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. The first minstrel bones player was Frank Brower, and there is a fairly complete article on him in the on-line newsletter, RBP, Vol 6, No 1.
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 1950's (see RBP, Vol 4, No 3 for an article on him and click HERE to listen to Sweet Georgia Brown) and Ted "Mr Goon-Bones" Goon (Click HERE to see a collection of memorabilia covering Ted's recording career). 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One of the few available academic resources on the bones is an unpublished College paper from about 1975 written by Sue Ellen Barber.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 important resource is a Master of Arts thesis in Ethnomusicology entitled The Bones in The United States: History and Performance Practice. This 312 page thesis was written by Beth Alice Lenz, at the University of Michigan, in 1989. Parts of her thesis have been reprinted in the RBP newsletter starting in Vol 8, no 2 and continuing in Vol 8, No 4, and Vol 9, No 2. Now the entire thesis in on-line, and click HERE to read it. Our most heartfelt thanks to Beth for sharing her work with us and everyone.
Part of the modern history of rhythm bones was a patented black plastic rhythm bone made by member Joe Birl. There were about 150,000 of these bones that were sold, maybe the most of any kind of bones. Click HERE to read the story of how Joe made, patented and sold these bones.