|Originally Performed By||James Weldon Johnson|
|Historian||Martin Acaster (Doctor_Smarty)|
When the prophet Ezekiel had his vision in the Valley of the Bones foretelling the resurrection of Israel, he likely did not have the Phish New Year’s Eve 2014 suck to blow gag in mind. Neither could he have imagined the circuitous path that would lead to his prophecy being transformed into the song Phish selected to preface the gag which culminated in a giant Fishman balloon releasing a golden shower of confetti on the crowd gathered below.
To wander down Locust Street and summarize over 2,600 years of world history, the Jews escaped their captivity in Babylon. Babylon fell to Persia. The Roman empire consumed the holy land once more. Ezekiel’s prophecies were bequeathed to the barbarian hordes that overran the Roman Empire. The barbarians in turn became kings and priests of the Holy Roman Empire and established colonies in the New Babylon. Slaves were imported to New Babylon from Africa and converted to christianity. From their ranks emerged charismatic preachers who would testify The Word to the people. As explained in the preface to James Weldon Johnson’s book God’s Trombones, among the more widespread of these sermons, which would pass from preacher to preacher and location to location was “The Valley of the Dry Bones” which recounts Chapter 37 of the Book of Ezekiel. Given the nature of gospel, the sermon begat a song.Fats Waller, ”Dem Dry Bones”
As succinctly laid out in The Originals by Arnold Rypens, The Reverend J.M. Gates, minister at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Atlanta from 1914 through 1945, appears to be the first to record his “Dry Bones in the Valley” sermon in 1926. James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson contributed their familiar melody to the sermon and the song was born. Since then it has taken myriad forms.
The Fairview Jubilee Singers (“Them Bones Walking Around”) and Famous Myers Jubilee Singers (“Ezekiel Prophesied To The Dry Bones”) both released versions in 1928. The Four Gospel Singers and The Carolinians followed with versions of “Dry Bones” in 1931 and 1932 respectively. In 1940 Fats Waller came to conneca the bones in the first secular version of the song which mentioned neither God nor Ezekiel. The following year, the Delta Rhythm Boys dropped their first version of “Dry Bones” wherein they introduced the song’s musical hook which was to raise their voices from bass to falsetto as they climb from toe bone to head bone.
Elder Charles Beck laid down a swing version of “Dry Bones” in 1946. A year later Fred Waring released a version that included Spike Jones-alike percussion effects and was subsequently used in the 1986 “Skin” episode of the TV series The Singing Detective. The Tommy Dorsey orchestra converted the tune into a pop instrumental in 1949. Three years later the Ames Brothers brought the word of the lord back and the standard vocal quartet format was reborn. In 1958 Kay Starr included her take on “Dry Bones” on her album Rockin’ with Kay. That same year Louis Armstrong with the Sy Oliver Choir laid down a largely boneless but gravelly cut called “Ezekiel Saw De Wheel.”Delta Rhythm Boys, ”Dem Bones”
A Canadian quartet known as the Four Lads recorded a dixieland version in 1961 called “Dem Bones” that was included along with Alexis Kenner’s (No. 48) solo plea in the final episode of The Prisoner. While the 1970s saw slightly funkier versions from the first lady of gospel Shirley Caesar and Albertina Walker and the Caravans. Not to be outdone on the funk front Parliament got hung up on the bone in “Dr. Funkenstein” from their 1976 album The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein. Jack Sheldon and George Newell closed out the decade with their “Them Not So Dry Bones” Schoolhouse Rock version in 1979.
More recent assemblies from the ossuary included the detailed plans for skeletal construction in a tropical style “Dry Bones” by the Sons of Andros, a lyrical segment of the bomb-diggety 1992 Das EFX cut “They Want EFX” on their debut release Dead Serious, and Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s “Dry Bones” from their 2010 release We Walk This Road. I’m sure if we kept digging the variations on “Dem Bones” we’d find would be innumerable.
Considering the auspicious placement of “Dem Bones” as the song selected by Phish to usher in 2015 we are as always given to searching for the hidden message in both it and the suck to blow gag that followed. Page’s quip about their lack of rehearsals after he and the rest of the band tried to pull Fishman’s Electrolux hose from his lips is along the lines of the Northerly Island Poster Nutbag the right way dig. Yet they clearly had rehearsed “Dem Bones” because they did the Delta Rhythm Boys proud. Maybe an implication that if you thought 2014 sucked...then 2015 is going to totally blow. Conversely, “Dem Bones” is a song of resurrection and new life so the whole thing could also be a self referential nod to what went down at Halloween. Phish took an album of old haunted bones and breathed new life into them. There is so much potential in those chilling, thrilling jams as evidenced by the resurfacing of both “The Birds” (they attack!) and “Martian Monster” (your trip is short!) during the NYE run.
Plunging deeper still into the darkness that underlies the apparent frivolity we have to look at the song’s roots. It is a song based on the prophecy of a Jewish slave in Babylonian captivity. That prophecy passed from slave to slave and became a common gospel sermon for post-emancipation African-American preachers like Reverend J.M. Gates. James Weldon Johnson contributed the song’s melody while he was the executive secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In that capacity Johnson was intent on bringing national attention to the persistence of racism, lynching, and segregation. His writing of both music and literature displayed his belief that it was important for his people to produce great literature and art, thereby demonstrating their intellectual equality and advance their placement in America.
Though there has been progress we are still faced with the ugly truths displayed by the unnecessary deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner among countless other instances that go unnoticed on a daily basis. Considering that the response to the Eric Garner case was so prevalent in the news in the weeks leading up to the Miami run; by performing “Dem Bones” and dropping a gag that included a vacuum cleaner being stuck to the top of Fishman’s windpipe, it might have been the boys way of saying “I Can’t Breathe!” In so doing they simultaneously bring attention to the racism and oppression that still prevails in our nation and also the smothering effect that fan expectations can have on the band and their performances.
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