It may have started with primitive man clacking a couple of charred mastodon rib bones together. He smiled. Clack-clack. Fellow cave dwellers looked up. Then with a flip of the wrist, clackity-clackity-clack. Music was born.

In several forms, “playing the bones” has continued to the present time. Various museums display pairs of ancient Egyptian bone clappers in the shape of forearms and hands. I have never seen two pairs of these displayed together, so I am uncertain whether the clappers were played with a set in each hand, like castanets and finger cymbals, or if a complete set was a single pair and held in just one hand, like spoons.

Shakespeare knew of the art. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom commands, “I have a reasonable good ear in music; let us have the tongs and the bones.”

William Sidney Mount, well-known for his depictions of everyday life, painted The Bone Player in 1856. A New York art agent commissioned the painting along with The Banjo Player in order to make lithographs from them to sell in Europe.

Illustrator Henry Holiday penned a number of cartoons to illustrate Lewis Carrol’s The Hunting of the Snark, published in 1876. This drawing accompanies the verse that follows and are from Fit the Seventh, The Banker’s Fate:

Down he sank in a chair—ran his hands through his hair— and chanted in mimsiest tones. Words whose utter inanity proved his insanity, while he rattled a couple of bones.

Interest continues today. Here is an example of a virtuoso on YouTube playing the bones; and at Amazon you can purchase your own set made of beechwood, ebony, rosewood, or maple. If you want the osseous originals, however, just ask for a doggie bag after you have feasted on barbecued spare ribs. Then clack away as your ancestors did 40,000 years ago.

2 thoughts on ““Let us have the tongs and the bones.”

  1. Roy, my son is a percussionist and me a fan of all music. You are opening up new areas all the time. Amazing. Really enjoyed the video of people playing bones…do you know where the bones come from. Is there much written about bones and the history of music? most appreciated, PD

    1. Hi Paul,
      Be sure to let your musical son know about playing the bones. He might also be interested in two previous posts: Human Bones Make Ritual Music
      Jan 23, 2018 Musical Bones Jan 16, 2018. I am not aware of anything written about the history of playing the bones. It seems mostly folk art, like playing the spoons, probably cannot get an advanced degree in it!!
      Best wishes, Roy

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