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New England Music Scrapbook
John Alden Burrill, Jr. (1920-1993)
Evidently a Publicity Photo
My Mister Bones contribution to the old Boston Rock and Roll Museum:
"I learned to play the bones when I was young, and we'd all sit on the porch on summer nights," said John Alden Burrill, Jr., to Adele Foy, as published in the July 21, 1981, issue of the Boston Phoenix. "This was during the Depression, in '37 and '38. Nobody had anything. But it was always the guys who could play who got the girls. Well, I couldn't sing at all. And I tried to play the harmonica, but that was just as bad. Finally, a friend let me try his set of bones--it was something that seemed so natural for me."
According to the January 2, 1987, issue of the Boston Globe, Burrill told Elijah Wald that he heard the bones played in small, local minstrel shows in the late 1930s. Burrill said, "I found I could make a little noise with the bones."
Now, we may associate minstrel shows with the nineteenth century--the earliest one that has been documented was performed by the Virginia Minstrels in Boston in 1843; but, in fact, some of the early practitioners of blues and country music got started in these entertainments in the first few decades of the twentieth century. And strange as it may seem, Jack Lennon, an 1890s soloist in Andrew Robertson's Kentucky Minstrels (an American band), was the grandfather of John Lennon of the Beatles.
Bones are literally that--two bones. A pair of bones is among the oldest of musical instruments. Today, wood or plastic pieces are often substituted for the traditional kind. One "bone" is made to click and clack against the other by a rhythmic snapping of the wrist. Spoons are played as a percussion instrument in a similar way.
Adele Foy was near Faneuil Hall one day in the summer of 1981, hearing the sounds of a string band ricocheting off the bricks and stones in that part of the city. But the music was carrying better than usual, and she went over to investigate. She quickly found that it was the bones player who made the difference. Burrill told her, "[T]he bones were a draw, you could see that. You might not be able to hear a guitar even across the street, but you can hear the bones going from a block away."
Foy said that, when playing the bones, Burrill moved his arms like upside-down windshield wipers. She saw a good deal of showmanship in the man. This was a running theme throughout her article. And she observed that he played with intense concentration. John Burrill told her, "I was the best jitterbugger in my high-school class in 1938. Now at last I'm putting my sense of rhythm to good use." From there, our story jumps ahead nearly forty years.
"I was coming home from work through Harvard Square one night in the summer of 1975 and there were two young men playing Dixieland jazz in front of the [Harvard] Coop. One had a four-string banjo and the other a clarinet. It sounded so great! It sounded like a breath of air. Right then I had the idea--I had this old pair of bones at home, and I went and dug them out that night. The next day the kids were there again. I went up to them--they were 21 or 22--holding out the bones, and asked if they'd mind if I played along. It was only their second night out there. They kind of looked at each other and said, 'Why not?' It turned out we sounded great together." They were the Back Beat Boys: Larry Batley of the New England Conservatory, Ira Idelson of the Berklee School of Music, and John Burrill of the College of Musical Knowledge.
"I didn't really know anything about music," Burrill told Foy. "I still don't read it, and often I won't recognize a song unless it's something I've played a lot. But those kids called me a musician. And all those years while they were studying and practicing, I was working 12-hour days and falling asleep on Sunday afternoons while trying to read stories to my daughters."
Batley and Idelson were busy with their studies and couldn't come out every evening. So John Burrill started sitting in, too, with the Brattle Street Players, Bob Comtois, Foxfire, and Elijah Wald. One evening Burrill took his wife to the Nameless Coffee House in Cambridge to hear [legendary street-singer] Steve Baird. From the stage, Baird looked out into the audience and said, "Mr. Bones! You got your bones with you?" So that night, John Burrill took his first bow as a concert musician.
With the Back Beat Boys, Burrill played a society wedding in Cambridge. With some regularity, he accompanied Spider John Koerner, Molly Malone, and Paul Rishell at the Idler's Back Room. He told Elijah Wald that the Idler became like a second home to him. But this story took a strange twist starting in 1978 when he gave two Halloween performances at the Rat--the Rathskeller in Kenmore Square--as a member of the punk band, the Infliktors. "I told them I was in costume as an old man." According to the January 10, 1992, issue of the Boston Globe, Burrill told Steve Morse, "When I first played the Rat, I had earplugs. It was 110 decibels in there. But I enjoyed it. I became known as the first punk-funk bones player in the country." He also played with the Fabulous Billygoons and performed in various rock shows at Space, the Club in Inman Square, and the Paradise. At the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1980, his playing won the praise of folksinger Pete Seeger. And Burrill traveled to England to play with John Koerner at the Cambridge Folk Festival.
Apparently not everyone wanted John Burrill to play along with their music. "Some people don't like the looks of me, or they don't like the bones. I never push. I know when to hightail it out of there." It seems so funny that he should say some people didn't like the looks of him. Most likely, instead, fledgling musicians were worried that they would be upstaged by the charismatic Mr. Bones.
After the Winnipeg Folk Festival, John Burrill made his first record, playing with a talented group of musicians on Spider John Koerner's Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Been (Red House, 1986). They recorded the album in one night because Koerner wanted to do it while Burrill was in Minneapolis.
John Burrill would go about town with two sets of bones that he carried in an over-the shoulder bag. And he would walk up to musicians and ask if he could sit in with them. He told Elijah Wald, "I just ask quietly, nicely, if I can do a few numbers." The list of musicians he accompanied is as diverse as it is impressive. No doubt some of those who once chased him away came to regret the decision. In the summer of 1986, zydeco great Clifton Chenier was flying high. From the stage of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival he introduced a special guest. "We'd like to bring on a friend from Boston, Massachusetts--Mr. Bones!"
Burrill won top honors in the category of Street Performance in April, 1987--the very first year of the Boston Music Awards.
John Burrill told Steve Morse, "Whey you play the bones, you don't need anything else to get you high." Especially when you play with some of the great popular musicians of your day. When Doc Watson would introduce Mr. Bones, he would say, "We'd like to bring this young man up here. What key would you like to play in?" Burrill would answer, "The skeleton key." And he played his bones to get that high he talked about, not to make money. Whether he sat in for a few numbers or played a full show, he was hardly ever paid for his efforts. He said, "I normally do not get any money. I might be an added attraction, but you can't expect to be paid. Or I can't anyway." Call it a hunch, but I'll bet many of his musician friends would have been glad to pay him.
Steve Morse's article came toward the end of John Burrill's life. It described an old man who had arthritis and a fused spine and who walked with a cane. Yet it also spoke of a musician who played with such energy and skill that he almost always lifted the headliner's performance to a higher level.
Morse wrote that Bonnie Raitt was John Burrill's greatest champion. And what a terrific champion to have. But she was not the only one. Research for this article found Mr. Bones performing in connection with Spider John Koerner again and again. According to the Calendar section of the September 3, 1992, issue of the Boston Globe, Koerner told Elijah Wald, "The bones are a rarity, and it is something that has been played throughout folk music, maybe back all the way. So that adds a real timeless element, which I like. Add the fact that he's a great player."
On Tuesday, March 16, 1993, John Burrill died at the age of 72, leaving a sister, two daughters, and a world of friends. In a published appreciation, Steve Morse called him one of the Boston area's most well-liked percussionists and described his talent as wondrous. John Koerner said, "When he played, he was not necessarily a background element. He charmed people."
Internet searches show that John Burrill's memory lives on in cyberspace. And the tune, "So Long Mr. Bones," was released on an excellent compilation, The Songs of Elmer Hawkes (CD, Guayaquil, 1995). John Lincoln Wright gave the first verse; then he joined the chorus as Maria Sangiolo, Jim Henry, Lui Collins, and Dewey Burns took turns singing solo for one verse each. The voices of Collins and Sangiolo were really lovely wherever they appeared on the album; and they made this fine tribute to John Burrill sparkle.
So long, Mister Bones.
I really like identifying my sources of information. Unfortunately, I never quite successfully worked out how to go about doing that with the folks at the old Boston Rock and Roll Museum; so this article isn't my favorite sort of writing and it doesn't read as well as it could. With any luck, later on I'll get a chance to rewrite it. -- Alan Lewis, slightly revised and posted 7/4/2002
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