Reparations Archive

Our Most Recent Spiritual Performance

Dry Bones

by the Chalice Choir

While perhaps not technically a true spiritual, "Dry Bones" has been handed down to us from a place of profound human struggle of both racial equality and refugee crisis. Written in the 1920’s by James Weldon Johnson, purpose of the tune was to reinforce and give motivational inspiration to an Old Testament story of the prophet Ezekiel, in which the Babylonians destroyed the temple in his home town of Jerusalem.  While in a refugee camp, Ezekiel worried about his countrymen losing faith in God and had a vision in which a pile of dusty skeletons would rise up from the ground and “lo, the sinews and flesh appeared upon them, and the skin covered them over”.  Although the biblical passage is sometimes read at funerals and interpreted as a promise of life after death, Ezekiel’s vision was that his subjugated race would survive.  This theme proved a popular text for Black ministers preaching in the US at the end of the 19th century, and is likely how James Weldon Johnson heard it as a child.

Many musical ensembles adapted the text and tune in arrangements throughout the 20th century - perhaps the most popular from Fats Waller – who took the piece in a slightly more macabre direction in an arrangement from 1940.  He removed some of the introductory sermonizing, and added some jokes to make a secular, almost Halloween number out of it.  That is the version that mostly exists today, and is quite similar to the arrangement the Chalice Choir shared at this worship service.  You hear Waller’s Harlem stride technique in the piano part, and the humorous way the piece’s text growls in savoring delight as each bone is “connecta to” the next.