Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Dry Bones" - Bascom Lamar Lunsford, "The Minstrel of the Appalachians"




Set Two: Social Music; Disc Two; Track Ten: "Dry Bones" performed by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, "The Minstrel of the Appalachians". "Vocal solo with 5-string banjo." Recorded in Ashland, Kentucky on February 5, 1928. Original issue Brunswick 314 (140).

Bascom Lamar Lunsford was born in Mars Hill, North Carolina on March 21, 1882. His father, a schoolteacher, gave him a fiddle at an early age. Lunsford's mother sang ballads and religious songs. Later, Lunsford's brother bought a banjo which Lunsford quickly learned and began playing at local square-dances, weddings, and school functions. After enrolling at Rutherford College, Lunsford began teaching in his native Madison County. He later attended Trinity College (later to become Duke University), passed the bar, and began practicing as a solicitor. It was when Lunsford worked as a fruit tree salesman, however, that he began learning songs from the customers he met on isolated farms, reawakening his interest in music, and in the old songs in particular. He began collecting songs and later gave lectures and recitals on folk music. He made his first recordings in 1924 on wax cylinders. It was on February 5, 1928, in Ashland, Kentucky, that Lunsford made some of his best-known recordings at a session for Brunswick Records. One of the sides cut at that session was this performance of "Dry Bones." Also recorded at this session was Lunsford's own composition, "Old Mountain Dew," which later became the jingle for the Mountain Dew soft drink. Lunsford sold the song to the Mountain Dew company for train fare home.

Lunsford helped to establish the Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, often credited with being the first "folk festival," which began in 1928, the same year Lunsford recorded "Dry Bones." He became active in politics during the Roosevelt era and performed at the White House in 1939 when the King and Queen of England visited. In 1949, Lunsford recorded several songs for the Library of Congress, many of which are available on the CD Ballads, Banjo Tunes and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina from Smithsonian Folkways. He continued to perform in his old age and appeared regularly at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival until his death on September 4, 1973.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford on "Dry Bones":

The title of this spiritual is "Dry Bones." It was known in our section after the visiting of a great Negro preacher who came to that section, was a powerful pulpit orator and a devoted man, and his name was Romney. And he preached a sermon on the "dry bones of the valley." I first heard this sung by Fletcher Rhymer in the community near Alexander in Buncombe County, North Carolina.


"Dry Bones" is a simple song, structurally. Each verse is made up of a single rhyming couplet, followed by the chorus declaring that the speaker "saw the light of heaven shining all around."


Old Enoch he lived to be three-hundred and sixty-five,
When the Lord came and took him back to heaven alive.

I saw, I saw the light from heaven
A-shinin' all around.
I saw the light come shining,
I saw that light come down.

When Paul prayed in prison, them prison walls fell down.
The prison keeper shouted, "Redeeming Love I've found."

I saw, I saw the light from heaven
Shinin' all around.
I saw the light come shining,
I saw the light come down.

When Moses saw that a-burning bush, he walked it 'round and 'round.
And the Lord said to Moses, "You's treadin' holy ground."

I saw, I saw the light from heaven
Shinin' all around.
I saw the light come shining,
I saw the light come down.

Dry bones in that valley got up and took a little walk.
The deaf could hear and the dumb could talk.

I saw, I saw the light from heaven
Shinin' all around.
I saw the light come shining,
I saw the light come down.

Adam and Eve in the garden under that sycamore tree.
Eve said to Adam, "Satan never tempted me."

I saw, I saw the light from heaven
Shinin' all around.
I saw the light come shining,
I saw the light come down.


Most of the stories related in "Dry Bones" are familiar Bible tales, albeit with a somewhat humorous twist to them. Here is the arresting description of the "dry bones in the valley" from Ezekiel 37:

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...

...So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.
And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.
Ezekiel 37, 1-8, KJV

Contrast this with the song, which states that the "dry bones in that valley got up and took a little walk."

Perhaps it is simply a peculiarity of Lunsford's singing voice (often cited as a model for Bob Dylan, who certainly borrowed from Lunsford lyrically on at least one occasion (See below for the entry on "I Wish I Was a Mole In The Ground")), but it sounds to me as though Lunsford is trying very hard not to laugh on this recording. Although he states that the song was learned from a preacher, the song seems to have something of a satiric edge to it. Certainly, it is a comic understatement to say that the dry bones in Ezekiel simply "took a little walk." In his notes, Smith points out that the banjo was used in religious music "later than its use in dance music" and that the melody of this particular tune was likely secular in origin. Was "Dry Bones" really a religious song, or was it really a comic song performed on secular stages to poke gentle fun at religion?

"Dry Bones" also appears on the first disc of Dust-to-Digital's amazing and highly recommended Goodbye Babylon set.

When performed during the series of concerts that make up The Harry Smith Project, "Dry Bones" was given a rather unusual reworking by avant-garde jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd and the members of the alternative rock band Sonic Youth.

"Dry Bones" is the second of five "song sermons" in a row. It is the only song on the second disc of the "Social Music" volume to feature the banjo.

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The song recorded by Lunsford is completely unrelated musically to the more familiar song titled "Dry Bones." Here's a excellent performance of the more famous song by the Delta Rhythm Boys.



Here's a spirited version of Lunsford's "Dry Bones" performed by Graham Lindsey.



This is an instrumental version of "Dry Bones" titled "Dry Bones in The Valley," originally recorded in this form by John Fahey (who is credited as the "composer" here, even though this is clearly the same melody as the traditional song performed by Lunsford). Here it is performed on the electric guitar by Jim O' Rourke on September 23, 1995.



Download and listen to Bascom Lamar Lunsford, "The Minstrel of the Appalachians" - "Dry Bones"

3 comments:

  1. Hi, couldn't subscribe in itunes - greyed out - USA only?

    Couldn't download either 'error connecting to database'.

    Nevertheless a great blog. Keep it up.

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  2. Thanks for the comment. It is possible that you can only subscribe to the podcast on iTunes in the US. I just tried it and it worked fine. I was also able to download without a problem. Hmmmmmm....

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi again, podcast now downloaded. itunes still greyed out.

    ReplyDelete