Percy Danforth was a very successful rhythm bones artist in the later part of the last century. This and supporting web pages document the rhythm bones life of Percy and in part show what it takes to become a legend.
Some documents are in Adobe Portable Document Format (.pdf), and some of that text is searchable using the Adobe PDF ‘Find’ feature (cntl+F).
This compilation was produced by Jonathan Danforth and Steve Wixson of the Rhythm Bones Society, and is copyrighted to protect the information contained. Sincere appreciation is given to Percy’s son, Malcolm, for a significant contribution to this portfolio.
1. Video highlights of the life of Percy Danforth
This video will be produced from all the material in this portfolio.
2. Tribute to Percy Danforth
This is an article written by Beth Lenz in 2002 that appeared in the Rhythm Bones Player newsletter. It presents an introduction to Percy.
3.Percy Danforth Remembered
This article by Jonathan Danforth and Steve Wixson was published in 2016 in the Rhythm Bones Player newsletter, Vol 18, No 2. It is a follow on to the Beth Lenz newsletter article above and is a more comprehensive story.
4. Video interview of Jonathan Danforth about his grandfather Percy
This interview of Jonathan was made by Mary Barnett at Bones Fest IX. He presents a nice overview of Percy’s rhythm bones life.
5. Library of Congress Video
In 1975, The Folk Archive of the Library of Congress did a video interview with Percy. This was an old open reel video and RBS paid to convert it to a modern format. The quality of the video is quite good and a younger Percy tells his stories that are delightful. This is a 75 minute video that was edited into shorter segments as follows:
a. Young Percy’s life in Washington, DC
Washington was quite different when Percy was growing up (18 minutes).
b. Percy Learns Rhythm Bones from Sand Dancers
Black kids from an adjacent neighborhood would come to a close-by street corner lighted by a gas lantern to sand dance and play their bones (17 minutes).
c. Fran Takes a World Music Class
Percy’s wife, Fran, took a world music class at the University of Michigan and when they brought up rhythm bones, she said “My husband plays bones.” That renewed Percy’s interest in rhythm bones and led his rise to legend status (11 minutes).
d. History of rhythm bones and also Minstrelcy
Percy talks briefly about ancient rhythm bones and then about the minstrel era and bones. (28 minutes)
e. Percy Teaching Children
When the LOC video arrived, in addition to the above interview, there was video of Percy teaching children. At the end of the ‘Fran takes a World Music Class’ video above, Percy mentions he was invited to design and then teach an elementary art course (rhythm bones) for the Monroe Public School System. This video is probably not that course, but shows something of what he put together for teaching children. This is a 53 minute video and when there is time it needs to be shortened. But for now you can enjoy Percy demonstrating, explaining, helping them make bones, teaching how to play, and having fun. At the end are some of his best students.
f. Percy Jamming at Some Party
This is another extra LOC video clip with Percy jamming with a group
6, University of Michigan Video
In 1981, the University of Michigan produced a video about Percy and his rhythm bones, and they have given us permission to include it.
7. Non-instructional parts of Percy’s Bones Instruction Video
In 1989, Mickie Zekley from Lark in the Morning produced one of the earliest rhythm bones rhythm bones instructional videos originally as a video tape and rereleased as a DVD. Click HERE to read how that video came to be. He gave us permission to include the non-instructional parts from this video.
8. Review of Percy’s Bones Instruction Video
While we cannot include Percy’s Bones Instruction Video, here is a review of it that appeared in the Rhythm Bones Player newsletter.
9. The Remember Percy Session from Bones Fest XVIII
Bill Vits, who learned to play rhythm bones from Percy, scheduled a ‘Remember Percy’ session at the Bones Fest he hosted in Percy’s home state (Fest held in Grand Rapids). This was videoed by Mary Lee Sweet and is included in this portfolio. Two suprises attendees were Sue Barber, who wrote an instruction book with Percy (see Item 14) and in 1977 a quality article titled The Bones: Ancient to Modern (click HERE to read), and Malcom ‘Mac’ Danforth, Percy’s son, who in addition to talking about his father, donated two
boxes of Percy’s memorabilia that some assumed were lost or given to the University of Michigan (see Item 10).
10. Scanned papers from two boxes donated by Percy’s son, Malcolm
This large amount of memorabilia is present as it was scanned and soon will be organized for easier reading. There are posters, programs, letters, photographs, etc. There are more items not scanned that may or may not be worth scanning and adding to this portfolio.
11. Timeline of Percy’s rhythm bones life
This is a timeline starting when Percy was born until the current time where items like this portfolio are included. This is a work in progress and will be updated frequently (if you know of items that should be added to this database, go to our Contact Us Page and let us know). Only a few columns from the database are shown now. Each entry in the Timeline database contains much more information including importance, physical location, source, authentication, comments, etc.
12. Percy interview by David Holt
This is a link to an interview with Percy by the well known David Holt. In addition to stories, they play a couple of songs together.
13. Andy Cohen and Percy Danforth Performing
This is a youtube video of Andy Cohen and Percy Danforth performaing at the 1983 Old Songs Festival. Search Item 9 above for a Program from this Festival.
14. Ray Shairer – Percy’s Rhythm Bones Maker
Ray Shairer made the Danforth rhythm bones that Percy designed. The original drawing for these bones can be found in the scanned papers in item 9 above. Ray made around 20,000 Danforth rhythm bones from a variety of woods.
15. Sue Barber and Percy Danforth’s Instructional Booklet and CD
In 1978, this was the first Percy Danforth instructional material and originally sold with a cassette tape. It was produced by Andy and Bill Spence of Andy’s Front Hall (andysfronthall.com). In 2019, they decided to stop selling the booklet and donated the rights to the booklet and CD to RBS. The original draft of the book can be found in Item 10 above. An interactive version on our website can be found at http://rhythmbones.org/documents/PercyBooklet.pdf.
16. Sue Barber’s Michigan Alumnus Article titled ‘It Was Love at First Foxtrot’
This article tells the love story of Percy and Fran Danforth as well as providing some nice biographical information about both of them.
17. Percy Tracks from The Early Minstrel Show CD
Robert Winans produced this vinyl record that was rereleased as a CD. It has the four original minstrel instruments; fiddle, banjo, tamborine and bones. Most of Percy’s recorded playing was not in a professional studio, and this may be the only such recording of Percy’s rhythm bones playing making it an important historical album.
Notes from Robert Winans. Here are some suggestions for which tracks you might want to use from the CD. In nearly all of the tracks with vocals, Percy discontinues his bones playing during those vocals. The reason for this is that we as performers found the bones playing along with the vocals to be rather distracting, so he just plays during the instrumental interludes. Instrumental Medley, however, has Percy playing all the way through the three tunes, and, because the tunes have different rhythms and pace, one gets to hear a wide range of Percy’s playing. The one track where Percy plays along with the vocal is Mary Blane” where the only other accompanying instrument is the banjo (so one does not hear the full ensemble). A third possibility might be “de Boatman Dance” which has the full instrumental ensemble and the quartet of singers; even though Percy’s bones playing drops out for the vocals, it is a lively tune, with both singing and instrumental interludes.
Track 1 – de Boatman’s Song
Track 6 – Mary Blane
Track 7 – Instrument Medley
18. Beth Lenz Master’s Thesis
Beth Lenz was a percussion student at the University of Michigan and wrote a 312 page Master’s Thesis titled “The Bones in the US, History and Performance Practice.” Percy made his library of rhythm bones information available to Beth. Some of her Chapter 1 text was included in the Rhythm Bones Player newsletters, and you can search the online newsletters using the keyword “Lenz” to read it. She also wrote our first newsletter article about Percy (see Item 2 above).
This Portfolio contains two chapters from her Master’s Thesis. They are both copyrighted by Beth Alice Lenz, 1989, and cannot be used without her permission other that reading them in this Portfolio.
Chapter III. Danforth’s Style of Bones Playing
Chapter V. A Conversation With Percy Danforth
19. Hank Tenenbaum Meets Percy
Hank tells a story about the first time he met Percy.
20. Liberty Films Percy Danforth Project (we hope to someday add this material)
The Michigan Council for the Arts funded a project to document the music of Percy Danforth. Liberty Films was selected and shot professional 16mm film of Percy, his home and his wife Fran, but the project could not be completed with the funds available. This film contains content that is unique and not included in the rest of this portfolio.
21. Odds and Ends
Items that do not fit into the above categories. One such stash is our Rhythm Bones Player Newsletters that have many short stories about Percy. Click HERE to view the newsletters and then do a PDF search (cntl+F) using the keyword “Percy”.
A Story about a Percy Workshop. The bones demonstration & workshop was in retrospect, the greatest musical workshop that we ever attended. Percy came out and played the bones to all kinds of music. He was incredible: My wife Mary and I got tired just watching this slightly bent over,white-haired man play. We then had the workshop. It took us 45 minutes just to get the first half decent noise from them. He insisted that we do it his way and he also insisted that he would sell only his PINE bones to us beginners. Today when I teach 1st timers to play, I always tell them this is the way it has to be because “Percy is looking down on us.” Rich Carty