John Henry Nobles
Bones player from Beaumont, TX
Imagesshow all 15 images
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.
FOR THE TEACHER
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.
- Improve listening skills and note taking
- Study African American percussion, including improvisation and syncopation
- Discover the “bones,” buck dancing, zydeco, and other musical traditions
- Investigate the music and culture of East Texas
- Consider vernacular speech as a cultural marker
- Explore children’s songs and music of different eras
African American Musical Traditions
- African musical attributes such as improvisation, call and response, and syncopation have influenced American music since the first importation of slaves.
- British musical traditions also influenced American music.
- The “bones” represent an African antecedent, emphasizing the downbeat.
- John Nobles’s repertoire included African American music styles such as zydeo as well as Anglo American styles such as bluegrass and country and western.
- Vernacular, everyday speech is a marker of diversity in a community.
- Economic class, occupation, religion, foodways, and music are also markers of diversity.
- Regions of a state have unique landscapes and culture and add to the diversity of a state.
- Musical diversity includes the music of children.
- Material culture includes both making and playing instruments such as the bones.
- Children and young people make and use material culture in their games, play, and music.
- Material culture traditions are passed along just as are songs, customs, jokes, beliefs, stories, and other types of folklore.
John Nobles’s story and photos
Everyday Music Field Notes
Traditions Venn Diagram
Everyday Music Interview Worksheet
Audio recorders (optional)
Release Forms (optional)
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.
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:
- Not only drums are percussion instruments. How many kinds of percussion can you name?
- Have you ever heard of playing the bones? Buck dancing? Hambone?
- What hand-clapping games do you know?
- What songs do you remember from childhood? How did you learn them?
- Are you in a band or music group? With whom? What music do you play?
- Do you have jobs at home or in the community? How much are you paid?
- How do you think John Nobles’s music contributed to his resilience?
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.
Use and create primary sources
Bullfrog in the Classroom www.alabamafolklife.org/content/bullfrog-classroom
Rhythm Bones Central http://rhythmbones.com
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.