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Home > Press Kit > Background > Rhythm Bones History
Rhythm Bones History
The Story of a Proven Winner

In the right hands, the haunting rattle of rhythm bones enchants everyone who hears it.

That's why our prehistoric ancestors rattled them—to 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 civilization—and 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 joy—and 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...


© 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Scott C. Miller