little specific evidence to the music historian. Fortunately, a few scattered references to clappers or bones remain from the Middle Ages. Jongleurs in the Sixth Century, using instruments and airs from Rome, wandered around Europe, singing and dancing, using tambourines and clappers. (Their rambling, desolate life style led to public censure by the church in 554 AD.) (Edgerly 1942: 365) The Bible of Charles the Bald, which dates from the Ninth Century, shows players with horn, clappers, harp and lyre. The Anglo-Saxon Psalter of the Eleventh Century shows harp, rote, crowd, panpipes and clappers. A Fourteenth Century book illustration shows fiddle, psaltery, lute, tambourine, portative, clappers, bagpipe, shawm, drums and trumpets. In addition to their musical functions, the bones were also used in the Middle Ages by lepers who were obligated to sound them as a warning of their approach. (Marcuse 1964:105) One wonders if the choice of this instrument as a warning device had to do with the rather macabre nature of the bones themselves, this providing a reminder of the terrifying affects of this awful disease.

By the 1500's the bones seem to have centered themselves north of the English Channel. Shakespeare mentioned them in Act IV, Scene I of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Nick Bottom says, "I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let's have the tongs and bones." By the Seventeenth Century the bones were commonly called "knicky-knackers" in England and are represented in Inigo Jones" designs for court masques, (Galpin 1910:190) The marrow bones and cleavers are still a recognized form of ready-made music among the butchers of England and Scotland, especially for weddings. Besides being a child's toy, they are also played today in the pubs of northern England and Ireland in ensembles to accompany dancing.

In pursuing the history of the bones, one finds an amusing theory which places their origin in Africa. "The cannibals of Africa probably originated the idea when they wanted a little music after having feasted thoroughly upon their enemies." (Paskman 1928: 28) This

kind of statement is racist hyperbole of a type common in earlier research; one can only hope we are beyond that now. Documented evidence of the existence of bones in Africa does exist, however. Marcuse mentions the amatambo , clappers of the South African Zulu, made of cattle rib bones. She says, "They are similar to European bones and quite possibly an imitation of them." The Zulu use them as a rhythmic accompaniment to singing and dancing and play them on festive occasions. Percival Kirby describes Chwana bones or marapo, also made from rib bones.

I have not been able to determine whether the Zulu got the idea of using this instrument from the Europeans or not. The Chwana almost certainly did. The Rev. A Sandilands, who has been for years a missionary in Bechuanaland, assured me that fact is admitted by the Chwana themselves. (Kirby 1934:10)

Ample evidence is available that the bones were part of the musical tradition of the slave quarters of the United States in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. James Weldon Johnson describes this early Negro entertainment.

Every plantation had its talented band that could crack Negro jokes, and sing and dance to the accompaniment of the banjo and bones, the bones being the actual ribs of a sheep or some other small animal, cut to the proper length, scraped clean and bleached in the sun. When the wealthy plantation owner wished to entertain his guests, he needed only to call his troupe of black minstrels (Johnson 1930: 78)

Precisely how bones arrived in the United States is open to conjecture. There seem to be two possibilities. One is that the black captives abducted to fill the slave quotas of the traders brought the bones with them from Africa. Certainly the slaves continued their traditional musical activities, clinging to their native drums, triangles, jawbones and quills. (White 1928:24) The biggest problem with this theory is that comment in the standard literature on musical instruments places bones among the Zulu and Chwana of South Africa. Most slaves came not from South Africa, but from the west coast of the continent. While it is possible that these slaves had contact with the blacks of South Africa, it seems unlikely that the contact was substantial. Further, although the slaves may have carried the idea of the bones with them, their forced departures would not have allowed them to bring actual instruments.

The more likely possibility is that the bones came to the Western Hemisphere from Europe. Evidence documents the existence of the bones in Europe from the Sixth Century until the present day, usually as part of the musical traditions of the common people. It was, after all, the poorer classes who left Europe seeking a new life in the New World. In addition to their meager belongings they brought familiar musical traditions and instruments. Slaves saw the bones being played by these whites. Because the materials were readily available and the techniques of playing were easily learned, the blacks appropriated the bones as their own. In the process they added the syncopated rhythmic sensibilities unique to the African musical tradition.

Many slaves made instruments of various sorts. Among them were "...long, hollow bones, clicked together like castanets, but five times as large." (Hughes and Meltzer 1967:18) With the instruments available to them slaves formed bands that provided entertainment both for themselves and their white masters. One elderly Virginia woman in a letter to a friend described seeing slaves singing and playing the bones.

When I was about ten years old a family from Fluvanna County settled within a half mile of us. They had several slaves who sometimes came to our house at night and gave us music, vocal and instrumental, their instruments being banjo, jawbone of horse, and bones (to crack together, two held in each hand.) (Scarborough 1925: 102)

Slaves and freedmen also formed bands that roved city streets, playing for a few pennies on street corners. One group of slaves played so well that they formed a traveling band. This particular band was so successful that it toured its way from Louisville to Cincinnati, and then on to Canada and freedom. (Lovell 1972:159) These street bands must have seemed haphazard to many observers. Their instruments, in addition to guitar or banjo and bones, often included such devices as frying pans, lard tins, a washtub bass, and perhaps a harmonica.

The itinerant black street band was a part of the cultural milieu which gave rise in the 1840's to the blackface minstrel show, an entertainment phenomenon which became an instant success all over the country. Transferred from the street bands to the minstrel show, the bones player became one of the featured musical and comic performers. The prototype of the blackface show was established in 1843 when four men joined forces in New York City and put together the first minstrel band. All four men were white and all had prior experience as blackface performers in road shows and circuses. Dan Emmett played violin, Dick Pelham played tambourine, Bill Whitlock played banjo, and Frank Brower played bones. They called themselves the Virginia Minstrels, and although they claimed to have originated the combination of instruments typical of the minstrel band, black street bands had in actuality been using similar combinations for some time. The performers, all in blackface, sang, danced, played and told jokes. They arranged themselves in a semi-circle with the bones player, known as Brudder Bones, on one end and the tambourine player, Brudder Tambo, on the other. In order to keep the show moving, comic repartee was interspersed with songs and dances. The two endmen, Bones and Tambo, were the comedians. In the center was Mr. Interlocutor, the co-ordinator, M.C., straight man, and the brunt of the jokes. The show was fast-paced, funny, homey and had instant popular appeal.

Minstrelsy was an art indigenous to the United States. A number of forces unique in the American social context combined to give rise to this entertainment form. One of the crucial elements was the songs and dances of the plantation blacks. The early minstrel men, while white, were certainly familiar with black street bands and black folk song. This music influenced the subject matter, form, rhythm, melody, and harmony of the minstrel song. Plantation life was presented as a pleasant compound of "singing, loafing, attending massa or missus, making love, hunting coon or possum...." (White 1928:10) Such a view of plantation life was decidedly inaccurate, "...a mere travesty... but it still was a sort of tribute to the charm and power of the real thing." (Blesch 1950:84) It also fulfilled a need felt by audiences to whom the minstrel show played. The "middle" American was emerging for the first time as an important political and social force during the early 1800's. The minstrel show, earthy, vital, unpretentious, based on popular culture, was an entertainment package that appealed to the common man. (Toll 1974:3) These people were the workers, the middle and lower class whites, often transplants from rural areas or from Europe. They felt disconnected, powerless, uprooted. Minstrelsy, in proporting to present a true portrait of the black slave, gave these Northerners an impression of what slaves were like at a time when the issue of slavery was becoming a national controversy. It allowed these free, white, middle and lower class Americans to believe they differed greatly from black slaves. (Toll 1974:34)

Where do the bones fit into all this? By the 1840's bones were commonly part of the makeshift black bands found both on plantations and street corners. Their association with blacks and plantation life continued when they incorporated into the minstrel band that formed the nucleus of the show. Brudder Bones was a ludicrous comic character. He was flamboyantly dressed, made up with large eyes and gaping mouth with huge lips. He talked in heavy dialect, all the while contorting his body in exaggerated gestures, twisting his words in endless puns. He foolishly discoursed on things he knew nothing about. He might state that of course the world didn't rotate. If it did, everything would fall off once a day. This kind of foolishness assured Northern whites that "no matter how bewildered or inept they felt, blacks were much worse off than they were." (Toll 1974;69)

The bones came to minstrelsy through Frank Brower, one of the original "Big Four." Brower had played the bones, which he originally made from the ribs of a horse, in other shows before the minstrel format began in 1843. In 1841 in Lynchburg, Virginia, he appeared with Dan Emmett, playing bones for one of the first times before an audience. He seems to have been one of the first bones players to incorporate them into an act to be used on stage. Brower employed the bones to provide a rhythmic kick, producing patterns of rhythm with the constant clicking of the two pieces of bone. Besides playing the bones, Brower and later endmen often tossed their bones in the air, catching them between fingers and juggling them. The rhythmic articulations of the bones provided a steady beat for the singing and dancing, much in the manner of a modern rock or jazz drummer. The following sentences give an idea of how it must have been.

The bones produced single clicks as well as "trills" or shakes of long or short duration. Their crispness was varied by dynamic shadings ranging from pianissimo to fortissimo. It was the precision of the clicks which lent articulation to the ensemble. In the main, the bone player followed the meter, but like the banjoist and the fiddler, he may have occasionally disturbed it by entering on ordinary unaccented boats. (Nathan 1962: 127

One early player observed, "It's hard to play the bones well; it brings the skin off." (Fox 1966:26) Performances on the bones could be even more elaborate than mere rhythmic clicks and syncopations. G. S. Buckley, one of the players of minstrelsy, imitated drums, marches, reveille, and two horses running a race. Other performers gave similar imitations. The song, "De Rattle of De Bones," published in The Ethiopian Glee Book of 1850, was an onomatopoetic description of the sound of the bones. Any Brudder Bones played from the souls of his feet, using his whole body as an extension of his instrument. Olive Logan, in an article published in 1879, described a typical performance.

He dances to the tune, he throws open the lapel of his coat, and in a final spasm of delight...he stands upon his head on the chair seat and for a thrilling and evanescent instant extends his nether extremities in the air. (Troll 1974:54)

In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century the minstrel show evolved into an elaborate extravaganza with little resemblance to its simple beginnings. In the process the bones were shoved aside in favor of more sophisticated instruments. So, they went underground.

They were played on street corners and in school yards, homes and dance halls. It was on such a street corner that Percy Danforth learned to play the bones. In 1909 Percy's family lived in northeast Washington, D.C., not far from the black section of town. Beyond that was the city dump, a treasure house of adventure for both the black and white children of the area, all of whom played there. Feelings between the groups were not exactly friendly, as Percy puts it, but the black and white boys did know one another. In the evenings, since there were no street lights in the black part of town, the black youths came over to the lighted street corner in front of Isaac Clayman's Grocery Store, where Percy and his friends hung out. The streets were macadam; the gas street lamps cast a soft-edged glow into the summer nights. The black youths threw sand from the gutter onto the sidewalk, took their bones from their pockets, and without speaking a word to those gathered to watch, danced a kind of soft shoe in the sand, accompanying themselves with the bones. Their feet shuffled in the sand, their bones chattered, their bodies swayed. So many years later Percy recalls, "It still makes my hair hurt to remember how beautiful it was." The bones played by these black youths were real bones; Percy remembers that they looked like spare rib bones. An eager and interested lad, Percy watched closely as these young men played. They showed him how to hold the bones; he thinks his father may also have known how to hold the bones. "I don't remember a time when all of a sudden I could play." he says. "I just kinda learned."

Bones playing was apparently not unusual in the Washington area during those dawning years of the Twentieth Century. Frederick Sparrow, a retired University of Michigan professor, grew up in Washington at the same time Percy did, although they did not know each other. Sparrow recalls that every year in the early spring bones appeared in the pockets of many of his classmates, boys eight to fourteen years old. During recess and lunch periods the boys (all white -- the schools were segregated) practiced the bones. Many of them just rattled a little, but "some of them got to be pretty good." The black youths also played bones in the market on Saturdays. As they waited to unload freight from incoming vehicles, they passed the time dancing and playing the bones. About these players Sparrow says, "Those guys were really good.! Even today, in fact, it seems that numerous grandfathers, uncles, and old family friends played the bones. I have learned of such players, now mostly elderly men, from California to northern Michigan to the east coast.

That American bones playing is a unique style is obvious when one compares it with contemporary British techniques (1). British players use bones held in only one hand and usually play sitting down. The bones are held in the same way, but the moving bone is manipulated differently by British and American players. The former allow the moving bone to swing freely; the latter hold the moving bone tightly so that it acts as a spring. In Britain bones are used unobtrusively as part of the rhythmic backup for dancing. There are no flamboyant movements or fancy rhythms. The rhythms duplicate the rhythms of the jig or real, keeping the beat obvious and steady. The British playing style and techniques, solid and unpretentious, suit the purpose for which the bones are used. Because American bones playing was traditionally part of entertainment form, it required movement, speed, and showmanship. The technique, bold and flashy, allowed elaborate rhythmic patterning. Moreover, the two playing styles are not readily interchangeable. The jigs and reels of Britain have a tactus fundamentally different from that of the minstrel and ragtime tunes of the United States. Bones players from the American heritage cannot instantly adjust their techniques to accommodate the different feel of the British songs. British players find it similarly difficult to switch to the syncopated rhythms that American songs require. Let no one doubt that playing the bones is a real skill that requires practice and virtuosity.


Just how is it, then, that the bones are played? Obviously, one must know first how to hold them properly. They are placed parallel to each other between the fingers of the hand, extending downward. In performance the bones move so rapidly that it is impossible with the unaided eye to see that only one bone actually moves. The moving bone is held between the third and fourth fingers. The other is held stationary between the second and third digits of the hand. This is the anvil against which the moving bone strikes. The player maintains enough tension on the moving bone so that it acts as a spring, allowing him precise control of its movement. A simple experiment will demonstrate the manner in which the bones work. Tape a quarter to the heel of the hand. Then place one of the bones between the third and fourth fingers. Appropriate movements of the wrist will produce sound as the bone strikes the quarter. Replacing the quarter with the other bone allows greater range of sound, but the operating principle is precisely the same. The key to playing the bones is not, as one might suspect, in the fingers, but in the movements of the wrist, arm and shoulder. The fingers, in fact, do not move at all. Their function is to keep the bones in proper playing alignment. The player must stay loose as he moves, causing the moving bone to flip against the stationary one, providing sound. American players, from Frank Brower to Percy Danforth, stand up when they play. The bones are an extension of the body itself. The virtuoso does not merely play the bones; it would be more accurate to say that he dances the bones. Their sounds are the oral manifestation of the movements of the dancer/player's body.

When observing a bones player in action, one sees a plethora of rapid motion. It is possible to reduce this flurry of activity to its simpler component parts. The simplest form of rhythm is a single click. The two bones hit together when the player snaps his forearm and wrist up and down. Two clicks, one after the other, result from a flipping over of the hand and wrist. A triplet pattern is produced with a crosswise motion, beginning with the arms extended to the sides and pulled sharply in toward the center of the body. To follow a triplet with a single click, a common pattern, the arms are brought toward body center for the triplet and moved back sideways to add the concluding click. A roll or trill results from continual shaking of the hand back and forth from the wrist. Another common pattern used by bone players involves rolling with one hand while adding a cross rhythm with the other of single, double, or triplet clicks.

Even before confronting the question of syncopated rhythms, it is evident that playing the bones is not as simple as might be supposed. A bones player must be extremely ambidextrous, able to produce different rhythms with each hand at the same time. He must also be able to think a rhythm and almost instantaneously reproduce that rhythm with his instrument. If one assumes that there is a slight time lag between the thought processes and the actual working of the sound-producing apparatus, the bones player then has two sets of rhythms operating at the same time. One is actually heard by the audience; meanwhile the other is going on in the player's head, preparing the next rhythmic pattern to be produced.

It is impossible to describe every syncopated pattern that a virtuoso can produce. All rhythms are variations of the basic single, double, triplet clicks and trills. In altering the regularity of the clicks by extending or delaying them, the player rearranges the order of the sonic events into complex rhythmic patterns. The possible combinations are virtually endless. Also, the rhythms are constantly crossing from hand to hand. Often a pattern is started in one hand, picked up and continued by the other, perhaps tossed back to the first. One can produce a crescendo by controlling and manipulating the relative position of the two bones. To begin softly, the bones are held so that they strike high up near the hand. As the crescendo builds, the moveable bone strikes against the anvil lower and lower down, ending with the bones aligned at the tip in their normal position, thus producing full volume.


Bones are made of various materials; different materials allow different tone colors. Bones were originally, by definition and nomenclature, bones. Homemade bones can be either crude and unfinished or highly refined, depending on the care taken by their maker. Shin and rib bones are the most commonly used because they are naturally of the proper size and shape. They must be allowed to dry thoroughly before they will produce their characteristic hollow click. Wood sticks also make acceptable bones. Different kinds of woods give different sounds. Bones of rosewood or teak emit a piercing, shrill click that literally makes a listener's ears ring. The sound of teak bones could cut through that of a large orchestra in the same way a piccolo does. Balsa wood bones produce a muted effect. Their lilting shuffle is characteristic of a soft shoe dance, White pine bones have a sound between teak and balsa. They are solid and authoritative without being ear-spltters. Bones, like everything else these days, come in plastic models. They are available commercially in some music stores and by catalogue order. Their sound is quite similar to bones made of bone. The innovative player can also experiment with various alterations to discover new kinds of sounds. For example by sawing one of a set of plastic bones partially in two lengthwise, one comes up with a flutter effect. Mounting a steal tube in the end of a pair of wooden bones gives a slightly metallic sound. Other experiments and alternations are certainly possible as well.


The time has come to look in on what actually happens during a bones performance. Playing techniques are mastered. Music is available; whether piano, banjo, fiddle, or band, it must be lively. The artist has selected the type of bones he wishes to use. Now he must take these raw materials and play. The bones are a percussion instrument; their raison d'etre lies in rhythm. The bones player may elect to simply reinforce the tactus of the tune. More likely, while never ignoring it, he will elaborate on the tactus by using infinite combinations of clicks, rolls, syncopations and embellishments. He may at times use only one hand; most of the time he will use both. The inventiveness of the player is combining patterns of rhythm is a mark of his virtuosity. A lot of the appeal in a bones performance lies in never knowing what to expect next.

A brief description of the bones movements and patterns used by Percy Danforth with a particular tune will illustrate the combinations and how they work. The tune is "Stop Time Rag." It has many syncopated rhythms in the piano part, thus allowing the bones player to use his full repertoire of rhythms. As the tune begins, Percy plays simple clicks, moving quickly to combinations of single and double clicks. Rolls follow, than off-beat clicks that lead into more rolls. A backward circular arm motion produces a continual pattern of sound. In the next section of the piece, Percy uses a crosswise outward-inward-outward motion and an up-and-down, higher-to-lower and back up motion in front of the body that combines triplets with double clicks in various orders. He eases up a bit by using only one hand as the next section of the tune begins; the other soon joins in. He continues the number with a series of alternating off-and-on the beat flips of the wrist and arm. The piece concludes with a series of two-handed clacks in unison with the piano on the final beats of the song.

It must be emphasized that a bones performance is a visual as well as an aural phenomenon. Mere words cannot adequately describe the excitement generated by a Brudder Bones style player who swings and dances his way through a tune." Playing through the soles of his feet," the bones virtuoso soon passes his enjoyment on to the audience. Audiences, in turn, never cease to be amazed by the amount of intricate noise produced by four sticks clacking together in the hands of an expert. Percy described part of the appeal of his performance in this way: "People are amazed to see this silver haired old bunny get up and dance and jump around with a couple sticks in each hand." One of the best audiences was three elderly black gentlemen at a street fair.

I did several numbers with pianist Jim Ford on a stage erected downtown at the corner of Huron and Main. The stage was about five and a half feet off the ground. That's where these old black guys were standing, leaning on their arms. Just the upper part of them was there, and all I could see was this trio of faces. And this one guy, after one number was over, shook his head. "Das it, boy, das it, das it ."

As interest in bones playing has grown, one of Percy's concerns has been the development of teaching techniques. Since there is no commercial instruction book on bones playing, he is attempting to devise nomenclature and notation for neophyte players. The accompanying practice sheet (not available on this Web page) contains a few of the basic rhythmic movements and combinations. They are to be practiced at leisure, in relaxed circumstances, in 4/4 meter at various tempi. The student is advised to start slowly and increase the tempo as his/her skill improves. After mastery of even the most elementary movements, the player is urged to try his new talents with appropriate musical accompaniment. Percy prefers ragtime tunes, but the beginner should probably began with something a bit less complex and work up to the syncopation of ragtime as he masters the instrument. Ideally, the student should work with an accomplished player. At present, the absence of an instruction book makes such tutelage virtually mandatory if one wishes to learn to play virtuoso bones. The swell of interest in bones playing would seem to indicate that the time is right for such a publication.

The bones offer many possibilities for expanded use. Because they are so inexpensive, they could conceivably provide a means of rhythmic training for large groups of students at a small cost. Since anybody can produce simple movements with relatively little instruction, bones can provide such groups with musical experience in which everybody can participate. With links to both black and white heritages, they allow students, and others, to interact with a bit of their pasts. Perhaps most important, playing or listening to the bones is fun. In a society that is lamentably devoid of inexpensive, good-time, participatory musical activities, bones playing is an art well worth preserving and reviving.


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This page was last updated August 29, 2002 by Jonathan Danforth, you can reach him at