Rhythm Bones History
Rhythm Bones Society
formal training in music amounts to maybe a year of piano lessons
in grade school.
I quit high school in 1965 to join the army. While in the service
I took a high school g.e.d. test then went to college where I ended
up with undergraduate degrees in Speech, Theatre, and a master's
in Design. Now I live in Saint Louis with my talented wife, Helen
and two brilliant young children, Zak and Erica. I have accomplished
nothing to speak of in real life. But for years I've been an avid
contra dancer and a traditional flatfoot clog dancer. I also play
I first saw rhythm bones sometime around 1990 during a party at
the home of fellow contra dancer Jean Snyder. Also at her party
was local banjo and harmonica wizard, Sandy Weltman. Sandy is an
award winning musician who has performed on dozens of albums nationally
and has released several recordings of his own. A few of the guests
asked Sandy about those 'sticks' he was playing. Sandy told us they
were called 'bones.' Then he demonstrated how to play them. We all
tried giving them a rattle, but none of us managed to get more than
a click or two out of them.
A few weeks later I came across some plastic rhythm bones on a display
rack at Music Folk, an acoustic music shop in Webster Groves, Missouri.
They cost $3.75 a set. "This is an instrument I can afford,"
I exclaimed at the time.
After clanking away a month or so, I finally started getting the
hang of rattling the bones. One evening I showed up at a contra
dance with my shiny plastic factory made 'Rhythm Bones' with the
patented Joe Birl notch. I demonstrated my new musical talent to
local fiddle champ and violin maker Geoff Seitz who was setting
up to play for the dance. He suggested playing with a pair in each
hand. At first I thought he was teasing me. After all, it was hard
enough trying to play one set in my dominant handbut to play
a second set of bones with my left hand? You gotta be kidding! Geoff
explained that playing a set in both hands adds more color to the
sound. Eventually I went back to Music Folk where I bought a second
set of bones made of walnut. This set cost around $7.00 (which was
well beyond my budget at the time) and came with a free 24-page
spiral-bound copy of The
Bones Book by Sue Hess (a.k.a.
The Bones Lady) of Barnhart, Missouri. The sales clerk happened
to be the shop owner who showed me her personal not-for-sale set
of Wurlitzer ebony bones, and let me rattle them a bit. She has
since sold the shop and retired. It didn't mean a whole lot to me
back then, but (sigh) I would love to see that set of bones again
now. Anyway, one section of The
Bones Book told how to cure 'real'
rhythm bones. So I went to the butcher shop and for ten-cents-a-pound
brought home a huge bag of 'dog bones' (whole beef ribs). Soon I
had more than enough bones to keep me happily clikety-clacking night
and day. I had little money, but lots of time. So I practiced around
four hours a day virtually all year long. That was around 20 years ago.
This was also when I began clog dancing. I learned the basic toe-shuffle
style from Connie Mueller. Then one weekend Connie and a bunch of
us went to Champaign, Illinois where we learned the Appalachian-style
Tennessee walking step. The workshop was taught by percussive dance
superstar Ira Bernstein. This is flatfoot-style clogging. It was
hit and miss for quite a while, but I eventually picked it up. Over
the years this led me to naturally develop other flatfoot clogging
steps and life has not been the same since. A few years back I took a flatfoot
clogging workshop with Kent Beyette (of the premier concert stringband,
'Clarke Buehling and The Skirtlifters') where I happily discovered
my clogging style is considered traditional old-time jig dancing.
Kent made my day when he declared my clogging ability 'advanced,'
and also invited me to play bones with Clarke and the band.
I read somewhere about a 'Mr. Bones' who performed in one of the
old minstrel troupes. This particular Mr. Bones clog danced while
playing bones at the same time. I can clog dance. And I can play
bones. So I said to myself, "Okay, let's give this a try."
To my own surprise it worked. The only other person I've seen do
this is 'Spike Bones' of Columbia, Missouri. Spike (a.k.a. Darryl
Muhrer) is a delightful entertainer noted for portraying the history
of bones on the Mississippi riverboats that shuttled between New
Orleans and Saint Louis. Spike is also a virtuoso bones player who
performs with jazz bands in Chicago and New Orleans.
During the past few years I have appeared at local Saint Louis pubs
on 'ragtime,' 'blues,' and 'old-time music' night. I also play bones
at Irish sessions and occasional contra dances. Like most bones
players, I'm happy to play along with anyone who can stand the clatter.
Every now and again I've given a bones demo and workshop. I am a
member of the Rhythm Bones Society, and enjoy passing the tradition
along to others.
Over the past three years my skill level has taken a quantum leap
forward. I credit this breakthrough to exposure from world-class
bones players I met through the Rhythm Bones Society. I was also
encouraged and propelled over the years by kind words from musicians
and fans at jams, dances, gigs, and open mic events. Another big
influence was the National Old-Time Country & Bluegrass Music
Festival where I won the Bones Contest in 2004 and met a bevy of
first-rate traditional country performers who took absolute delight
in the bones. Winning the competition resulted in my peers declaring
me the 2004 World Bones Champion, which made this an especially
Major Influences include these virtuoso players
Multi-percussionist who played bones with the steerage band
in the film, Titanic.
Prominent Irish bones player, teacher, and researcher at University
College Cork (Mel's father Peadar played bodhran and bones
for ten years with the legendary Irish band, The
Executive Director of the Rhythm Bones Society and two-time
consecutive All-Ireland Bones Champion.
||Artis The Spoonman:
Seattle, Washington's legendary street busker who plays all
kinds of cutlery (plus rhythm bones) on virtually every part
of his body all at the same time.
I now welcome bookings from:
me now for a live demo.
Scott C. Miller