Bones History

Rhythm bones in some form date back almost as far as recorded civilization. They have been excavated from prehistoric Mesopotamian graves (3000 BC) depicted on Egyptian relief's (3000 BC) found in Egyptian tombs (c3000 BC) and depicted on Greek urns (c500 BC). Bones were popular instruments in the Roman Empire, and continued to be played as folk instruments throughout much of the same region. In Europe today, bones are most widely heard in connection with Irish, English, and Scottish folk music, and also in many other nearby musical cultures.

Early English and Irish settlers introduced the bones into North America. They were used primarily as an accompaniment to jigs and reels to keep the beat steady by duplicating the rhythm of the music. Bones gradually became associated with the music of African-Americans, and grew to be a cornerstone of the music of blackface minstrel shows, which were hugely successful and popularized the bones during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. After the decline of the minstrel show in this country, bones could be found played in vaudeville shows (which were partly derived from minstrel acts) and jazz music. Bones have enjoyed popular revivals in the U.S.A. from the recordings of Brother Bones in the early 1900's and Ted "Goon" Bones a little later. The renaissance of folk music generally since the 1960's has paralled a growth in interest (or at least a growth in publicly admitted interest) in the bones, partly fostered by study of American and other roots music, the availability of instruments and tutorials, and more lately by the great commercial success of Celtic music in the last decade.

One of the only available academic resources on the bones is an unpublished College paper from about 1975 written by Sue Ellen Barber. She was a graduate student in ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan. The thrust of her research interests lie in the area of the relationship of music to social change. Click here to read: "THE BONES: Ancient to Modern."
Another resource is a Master of Arts thesis in Ethnomusicology entitled The Bones in The United States: History and Performance Practice. This thesis was written by Beth Alice Lenz, at the University of Michigan, in 1989. With the authors permission we hope to add excerpts of this work, if not the entire thesis.

Here are some pictures and advertisements of the greatest minstrel shows of the time.

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This page was last updated February 22, 2003 by Jonathan Danforth, you can reach him at