John Henry Nobles

Bones player from Beaumont, TX


John Henry Nobles playing the bones with a local bluegrass band, ca. 1990s. Courtesy Gloria Beasley.

Gloria Beasley plays the Bones, an instrument taught to her by her father, John Henry "Bones" Nobles. Audio recorded by Alan Govenar. Photographs by Alan Govenar. Edited by Jason Johnson Spinos.

Excerpt from: "The Hard Ride." Directed by Alan Govenar. Produced by Documentary Arts, Inc. 1996. Available from Amazon

Gloria Beasley talks about John Henry Nobles' fishing. Interview with Alan Govenar. Recorded by Alan Govenar. Beaumont, Texas, 2010.

Gloria Beasley talks about the origin of John Henry Nobles' bones. Interview with Alan Govenar. Recorded by Alan Govenar. Beaumont, Texas, 2010.

Gloria Beasley talks about where John Henry Nobles played the bones. Interview with Alan Govenar. Recorded by Alan Govenar. Beaumont, Texas, 2010.

Gloria Beasley discusses learning to play the bones. Interview with Alan Govenar. Recorded by Alan Govenar. Beaumont, Texas, 2010.



Like many traditional musicians, John Nobles learned to play music during childhood. Playing rhythm sticks with other boys inspired him to create a unique sound to earn more money shining shoes and playing in a small combo. Ingenuity helps keep traditions alive. Playing bones has African and Afro-Caribbean antecedents, and the improvisation and syncopation required to play bones are hallmarks of African music. Likewise, as in the song John Nobles sings about Miss Possum and Miss Toad, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, African American stories, songs, and toasts featured animals, which many scholars think is an African influence. John Nobles’s creativity led him to make his own bones and develop a secret salve with which to cure them. His musical gifts led him to mastery and allowed him to play many types of traditional ensembles, from bluegrass to zydeco. Growing up in rural Alabama and Texas as the child of a sharecropper, John Nobles demonstrates how traditional culture enriches life and builds resilience.


Students may:

Big Ideas

African American Musical Traditions


Material Culture


John Nobles’s story and photos
Radio clip
Everyday Music Field Notes
Traditions Venn Diagram
Everyday Music Interview Worksheet
Audio recorders (optional)
Release Forms (optional)

Time Required

1-2 class periods


Texas history, social studies, English language arts, music


Review John Nobles’s story and the media clip. Choose Big Ideas that you find relevant to your curriculum and your students. Copy the Everyday Music Field Notes and other worksheets students might use and cue the audio clip. 

Class Discussion

Students may read the story and listen to the audio story independently, in groups, or as a class. Using the Everyday Music Field Notes worksheet will help them focus more closely. In a class discussion, raise some of the Big Ideas above, depending upon your curriculum and students’ needs and grade level. Here are questions to spark discussion:

Suggested Activities

Students may work independently or collaboratively to:

Research African influences on African American music and dance (see Resources). Topics might include the bones, buck dancing, hambone, blues, zydeco, or tap dancing. Present findings in a class report or Web page that includes illustrations and audio.

Identify a drummer in the community or school for a class percussion and rhythm demonstration. The school music specialist may be of help. Everyone should have a chance to play rhythm on blocks, sticks, bones, tambourines, or drums. End with a percussion circle, giving each person a short solo. As a culminating activity, write a poem about what you’ve learned about percussion instruments.

Learn the lyrics of John Nobles’s song “As I Was Walking…” to prompt memories of childhood songs for a survey about childhood songs. Try to interview people of different generations. If possible, record interviewees and be sure to use a release form. You may use a chart to analyze findings, such as number of songs remembered, person they were learned from, age at which they were learned (see “Bullfrog in the Classroom” for a song survey in Resources, below). You may also use recordings for a class presentation or sing-along.

Study a map of East Texas and Southwest Louisiana as a way to launch a regional culture investigation. Consider geographic and economic influences as well as settlement patterns. Topics might include foodways, music, ranching, and farming. Present your findings on an illustrated map for a class presentation that includes music. 

Assessment Strategies

Field notes
Venn diagrams
Percussion solos


buck dance
Jew’s harp
race relations
rub board


Analyze information
Use and create primary sources



Bullfrog in the Classroom

Rhythm Bones Central 


Govenar, Alan. Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.

Wixson, Steve. “John Henry ‘Bones’ Nobles.” Rhythm Bones Player 10, no. 1 (2008): 1, 7.


Burris, J. C. American Folk Blues. Directed by Edward R. Michaels, 49 min., 1989. A black and white video with J. C. singing and playing the harmonica and bones. P.O. Box 460583, San Francisco, CA 94146-0583.