Dom Flemons, quoted frequently in last week’s article by Timothy Jones on rhythm bones and old-time music, here tells his story of discovering bones, and how he has integrated them into his vibrant and extensive musicianship as a former member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops and as more recently as a solo performer as “The American Songster.”
My experience playing the Rhythm Bones started back in 2005 when I attended the first Black Banjo gathering in Boone, North Carolina. I met an African-American bones player by the name of Cliff Ervin who showed me a set of bones he had made himself.
I couldn’t figure out how to do it, but I kept the idea of this little instrument in my mind. After moving from Arizona to North Carolina in the fall of 2005, I got my first set of bones when I attended the 2006 Mt. Airy (NC) Fiddler’s Convention the following summer.
While I did not catch the name of the elderly woman who gave me the set of bones, she gifted them to me with an interesting proposition. Her uncle had been a bones player and had carried a pair of rhythm bones with him all the way through France during the second world war. She told me that the rhythm bones were “part of the tradition” and I should learn them so that I could continue to take that tradition forward.
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Taking my hand, she placed the bones between my pointer, middle, and ring fingers and showed me the motion to make a single click. Later that night I got another lesson from old-time musician Matt Kinman who showed me a trick of bouncing the bones off of the knee that I still have not mastered.
One other bones player I sat with when I first began was Michael Baytop, who told me the story of his mentor, Mr. Bones, busking with his bones by taking requests by the jukebox. This was a way to learn to play bones with any type of music, not only old-time.
After getting these first casual lessons, I begin to study the history of the bones in American popular music and begin creating a new style of bones playing that would reflect my own musical tastes.
Even though I would make a musical career in folk music and old-time, my first instrument as well as my only formal musical training was percussion in the concert band in elementary school.
When I got into high school, I begin to play bass drum in the marching band, learning each of the four drums that made up the drum line. This training included understanding the rhythms as well as drum tuning to maximize the sound of the drums.
While I apply these drum rudiments to my banjo and guitar playing, the rhythm bones have allowed me to express a freedom of unrestricted movement that is far different than my other instruments. Motion and dance within the framework of music is the fabric of collective human experience. The bones is the type of instrument that, when played well and in time with the music, can elevate the entire experience for the band and the audience.
It has been my belief that percussion combined with basic rhythm is similar to harmony singing when added to a melody. When the two musical elements are added together it can add texture and make the music sound fuller. The difference between melody and rhythm is that the notes on the page mean nothing without rhythm. The rhythm tells the listener and the player when and where the notes fit in time and space.
When I brought the rhythm bones to the Carolina Chocolate Drops it was a revelation for our group as well as the audience. I brought many percussion elements to the group, from bones to the snare drum, the jug, and handclaps. Even my guitar playing on the breakdowns became a form of percussion. These rhythmic textures made the group sound unique because most modern old-time music at that time did not appreciate the bones.
Part of the reason is that many bones players do not have a background in percussion. It isn’t a requirement, but when one understands the rudiments of rhythm they also understand the art of silence and not playing at all when it is unnecessary.
The bones are a loud instrument and for everything they do well, they can be just as easily too intense, loud, and off rhythm. It is easy to point out a bad bones player. I tell my students that there is no gray area when it comes to the bones. You either have it or you don’t. That’s because the instrument can completely change the sound of the music.
In the group, I fell in love with the sound of the mid-19th century songs we performed like “Snowden’s Jig” and “Briggs’ Corn Shuckin’ Jig” and I created unique polyrhythms to match the melodies. I also used my experiences in North Carolina to inform the way I played songs like Etta Baker’s “Piece Behind the Bridge” or Joe Thompson’s “Cindy Gal” which I still perform as a soloist with bones and harmonica.
After breaking away from the group, I have had the chance to play bones all over the world working with artists as diverse as Bassekou Kouyate, Taj Mahal, Martin Simpson, Pokey LaFarge, Old Crow Medicine Show, and a list of others. Each collaboration has led to new ideas for my bones playing.
In my solo recordings I have featured bones on various tracks to feature different styles of playing. On “Marching Up Prospect Hill,” I arranged the song to showcase the style of Sonny Terry and his nephew JC Burris with Guy Davis blowing the harp. “John Henry y los Vaqueros” is a bones duet with my bones student and frequent band mate Dante Pope.
But why study and perform this old music? Why be so specific about the history as well as the time and place when and where a traditional music is created? To me, it’s a form of musical repatriation. These songs have traveled and have stood the test of time. Many of the songs I perform that are not originals are close to 100 years old if not older. To be able to perform these songs for a modern audience allows the music to live again and connect with a new audience that many times is experiencing it for the first time. When focusing on specific region’s music one can evoke a time and place, not just the nuances of the style.
I do this in some form with all of my instruments, but the rhythm bones, with its distinctive percussion and its visceral method of playing, make it the most requested instrument in my musical repertoire. As I learned the instrument through a one-to-one experience, I teach the same way hoping that others will become “a part of the tradition” as well.