In the right hands, the haunting rattle of rhythm bones enchants
everyone who hears it.
That's why our prehistoric ancestors rattled themto drive
away evil spirits and cure sick people. They were also great for
entertaining the kids.
So this venerable little do-it-yourself folk instrument has charmed
and fascinated us since before the dawn of civilizationand
throughout all of recorded history. It's a skill that has passed
down hand to hand from generation to generation for more than
5,000 years. And to think bones players got by all those years
without sheet music.
Them Oldies But Goodies
Yes, we enjoyed rhythm bones way back in ancient China. Meanwhile,
in ancient Egypt, old-time music fans got dizzy watching exotic
ladies who danced while playing two bones in each hand.
After a thousand years or so, cheering Egyptian crowds watched
glorious parades for Hizzoner Pharaoh Ramses II. As the band marched
by they heard that same familiar rattle.
It's 500 years later now. We've sailed northwest across the deep
blue Mediterranean Sea to ancient Greece. Can you hear them? Look
over there, inside the temple. Those adoring Grecian women are
clapping their sacred bones of metal, bone, or ivory in adoration
of Hathor, goddess of heaven and joyand death. That's some
heady beat, don't you think! I can't imagine it's all prayer and
no play for these ladies. What do you bet they whooped it up at
weddings and toga parties?
A Long And Checkered Reputation
Back in those days, when folks said "all roads lead to Rome,"
they meant it. So maybe it was a marauding legionnaire who first
carried rhythm bones across the Alps into Medieval Europe. But
no matter how the instrument got there, grateful music buffs during
those lonely Dark Ages reveled in delight as wandering minstrels
played rhythm bones from town to town all throughout the land.
Of course there were a few stick-in-the-muds who believed the
rambling, desolate lifestyle of bones playing minstrels wandering
aimlessly around Europe did not present the best role model for
impressionable youths. This fear led to public censure by the
church in the year 554 AD. Lepers were likewise feared. Ergo,
these unfortunate souls were forced to sound bones as a warning
of their approach. Some folks still consider it prudent to steer
clear of 'clikety-clacking' persons. Eventually there came a renaissance.
Then suddenly, around 500 years ago, rhythm bones jumped over
the English Channel into the British Isles (psssst, that's Ireland,
England, Scotland, and Wales, to the rest of us) where the lively
sound has remained an indelible facet of pub culture ever since.
When Bones Were Boss
With the founding of America, rhythm bones soon arrived in the
New World. As an equal opportunity instrument, bones were quickly
embraced by American plantation slaves, which led in the 1840's
to the blackface minstrel show. In fact, 'bones' were the hottest
thing in popular music during the American minstrel era. And it
was during this period that rhythm bones enjoyed a phenomenal
worldwide appeal. Yes, people got rich 150 years ago producing
shows featuring 'Mr. Bones' rattling away on stage (that's stage
right to be precise) to hot toe-tapping music. The performers
were mostly all men who played to a mostly all man audience. Man,
those were the days!
But then this thing called vaudeville came around. And would you
believe they had the audaciousness to let women perform on stage
in every show? They even let women sit in the audience. Then they
went ahead and made the whole thing family friendly. Jeeez...No
more dirty jokes. As it turned out, the men liked seeing all these
women around. So the men pretty much stopped going to minstrel
shows altogether. You can arguably say it was women who started
the demise of minstrelsy. But it was those magic-lantern silent
moving-picture shows which put the final cabbash on the whole
clikety-clacking minstrel business.
More coming soon...