Monday, April 30, 2007

One-Offs: Dry Bones

Rev. J.M. Gates, Dry Bones in the Valley.
Famous Myers Jubilee Singers, Ezekiel Prophesied to the Dry Bones.
The Four Gospel Singers, Dry Bones.
Delta Rhythm Boys, Dry Bones.
Fats Waller, Dry Bones (Dem Dry Bones).
Elder Charles Beck, Dry Bones.
Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, Dry Bones.
Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Dry Bones.
The Ames Brothers, Dry Bones.
Kay Starr, Dry Bones.
The Four Lads, Dem Bones.
Albertina Walker, Dry Bones.
Shirley Caesar, Dry Bones.
Sons of Andros, Dry Bones.

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones.
And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and lo, they were very dry.
And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.
Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.

Ezekiel, 37:1-4.

In which a bizarre vision of Jewish cultural resurrection becomes a song to teach children how human bones fit together, thanks to African-American preachers.

Ezekiel, priest from a long line of high priests and possible epileptic, was part of the Babylonian Captivity--when, after the kingdom of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonian Empire, the Jews had been deported en masse to Babylon. Around 595 BC, Ezekiel began having prophetic visions, often filled with lurid, strange imagery, that went on for some twenty years and at times left him paralyzed and, some have argued, psychotic; the Book of Ezekiel is a compendium of them.

Ezekiel believed that the Judeans' calamity was a just punishment by God upon a morally wayward people, but he prophesized that a remnant of the true Chosen People, now exiled in Babylon and their kingdom lost, would one day return and reunite, if not as a political nation, then as a religious fraternity.

So in one vision, Ezekiel wanders a valley strewn with ancient corpses. God asks him whether the bones that he sees on the ground could live again, then makes the bones stir in the wind, rise and link together. He drapes them in sinew and flesh, and at last breathes life into them. So Israel is resurrected, if only for a moment.

Some 2500 years pass. The Jews return from Babylon, are conquered again; Babylonia falls to the Persians. The Romans rise and collapse, bequeathing in death a new religion (in which the book of Ezekiel is shelved in the Old Testament) to their barbarian successors. Barbarians become kings, aristocrats, priests. Their kingdoms send ships to America, found colonies; Africans are shipped over as slaves, converted to Christianity.

By the late 19th Century, Ezekiel's vision had become a popular sermon topic for black ministers in the U.S., particularly in the South. In God's Trombones the writer James Weldon Johnson recounted: "I remember hearing in my boyhood sermons that were current, sermons that passed with only slight modifications from preacher to preacher and from locality to locality. Such sermons [included] "The Valley of Dry Bones," which was based on the vision of the prophet in the 37th chapter of Ezekiel..."

Black ministers took the Bible as a starting point for long, improvised sermons, favoring great dramatic passages that could serve as cogent metaphors for a people living under Jim Crow--the parting of the Red Sea, the fall of Jericho and the walk through the valley of dry bones. The ministers would extravagantly riff off of the actual verse, so while Ezekiel only wrote one line about the bones assembling ("there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone"), the ministers broke the image down and drew it out: Listen! On the day of resurrection, the leg bone! will be connected to the thigh bone! The arm bone...will be connected to the elbow bone! The back bone...will be connected to the neck bone!

The Rev. J.M. Gates' sermon on the valley of dry bones, from 1926, shows how it was done. On Vol. 4-1926.

The sermon lent itself naturally to musical accompaniment (James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosmond Johnson, have been credited with the most well-known melody), and recordings by the Famous Myers Jubilee Singers, from 1928, (Black Vocal Groups Vol. 4.) and the Four Gospel Singers (Charlotte, N.C. Gospel), from 1931, show the richness of the musical variations in this period.

It was the Delta Rhythm Boys who developed "Dry Bones" as most people know it, introducing the song's major hook--the use of half-step increases for each bone connection, and half-step decreases with each bone unlinked, a simple trick that added suspense and, above all, catchiness to the song.

In 2001, Jason Gross interviewed Carl Jones, a surviving member of the Boys, and asked how the song came together. Many of the original Boys had been music students at Dillard University, and had gotten an arrangement from some of the faculty there:

Jones: The original arrangement they did that they brought to New York, was done by the professor of music at Dillard. What they did is they started with the toe bone and your foot bone and you go on up to your knee bone, thigh bone, hip bone. Then you sing back down from the shoulder bone back to the foot bone. But you're changing keys in half-tones as you're going up. Then you're there at the top and you start changing keys again, coming down from the shoulder bone.

So that song became pretty popular?

We had to sing "Dry Bones" everywhere we went, on the radio and the big shows. We always did two songs because we told that we didn't just want to sing "Dry Bones." We wanted to sing something else. So we always sang two songs and "Dry Bones" had to be one naturally because that made the group popular. You can't fight that. We understood that too. We hated to do it but we had to do it because everybody asked for "Dry Bones."

The Delta Rhythm Boys recorded a number of versions of "Dry Bones": for Decca in 1941 and 1942, with their more famous version from 1947 on RCA. (On Jump 'n Jive Til One O'Clock).

And having achieved mass popularity, "Dry Bones" began to mutate. Fats Waller's version from 1940 is fairly blasphemous--it's the first secular recording of the song I've found, in which only the bones are mentioned, nothing about Ezekiel and the Lord. Fats even makes a joke about "fried neck bones with rice." It's my absolute favorite of all these versions; the sleepy, muted feel to the track is countered by Waller's singing, in which he seems to be in on a colossal private joke. (On The Last Years, which is out of print.)

(The Elder Charles Beck's 1946 recording at first seems like a corrective to Waller--Ezekiel and his prophecy have returned in force--but Beck delivers his message through a wildly swinging performance, with handclaps, a trumpet solo and a vocal that sometimes sounds like Big Joe Turner. (On Complete Recordings.))

This set the stage for the most gonzo rendition of all, Fred Waring's 1947 recording, complete with an army of percussionists thumping xylophones, gongs, wood blocks, bells, rattles, and what sounds like anvils, and coming close to minstrelsy at times, especially when the singers get religion. If the Marx Brothers had ever attempted "Dry Bones", it would've sounded something like this.

(Waring's recording was memorably used by Dennis Potter and Jon Amiel in The Singing Detective (song starts about 6:30 minutes in). On the original soundtrack.)

The Delta Rhythm Boys' version of "Dry Bones", however, remained the standard, and throughout the '50s, it was the template for further recordings. In 1952, The Ames Brothers, four Massachusetts-born brothers who were the sons of Ukranian Jews, offered a rendition infused with black gospel stylings; the Four Lads, a Canadian group, recorded a Dixieland rendition in 1961 that was used in "Fall Out," the final, insane episode of The Prisoner).

Tommy Dorsey's 1950 recording turned "Dry Bones" into a pop softshoe (on Complete Standard Transcriptions), while Kay Starr's 1958 take thankfully brought back some spark (Rockin' With Kay).

"Dry Bones" devolved into a pop novelty (here's Herman Munster's version), akin to "Davy Crockett" or "Purple People Eater," with "now hear the word of the Lord" sometimes replaced by the generic "and that's the way of the world.". And ultimately, "Dry Bones" became a standard of American childhood, sung in student musicals, on bus rides, in summer camp, on field trips. And true to the theory that kids can and will make any song's lyrics dirty, I recall my friends and I would crack each other up with lines like "the leg bone is connected to the ass bone" and many other worse variations.

Popkiss paused, looked up from his Testament, stretched out his arms on either side. The men were very silent in their pitch-pine pews.

"Oh my brethren, think on that open valley, think on it with me...a valley, do I picture it, by the shaft of a shut-down mine, where, under the dark mountain side, the slag heaps lift their heads to the sky, a valley such as those valleys in which you yourself abide...Know you not those same dry bones?...You know them well...Bones without flesh and sinew, bones without skin and breath...

Must we not come together, my brethren, everyone of us, as did the bones of that ancient valley, quickened with breath, bone to bone, sinew to sinew, skin to skin...Unless I speak falsely, an exceeding great army."

Anthony Powell, The Valley of Bones.

Finally, here are three modern renditions, in which the spirit of Ezekiel seems to have reestablished itself:

First, Albertina Walker in a 1972 recording, a track anchored by some ferocious bass playing and in which, towards the end, Walker puts a new twist on the lyric--she starts calling out members of her congregation for being stuck in their ways. "We got some deacons in our church, sure ain't nothing but a dry bone! We got some preachers in our church, sure ain't nothing but a dry bone!" On Sail Away Some Bright Morning.

In Shirley Caesar's version, she seems to be trying to out-prophesize Ezekiel himself. On Songs of Yesterday.

The Sons of Andros are a vocal quintet from the Bahamas. Their recording, made in the '90s, merges the old Johnson melody with what sounds like the chorus of Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie". (On The Bahamas: Islands of Song.) Perhaps we should imagine "Dry Bones" leaving America for good, moving out first to the nearby islands, then heading further outward, changing but remaining ever-constant, finally going home.

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