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Instrument Interview: Blind Alfred Reed’s Fiddle

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Several questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk to Blind Alfred Reed’s fiddle:

First, can you tell us about Blind Alfred Reed?

Sure, I love to talk about him! Blind Alfred Reed was born in Floyd, Virginia, on June 15, 1880, though he spent most of his life in West Virginia, especially around the Princeton area. He was born blind, possibly using a slate and stylus to help him with writing, and he learned how to play the fiddle at a young age.

He was well-known in his area as a talented fiddler and songwriter, and his family remembers him as a multi-instrumentalist who might have also played banjo, guitar, mandolin, and even the organ! Alfred played music anywhere he could – churches, parties, night clubs, political rallies, and dances, and he recorded twice with Victor Talking Machine Company. He gave music lessons and wrote his own compositions, often selling broadsides of his songs.

As with many people during the 1920s and 1930s, Alfred relied on his garden and subsistence farming to help support his family. He also worked as a Methodist lay preacher – he didn’t have his own church, and often preached on street corners instead. Alfred passed away on January 17, 1956.

Black and white photograph of two musicians standing in front of a handwritten performance advertiseman placard. Both are white mean and wearing suits and holding fiddles. Blind Alfred Reed is to the right -- he is tall with dark hair. The man to the right is shorter with lighter colored hair.
Blind Alfred Reed standing with another fiddler in front of a handmade advertising placard for a performance. Courtesy of Goldenseal Magazine

How did Blind Alfred Reed’s blindness affect his daily life and his musicianship?

Alfred and his sister were both blind from birth, and because they had grown up blind, they had a whole host of different tricks to help them negotiate daily life – from loudly ticking clocks, a wire leading from the house’s door to the outhouse, and memorizing the number of steps it took from different places in the house. Alfred also learned New York Point and American Braille, both tactile reading and writing systems for the blind.

As for music, Alfred’s blindness didn’t hamper his playing and performing. In fact, playing me brought him a lot of pleasure each and every day! He often busked on the streets of Princeton, walking three miles between our home and the city. However, a 1937 statute in the area where he lived banned blind street musicians, and this took away some of our musical money-making opportunities.

Where did Blind Alfred Reed get you?

I have a label inside of me that notes the name Giovanni Maggini and the date 1695, and for a while, Alfred’s family though that I was made by an Italian luthier way back in the past. However, Giovanni Maggini actually died in 1630 so that turned out to not be correct!

A New York violin dealer and restorer took a look at me and determined that I am a commercial instrument, possible advertised and sold through a mail-order company like Sears Roebuck or even from a local music store. Commercial instruments were often made “in the style” of famous instrument makers and so will bear a label inside to reflect that. Alfred owned me by around 1905—1910 so I am probably not much older than that.

Left: A photograph of Blind Alfred Reed's fiddle in its case with the bow beside it. Right: A close-up of the F-hole of the fiddle showing the label with the name Giovanni Maggini on it.
Blind Alfred Reed’s fiddle, including a close-up of the F-hole with the Giovanni Maggini label inside. © Birthplace of Country Music

 Were you part of the 1927 Bristol Sessions?

I certainly was! Ralph Peer personally invited Alfred and me to record at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and Alfred’s son Arville brought us down from West Virginia to do so. Apparently Ernest “Pop” Stoneman told Mr. Peer about us and the regional popularity of “The Wreck of the Virginian,” a song Alfred wrote about a train wreck that occurred in May 1927. This song was one of the biggest sellers from the 1927 Bristol Sessions.

Besides his train wreck song, Alfred recorded three others at the 1927 Bristol Sessions – “I Mean to Live for Jesus,” “You Must Unload,” and “Walking in the Way with Jesus.” Soon after, he recorded several more songs for Peer and Victor in 1928 and 1929 for a total of 21 sides

In 2016, I traveled to Bristol for the first time since the 1927 Bristol Sessions to celebrate the publication of Blind Alfred Reed: Appalachian Visionary, a book and CD set.

An older white woman is sitting on a wooden bench in a museum space. She has short blond/white hair, and she is wearing a white long-sleeved top over a light-colored tee and dark blue pants. She is holding a fiddle in two hands.
Ernest Stoneman’s daughter Roni got the chance to hold Blind Alfred Reed’s fiddle at the 90th anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions in 2017. Image courtesy of Denny Reed and Jane Thompson

Where else were you played?

As I noted above, a lot of our music-making together was at local events and through street busking. Mr. Peer did invite us – along with Alfred’s son Arville – to record several more songs in 1929 at the official Victor studios up in Camden, New Jersey and New York City. Sadly, after that recording session in December 1929, we didn’t record again, though Alfred kept playing music locally.

Looking back, Alfred probably would’ve been a more popular singer if the Great Depression hadn’t hit – not only did this affect the commercial viability of the music recording industry at this time, but Arville also went off to World War II and so Alfred didn’t really have the opportunity to travel to sing.

However, Alfred has been recognized for his contributions to music since his death. For instance, he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

Did Blind Alfred Reed have a favorite song he played on you?

Alfred didn’t necessarily have a favorite fiddle tune, but he sure loved to play me and he loved writing his own songs. Everything he wrote about was real, based in life’s trials and tribulations, its moments of happiness and sad times. He’s get his ideas from a lot of different sources – through the newspaper stories his wife read to him, by listening to the radio, family and friends telling him the news and local stories, and by reading his Braille Bible.

Alfred has a lot of songs that are recognized as important or particularly interesting songs, and he certainly used music to say something. For instance, his song “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” outlines the challenges of those living in poverty and thus was especially appropriate to the hard times of the Great Depression. This song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2020. Several of Alfred’s songs were aimed at social ills and other issues he saw as problematic in the 1920s – such as “Money Cravin’ Folks,” “The Prayer of the Drunkard’s Little Girl,” and “Explosion in the Fairmount Mines,” – and because of this socio-political commentary, Alfred is considered one of the early protest singers of the 20th century. However, he also injected some humor into his musical observations – his song “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?” made a to-do of women’s short hair styles in the 1920s, telling them to ask Jesus for forgiveness!

Despite his recognition as a skilled fiddler and talented songwriter though, Alfred often got his greatest pleasure later in life playing music for his grandkids and hearing them dance around and enjoy his music.

What are you doing now?

Alfred’s family values me and my connection to Alfred and his place in the history of early commercial country music. And so I still live with his grandson, another great musician!

Finally, what’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle?

Oh, this is a good one! The difference between a violin and a fiddle is that one of them has strings and the other one has strangs!

* Dr. Rene Rodgers is the Head Curator of the Museum. Special thanks to Denny Reed and Jane Thompson for their time and stories to help make this “Instrument Interview” possible!

Instrument Interview: The Mandolin

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Several questions are posed, and the instruments answer!

Today I got a chance to have a talk with the mandolin, the instrument that puts the twang in country music.

So who are you, my friend?

I am the mandolin, a flat-backed, teardrop-shaped instrument, though there are mandolins with other shapes too. For instance, some mandolins have rounded bowl backs, and they are called the Neapolitan style. Another flat-backed style is the archtop mandolin, which includes extra scrolls and points on its body.

I have eight strings pitched in the high treble range – I’m sort of a small guitar with more strings. I’m often found in country songs, but I am particularly popular in bluegrass music where I take “breaks” to perform solo, highlighting the virtuosity of both me and my musician.

The image shows three mandolins of different shapes. The left mandolin is the bowl-back or Neapolitan-style instrument that has an ovoid (egg-shaped) body that is rounded out at the back; the middle mandolin is an archtop-style with a rounded body showing a curled scroll in the top left corner and points coming out from the body to the top right and right side; and the right-hand mandolin is a tear-dropped style with a rounded, bulbous body shape coming up to a tear-drop point at the neck.

Three different mandolin shapes: bowl back or Neapolitan (left), archtop (center), and teardrop (right).

Image from promusicvault.com

What makes you different from a guitar?

I am different from the guitar in several ways including my size. I am about half the size of the guitar, but to make up for that I have two more strings than the guitar. I also am not particularly resonant, which is something the guitar is known for. Rather, my strings stop ringing and go silent almost as soon as they are played. I also sing higher than the guitar due to my smaller size.

When did you come to be?

Coming out of the lute family, I was originally created in Central Europe in the medieval period – I’m particularly associated with Italy. I came across to North America with immigrants. Country musicians used me in their performances, but I am especially associated with bluegrass and brother acts.

How are you played?

I am plucked like most stringed instruments, often using a plectrum, but what makes me interesting is I am almost always played with a tremolo technique, this meaning the player rapidly plucks a string to keep the notes going. This is what gives music like bluegrass its upbeat sound.

How do you sound and fit in a band?

Due to the rapid plucking, I am typically in the background as a rhythmic instrument meaning when I play my notes and chords, I am helping to keep tempo, like my friend the drums. As mentioned earlier, one place I really shine is when I get to play solos. Then you really get to hear what I’m capable of!

Image of bronze statue of Bill Monroe wearing a suit and cowboy hat and playing his archtop mandolin. A metal historic marker is seen behind Monroe, commemorating the "birth of bluegrass."

This statue of famous mandolin player Bill Monroe stands beside the “Birth of
Bluegrass” sign outside the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.
Credit: © Brian Crawford, Creative Commons

What music style do you enjoy being in the most?

For me it’s got to be bluegrass. That’s where I got my start with players like Bill Monroe, and where I’ve continued to be a major player, for instance, with artists like Marty Stuart. I can be in fast string runs like in the opening of “Bluegrass Breakdown” and in solos like in The Chick’s “Traveling Soldier “and Darius Rucker’s “This.”

What are some songs we’d know with you in them?

Well, some of my favorites include “East Tennessee Blues” By Bill Monroe, “Rocky Top” recorded by the Osborne Brothers, and The Chicks’ “Long Time Gone.” What most people don’t know is I have also been played in rock-and-roll music, as well as in songs like “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin and “Boat on the River” by Styx!

And finally, do you have anything you’d like to add?

Yes, if you see me in live music or hear me on the radio, be sure to notice how I am either keeping the rhythm or playing a sweet Bill-Monroe-style solo. It will be music to your ears!

Thank you so much! Have a great day!!!

Logan King is a History Education major and Music minor at Western Carolina University. He is from China Grove, North Carolina, about forty-five minutes from Charlotte. He enjoys the outdoors and music, and is passionate about education. He has been listening to country and folk music all his life; favorite artists include George Strait and Ronnie Milsap. He plans to graduate in the fall of 2023 and is so excited to have helped out at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum by interviewing the mandolin for today’s post!

Instrument Interview: The Jug

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we caught up with the jug, a very interesting instrument who had a lot to say about what it’s like to be in a jug band.

1.  Tell me a little bit about yourself. 

I’m a jug that is used as an instrument. I play in a type of band that is called a jug band, but there are lots of other interesting instruments in these types of bands other than me. I’m a household object that was converted into a musical instrument.

2.  Jugs are made to be containers, so how did you become an instrument? 

I come from a long line of innovators. These are the type of creative people that make things from what they’ve got in their surroundings. Many early jug bands were made up of African American musicians from the world of vaudeville, musicians who performed in traveling medicine shows, and sometimes just people at home creating their own instruments. And jugs like me first started being recorded in jug bands in places like Kentucky and Tennessee in the 1920s and 1930s.

For some jug band musicians, perhaps they didn’t have the money for or access to instruments, and so they decided to pick up and modify things like jugs, washboards, spoons, and other things to make music to entertain themselves and their community. People have been making music out of everyday items and things they find just lying around for centuries.

Three Black musicians pose with their instruments. They all wear suits, the men to the left and right with bow ties and the middle man with either a normal tie or just his collar buttoned up. The man to the left wears a fedora-style hat, holds a banjo, and has a jug held towards his face by a "rack" around his neck. The middle man is seated and wears a fedora-style hat; he holds a guitar. The man to the right wears a flat cap and holds a harmonica.
Cannon’s Jug Stompers, a band formed by Gus Cannon with Noah Lewis and Ashley Thompson in the late 1920s. Supposedly Cannon first learned to play the banjo on an instrument he made from a frying pan and a racoon skin when he was a child. Image from Wikimedia Commons

3.  Can any old jug be an instrument? 

Sure! You can make music with any old milk jug or even something like a Snapple bottle, and I definitely encourage you to make music with anything you can find. Next time you find yourself with an empty bottle or jug, see how many ways you can make music with it. I promise it will brighten your day, and you won’t regret having a little fun making music. However, a jug is not much without the other instruments in the jug band.

4.  How are you played?

There are multiple ways to play a jug. Since it wasn’t originally intended to be an instrument, there are far fewer rules on how to do it right so feel free to improvise! Lots of people think that to play a jug, you blow across the top of the opening like you’d play a flute, but there’s actually a lot more spit involved than that. You could do it that way, but normally in a jug band, players will buzz into a jug with their lips like you’d do to play the trumpet.

5.  What do you sound like? And what about the band as a whole?

I make a sound that is kind of like a trombone-like tone, and it is often low on the musical scale. And the sound I make is also influenced by the material I am made of and my size. As a whole, a jug band typically plays music that sounds like a blend of blues, jazz, rag-time, and rock-and-roll. This is because jug bands were a precursor to all of these genres of music. Jug band music is a community and joy-based type of music, and since the instruments are so versatile and unique, it’s a great medium for innovation and creating new sound. This is how jug bands influenced the music from a variety of genres.

Three instruments hang on the back of a museum display case. The backing is blue. The top instrument is a small guitar made from a cigar box with a wooden neck. The middle instrument is a guitar made out of a circular ice bucket with a wooden neck. The bottom instrument is a large jug with a brown neck and shoulders and a cream body.
Various handmade and every day object instruments on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. These include two guitars, one made from a cigar box and the other from an ice bucket, along with a jug used to make music. Photograph by Frank Kovalchek via Wikimedia Commons

6.  What are the roles of the different instruments in a jug band?

The washboard, the bones, and the spoons provide percussion and rhythm for a jug band. The washtub base, the jaw harp, comb and tissue paper, some other modified stringed instruments, as well as the jug take the other places in a jug band. Some bands have just a few of these instruments, but others have many more depending on the sound that the band is trying to achieve. And often more “typical” instruments like the guitar or banjo are also included in the band. It’s a bit of a mix-and-match situation.

7.  Why did people start making music with jugs? 

People started to make music with jugs for the same reason everybody starts to make music – because they love it and wanted to come up with a way to entertain themselves and the people around them. This motivation based on love comes into the origin stories of just about all instruments. Even the simple ones like me. Throughout history, it has taken innovation and the creative use of ordinary objects and different materials to make music.

8.  When instruments are more accessible today, why do people still play the jug? Why are you and other homemade instruments still relevant? 

One reason that jug bands are still relevant is that the history of music is something that should be remembered and celebrated, and playing the music is one of the best ways to learn about it. Another way jug bands stay relevant is through modern music. Folk musicians and other musicians take inspiration from the unique sound of a jug band and adapt it to contemporary music. This brings a historical element to their music as well as a new and interesting sound. The main reason overall that a jug band and its instruments are still relevant is that the instruments are fun to play and listen to, and just about anyone can learn to play because a lot of the instruments are ones that you can find easily or make.

This photograph shows a band on a dark stage. The group is made up of six white musicians, including a woman with curly hair on guitar, a man with longish dark hair and a plaid shirt on harmonica, a man with a black shirt on washtub bass, a man in a tank top on drums, a man in a black shirt with the spoons, and a man wearing a hat and a plaid shirt on the washboard.
The Happy Fun Thyme Trouble Jug Band performing in 2019. At the far back left, you can see a washtub bass being played, while the two other musicians in the back of the group play the spoons and washboard. Image from Wikimedia Commons

9.  How do homemade instruments like you fit into an Appalachian/Southern identity?

Both of these identities consist very much of holding things like community as a high priority. There’s not much people like to do more than get together and listen to music. Also, very important to a Southern and Appalachian identity is resilience in the face of adversity. In an area that struggles with poverty, the people are known for finding creative and innovative ways to do things like make music – and to produce wonderful instruments to help them do so!

10.  Is there anything else you’d like to add about yourself? 

Before I leave, I’d like to emphasize the importance of making music with whatever you find in your environment and doing it for fun. If it wasn’t for people looking around for ways to have a good time making music with things like jugs and seemingly silly household objects, we wouldn’t have the blues and rock music that we love today. So next time you feel like being silly and making music with a strange object, do it. You might just invent a new genre of music!

Gracie Osborne was an intern at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum this past summer, helping with curatorial work and visitor experience. She is an anthropology student at Radford University.

Instrument Interview: The Kazoo

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we mark National Kazoo Day by talking to the kazoo!

I thought kazoos were just silly party favors, but you’re an actual musical instrument?

Well, I do have a reputation as a birthday party favor, probably to the extreme annoyance of many parents! But I am so much more than that. Kazoos are membranophones, where the tonal qualities of the instrument are produced as the player hums. I am also related to mirlitons, which are vibrating membrane instruments.

A metal kazoo on a display stand within a glass case with an interpretive label in front of it with a brief text about the kazoo.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has a George D. Smith metal kazoo in our instrument gallery. It is on display courtesy of Kazoobie Kazoos, a plastic kazoo manufacturer in Beaufort, South Carolina. © Birthplace of Country Music

Where do you come from?

My ancestors go back to early mirlitons from Africa. They were made from cow horns or gourds, and their membranes were from spider egg silk. It must have been a tricky business to make them! These African horn-mirlitons were used for ceremonial purposes as a way to distort or mask the human voice.

Kazoo-like instruments are also known in ancient Mexico, though these looked more like recorders and the membrane was made from slivers of corn husk.

A lot of people think of the kazoo as an American instrument. How did you come about here in the States?

Different types of kazoo-like instruments, based on the African mirlitons and common in folk music, could be found in North America in the 1800s. But the kazoo as we know it is attributed to an African-American man named Alabama Vest who came up with the idea of this small instrument and then worked with Thaddeus von Glegg, a German clock manufacturer, to make his concept into reality in the 1840s.

How the kazoo went from Alabama Vest to mass production follows a couple of possible routes. The Historical Folk Toys site notes that a traveling salesman named Emil Sorg was charmed by Vest and von Glegg’s instrument, and so took the concept to create his own kazoos in New York, partnering with die-maker Michael McIntyre and starting production in 1912. McIntyre knew that to succeed, mass production was necessary and so he soon went into business with Harry Richardson, a large metal factory owner. By 1914 they were mass producing kazoos as the instrument’s popularity, and sales, skyrocketed. In 1916 their company became known as The Original American Kazoo Company, and McIntyre was awarded a patent on their kazoo in 1923. In 1994 The Original American Kazoo Company was producing 1.5 million kazoos per year! The company stayed in business until 2003, and the factory site now houses a kazoo museum.

However, the Vest-Sorg-McIntyre-Richardson kazoos were not the only ones being developed in America over this period. Another instrument – a “toy trumpet” that worked in a manner similar to the kazoo – was patented by Simon Seller in 1879. And the first instrument patented under the name “kazoo” was one created by Warren Herbert Frost – his patent was issued in 1883. However, the first metal kazoo was patented by George D. Smith in 1902.

What do you look like?

My basic shape is a tube where one end is larger and slightly flattened and the other is in the shape of a circle; both of my ends are open and uncovered. On top, I have another circular hole – known as the membrane hole – and a wax membrane can be found in the small chamber below this hole. I’ve been called “the Down South Submarine” because my shape resembles these underwater vessels.

Over the years, however, I have taken on many other shapes and forms, including being made directly in the shape of a submarine. Another example, a circa 1930 paper kazoo, was shaped like a 1920s-era microphone. Many kazoos have also been made in the shape of saxophones – Scott Paulson of the UC San Diego Library notes that “a good player could easily imitate a saxophone and create a debate: ‘kazoo or saxophone’”!

A variety of colorful plastic kazoos -- from common kazoo shapes to a pink saxophone shape to submarine/military ship shapes, to a trombone shape.

A collection of differently shaped kazoos. Courtesy UC San Diego Library

How are you played?

To play me, you should hum into the flattened opening. This makes the membrane vibrate, creating a sound that can be changed by the pitch, loudness, and nature of your humming. You can also alter the sound I make by covering the membrane hole, either in part or completely. Check out this video for a tutorial.

Many people make the mistake of blowing into me and then thinking I am broken as no sound comes out, but this will not work for creating kazoo music!

Are there any famous kazoo players or performances?

There are! Unsurpisingly you can hear the kazoo’s comic effect on Frank Zappa’s first album, Freak Out! Comb-and-paper kazoos appeared on the Beatles’ song “Lovely Rita” from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, and Sir Paul McCartney played the kazoo on the 1975 Ringo Starr single “Sweet 16.” World Wrestling Federation duo Edge and Christian often brought their kazoos into the ring, driving their foes to distraction with their playing and often winning the bout as a result. Jimi Hendrix used a comb-and-paper kazoo on his 1968 recording of “Crosstown Traffic.” Kazoos – to imitate the sound of electric razors in an executive washroom – were also used in the song “I Believe in You” in the Broadway comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Some performers made a career of their kazoo playing, such as Barbara Stewart who even performed at Carnegie Hall! And some composers have written their own kazoo music – for example, Mark Bucci composed his “Kazoo Concerto,” which premiered at a Leonard Bernstein Young Peoples’ Concert with the New York Philharmonic in 1960.

I’ve named just a few, but if you look for them you can find all sorts of famous kazoo performers or performances!

Were you played at the Bristol Sessions?

I sure was! Kazoos were commonly used in jug bands and comedy songs, and that is where you will find me on the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings. Ernest Stoneman joined together with different configurations of friends and family to record several songs for Ralph Peer in 1927. One of those configurations was made up of Stoneman, Bolen Frost, George Stoneman, Iver Edwards, Kahle Brewer, and Uncle Eck Dunford to form the Blue Ridge Cornshuckers singing “Old Time Corn Shuckin,’ Parts 1 and 2.” As the song progresses, Stoneman invites each musician to introduce himself, play a little bit, and then take a sip from the passing jug!

Even though you are a light-hearted – and fun to play – instrument, do you get used for serious purposes too?

Yes, indeed, I am sometime used in speech therapy to help strengthen oral and speech skills – for instance, kazoos can help children in the production and awareness of speech. We can also be used to help speech recovery for people who have suffered a brain injury, and to help in speech production and awareness for the deaf or hard of hearing. Kazoo use can even play a role in increasing respiration and oxygenation.

Left: Three popsicle kazoos decorated with stickers and colored markers. Right: Four toilet paper roll kazoos, painted to look like different fruits.
Fun and colorful make-at-home kazoos.

How do I make my own kazoo?

There are a few ways to make your own kazoo. You can make one using popsicle sticks, a straw, and rubber bands as seen here; using a toilet paper tube and wax paper as seen here; or the classic comb-and-paper version as seen here. Get crafting!

Anything else you want to share with us?

Special thanks to Scott Paulson of the UC San Diego Library for his help with kazoo facts and photos! The Library has hosted special events around National Kazoo Day for the past few years. Starting off from a challenge to use “serious library tools to investigate a light, playful topic,” the Library’s “kazoo salute” has included exhibits, live kazoo performances, and the commissioning of original kazoo music.

Finally, the kazoo is known as “the most democratic of all instruments” because ANYONE who can hum can play it! So give me a try!

Left: A man wearing a dark suit and glasses stands behind a tabletop glass case filled with kazoos. Right: A piece of kazoo music with two kazoos superimposed on top.

Scott Paulson with a UC San Diego Library kazoo display; “Fanfare for as Many Kazoos as Possible,” an original composition by Linda Kernohan. Courtesy UC San Diego Library

Instrument Interview: The Bones

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk with the bones.

What are you?

I am a type of percussive instrument known as a “concussion idiophone,” which refers to me being made of up of similar objects that make a sound when struck together. I’m also called the “rhythm bones,” which gives you a clue to the role I play in music.

Two views of two sets of bones, made of animal bones. One is larger than the other, and they are each connected by a leather cord.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has two sets of circa 1927 bones in our collection, donated by Dom Flemons in 2015.

Where do you come from?

I’ve been around for a long time, and you can find versions of bones all the way back to several ancient cultures. Archaeologists have excavated bones (as instruments) from graves and tombs in prehistoric Mesopotamia and Egypt, and also discovered images of musicians playing the bones on Greek pottery. There is also evidence of the bones being played in the Roman Empire and ancient China. More recently – that is, in the 18th and 19th centuries – I came to North America with Irish and English immigrants, who used the bones as a way to keep a steady beat for their jigs and reels.

A pottery sherd with a red-figure dancer, gender unclear holding two bones-like instruments in their hands.

Fragment of a terra cotta red-figure kylix, Greek, 510-500 BC. The image is of a dancer using a bones-like instrument as part of the performance. Public domain

Are you really made from bones?

My original versions were made from animal bones, usually the rib or shin bones of sheep, cows, and sometimes horses. I’m often slightly curved, reflective of the natural shape of these bones, and I typically measure between 5 and 7 inches in length. While modern bones are still made from animal bones, you can also find ones made from wood and plastic. A variety of woods can be used, such as cherry, mahogany, walnut, and maple, with different woods producing different tones as is seen in other wooden instruments.

How are you played?

Players hold a pair of bones between their fingers with the convex sides facing one another; one is held fairly tightly and the other more loosely. By shaking the wrist, the bones hit one another, creating a loud “clack.” The connection between the two bones is carried by the momentum from the player’s arm and hand movements rather than any effort to force the bones to knock together. In North America, players tend to play with a pair of bones in each hand, while in Ireland the tradition is to play one-handed.

It’s hard to get a sense of what the movement looks like and the resulting sound by describing it, so check out Dom Flemons playing the bones. It’s actually quite amazing – and beautiful – to watch:

What type of music are you typically found in?

You can hear bones being played in a wide variety of genres, such as traditional Irish and Scottish music, blues, bluegrass, zydeco, French-Canadian music, and Cape Breton (in Nova Scotia) traditions.

Because bones were also often used by African American musicians, they became a common facet of 19th-century minstrel shows – where white performers appeared in blackface; later Black entertainers appeared in minstrel shows too – and the bones’ popularity in the United States grew within this context. One of the first bones-playing minstrel performers was Frank Brower, and the first documentation of him playing the bones in front of an audience are from 1841 in Virginia. He played with a much larger pair of bones than is usual today – two 12-inch lengths of horse rib bones!

An image of an exhibit case with William Sidney Mount's "The Bone Player" -- a black musician wearing a hat, jacket, waistcoat, and cravat-like tie, and holding two pairs of bones in his hands.
This image of William Sidney Mount’s “The Bone Player,” 1857, is on display in the museum exhibits. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Are there famous musicians associated with the bones?

There are many famous bones players! Freeman Davis, known by his stage name “Brother Bones” and also as “Whistling Sam,” was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1902. He recorded several songs in the 1940s and 1950s, appeared in three movies, and performed at Carnegie Hall and on The Ed Sullivan Show. His most famous recording is “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which became the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme tune in 1952. He took bones playing to an intense high of four bones in each hand and even playing knives like bones!

DeFord Bailey, best known for his wonderful harmonica playing and as a regular on the Grand Ole Opry in its early days, included bones playing in his performances along with yo-yo tricks and guitar picking. He was country music’s first African American star.

John Burrill learned to play the bones in his teens during the Depression. One viewer described Burrill’s style of bones-playing as looking like his arms were upside-down windshield wipers. Over the years, Burrill played with a host of other musicians and acts, including the Brattle Street Players, Steve Baird, Clifton Chenier, Spider John Koerner, Molly Malone, and even the Infliktors, a punk band. When asked what key he played in, his reply was “the skeleton key”!

Peadar Mercier was a percussionist in the Irish band The Chieftains, playing both the bodhran and the bones. He was with them from 1966 to 1976.

Dom Flemons, one of the founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and now a solo artist, is known as the American Songster, whose “repertoire of music covers over 100 years of early American popular music.” Flemons is a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, quills, fife, and, of course, the bones. He has bones made out of cow rib and shin bones that he plays in the double-handed style.

I’ve heard of someone called “the Rhythm Bones King.” Who was he?

The Rhythm Bones King is a man called Joe Birl. In 1945 Birl applied for a patent for his black molded plastic bones that bore a groove to help keep the bones from slipping out of a player’s hand. Birl produced and sold around 150,000 pairs of these plastic rhythm bones. After the plastic mold broke, he made wooden rhythm bones with his patented grooved design. He passed away in 2012, and Joe Birl Jr. continued to sell bones made in his father’s design.

Left: Joe Birl’s original plastic rhythm bones; Center: A store placard advertising the sale of rhythm bones; Right: A photograph of customers holding Birl’s rhythm bones in a store. All objects from the Dom Flemons Collection at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Were you played at the Bristol Sessions?

I was! Black musician El Watson played me when he accompanied the Johnson Brothers on two recordings – “Two Brothers Are We” and “I Want to See My Mother (Ten Thousand Miles Away).” He also accompanied them on harmonica for their recording of “The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy,” and Charles Johnson played guitar on Watson’s two harmonica recordings, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues.” These are some of the earliest integrated country music and blues recordings.

Are there other instruments related to you?

There are many other types of percussive instruments that are used in a similar way to the bones. For instance, clappers – consisting of two solid pieces made of wood, metal, ivory, and even plastic that are slapped together – are found in a lot of musical traditions, from China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand to medieval France and modern Western symphony orchestras.

Castanets are made of two concave shells joined with string at one edge. They are usually made of chestnut wood, and they are played two-handed. Castanets are also used in several musical traditions, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Swiss, Moorish, Ottoman, Sephardic, and Italian.

Playing the spoons is especially common in American folk music and often seen in jug bands. Like the bones, the spoons are held in one hand and played against each other as a percussive instrument. To see some amazing spoon playing, check out Abby the Spoon Lady.

Anything else you want to share with us?

Remember singing the nursery rhyme song “This Old Man” when you were a child? Well, that song is thought to refer to bones playing! The first verse goes like this (and so on):

“This old man, he played one,

He played knick-knack on my thumb;

With a knick-knack paddywhack,

Give a dog a bone,

This old man came rolling home.”

A paddywhack is a ligament – known as the nuchal ligament – in the neck of sheep and cattle.

*Want some of your own bones? Then stop by The Museum Store where you can buy wooden bones (and spoons) made by local artisan Walt Messick of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Each month readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of the month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

The cover of Clapton's Guitar shows a Wayne Henderson guitar upright beside the title text.

The cover of Allen St. John’s Clapton’s Guitar.

This month’s Radio Bristol Book Club pick is Allen St. John’s Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument, published in 2005. This book is the telling of the author’s journey to find the “world’s greatest guitar” and how he instead stumbled upon local luthier Wayne Henderson, the “world’s greatest guitar builder.” The author spent lots of time with the humble and quiet Henderson as he plied his trade, in the process learning about the traditions and craft of guitar building but also about community, history, and friendship. This book is sure to be a local favorite as Wayne Henderson is a luthier from our neck of the woods.

Wayne and Jayne Henderson measure the fretboard on a guitar-in-progress in Wayne's cluttered woodshop.

Wayne Henderson working on a guitar with his daughter Jayne. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Pat Jarrett

Allen St. John has written for a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Salon, The Village Voice, The Washington Post Book World, and Men’s Journal. Much of his writing is focused on sports, and in 2003 he worked with radio personality Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo to co-author The Mad Dog 100: The Greatest Sports Arguments of All Time. St. John has won several writing awards during his career. A self-professed “guitar geek,” St. John now owns his very own Henderson guitar.

Make plans to read Clapton’s Guitar and then join us on Thursday, May 28 at 11:00am as we discuss this wonderful book! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this deeply researched story about a craftsman beyond measure.

Our Radio Bristol Book Club pick for June is Halfway to the Sky by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

* If you are interested in other instrument-building craftspeople, along with those who are working to keep a whole host of other traditions and folkways alive, check out this blog post about our current special exhibit, Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. You can experience the exhibit virtually starting next Thursday, May 7 via our website. Wayne Henderson participated in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, mentoring his daughter Jayne in 2013.