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Photo by Adrian Morales, Mexico City

Issue 99, Winter 2017

Death Rattle

Searching for the old jawbone


In the African-influenced musics of Latin America one often hears a uniquely electrifying percussion instrument known as la quijada, the jawbone. Actually it goes by multiple names in several different Spanish-speaking countries, but quijada is the closest thing to standard nomenclature. The word, in a musical context, refers to the lower jawbone of an ass or, less commonly, a horse. When the animal dies, the instrument makers cut off the head and boil it, until all of the flesh is gone, then detach the jawbone, leaving the teeth intact. Or in certain places they bury the head first. This is thought to harden the bone somehow. Most often the whole lower bone of the animal’s jaw is used, such that the instrument is shaped like a giant wishbone. Other times the jawbone is (again, wishbone like) snapped in half, so that each side becomes a functional drumstick, and these sticks are then used to bang on another percussion instrument, of whatever kind. But a traditional quijada typically involves the whole jawbone.

There is a technical term for the kind of instrument it is, a wonderful word: idiophone. An idiophone is something that you hit to make a distinctive sound. That’s all there is to it. No strings, no flute-holes, just an object that you strike. A triangle would be the most obvious example. The root “idio” here means singularity or itself-ness or sole, as in, “alone.” Think idiosyncratic—not in sync with others, obeying its own rhythm. Or idiom—an expression that makes sense only in the language to which it belongs. Or idiot—one who can’t participate in the conversation.

When playing this particular idiophone, there are two main ways to bring out its sound. One is to run a piece of iron (or whatever small, hard, stick-shaped thing is handy) down and along the rows of teeth. This produces a hard-edged rasp, a quick, zippy, grating sound, a bit like what you hear when a zydeco player runs sticks down a washboard; the washboard-as-instrument most likely evolved from the quijada. There are in fact several more traditional percussion instruments that produce a not-dissimilar sound. You have probably seen an object that looks like a little section of bamboo with a series of divots carved into it on one side. By rubbing a stick across those divots one can achieve a quijada-like effect, or rather the effect specifically of the iron-on-teeth method of quijada-playing. The other main method is different and stranger and more special. It involves punching or beating the jawbone with the side of your fist. And the sound produced by this second method cannot really be compared with anything. Because the teeth are all still there in the skull. But the gums have dried up and been boiled and scraped away. Now the teeth are hanging there in sockets that are too big for them to fill on their own. And when you bash the side of the jawbone with your closed fist, all of the teeth rattle at once. Inside the bone. It is literally a death rattle. It does something to the rhythm of a song that can’t be accounted for with any musical term, sends it into not a different tempo, necessarily, but a different imaginative sphere. Envision being in a dark club, somewhere with one light bulb, and the band is ripping, everyone’s dancing. Music and lust are in the air, intermingling. Suddenly there’s a guy in the room who is jumping around holding an actual skull, or part of one. He’s assaulting it with his fist. It is putting out a music that simply does not care if you feel like dancing or not. The feeling is of being seized, sent into spasms.

I first encountered the instrument in Peru exactly twenty years ago, when I lived there for six months with my now-wife, Mariana. Peru is the country most frequently and strongly identified with the quijada, with Cuba right behind. I have heard it played, alongside a cajón (a box drum), in both countries. We were in Peru because Mariana was on a Fulbright, and I suppose I was also on a Fulbright, only the people at the Fulbright Foundation had not been made aware of me. She had a beautiful but slightly overwhelming office downtown in Lima’s Plaza de Armas, a huge baroque building with vast eighteenth-century rooms, a big black nineteenth-century desk, even an antechamber where you could have your visitors wait, with a little silver bowl for them to leave their calling cards in. Some of the older academics down there still did that.

Before leaving the States I had been given a copy of David Byrne’s then-recent anthology Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru, a record I have more or less never stopped listening to, if not out of speakers then somewhere in my head. Almost every song on it is excellent. Fully half of them are tremendous. I risk sounding hyperbolic here because I know I am one of thousands of people who feel this way about the record. In making the compilation, Byrne connected with a woman named Susana Baca, a still-active singer of Afro-Peruvian songs. She taught him the landscape and helped him choose the tracks. Her own “Maria Lando” is one of the more exquisite pieces on the record. But the song that truly snapped my head around is one titled “Enciéndete Candela,” a song with an explosive out-of-the-gate rhythm, as if someone has just opened a box full of jumpy devils. But a deep groove is running through the wild ecstatic percussion. The lyrics reveal this to be a song with origins in slavery (the case with many of the Afro-Peruvian classics). “Enciéndete candela,” the singer chants. 

Get a fire going! 
Cook some onions! 
Listen, in my life I’ve known 
The lash of the rope.

A few seconds in, there came this sound. It filled the song and then it filled the room I was listening in. What was that? Like a fiercely shaken box of tacks. Like wind rattling dry leaves on a tree. But not either of those. Comparisons couldn’t capture it.

Many days, when Mariana was in her office translating forgotten nineteenth-century feminist Peruvian short stories (by a woman who was forcibly committed to an insane asylum, essentially for her refusal to stop writing), I passed the hours haunting and hunting through the dozen or so tiny record shops on and near the plaza. I had no one guiding or advising me. As a result I found very little. It was hard to find vinyl downtown—not that I’m a purist, but any discoveries would most likely have taken that form. I ran into a lot of used cassette tapes, inferior recordings by some of the same people I’d heard on the Byrne record. I encountered precisely zero clerks who wanted to talk about Afro- Peruvian music in even a mildly enthusiastic way. Mostly they gave me patronizing smiles. Oh, yeah, that old black stuff. I was probably not the first güero-güero who’d come around asking. Some American rock star had made it famous again. The closest I came to a “find” was locating some of the original records that had provided material for the anthology.

Once, though, near a place called Pisca (not Pisco, the Peruvian brandy—plenty of that, gallons of that, but this was not that), we stayed in the ruin of an old colonial mansion, on what had once been a slave plantation. There was a black community there in the village. They had a kind of community center, a vast building that had once been dedicated to some type of threshing. Every weekend they had a dance, and foreigners were tolerated. I sat against the wall with my arms crossed. The idea of dancing with them—I would sooner have put on a spacesuit and attempted to repair a shuttle. They were doing traditional Black-Peruvian dances, including one called el Alcatraz. The young women, wearing long skirts, had candles tied to their backs. Or not candles but sort of paper tapers. At certain moments in the dance, the tapers were lit, and if the women had stopped moving the flame would have caught their dresses on fire, but they never stopped moving. It was captivating. And intensely erotic. Some of the songs on the Byrne anthology had been about this dance; I understood it now. That night is one of my favorite musical memories, or human ones for that matter. A pair of young men sat pounding the absolute tar out of two cajones. An older man picked the guitar, plucking the strings out and away from the fretboard as if to snap them in half. I can still hear the song, I can hear and see it all, including my wife swaying to it wearing white, a small crocheted dress she had inherited from her Cuban mother. You find yourself in a scene like that sometimes and think, okay, maybe we let humanity go on a little longer. I kept watching for the quijada to appear, and when it did, I remember only that I stood up and started moving my body, which for me happens roughly once a decade, maybe twice if I got married in that decade.


Fast-forward twenty years, to about six months ago. I received an envelope in the mail from an aunt in Lexington, Kentucky. My grandmother had died a couple of years before and left me something, an old book with a note in it. She left little things like that for all of us. My family had missed this one and not passed it along. The book was green and hardcover, a novel from the late nineteenth century. I opened, I read: The Bride of the Mistletoe, by James Lane Allen. I will be amazed if you have heard of him. I don’t think anything he did is widely read. But he was very important in Lexington, Kentucky, where he came from, and people still think of him there. I grew up seeing the spines of his books on shelves. He knew my family, and they knew him, and now I had become a writer of some variety, so my grandmother had wanted me to have this evidence of the family’s literary side. I presume.

The epigraph of the book caught my eye. It’s by Maupassant, from a little-known letter he wrote, a piece of writing advice: “In order to create, one must not be too rational . . . Look with your own eyes, and not the eyes of masters.” James Lane Allen chose not to quote the more unexpected part of the letter— a discovery that Maupassant had made and valued but probably shouldn’t have passed along to an amateur: “But above all, above all, don’t imitate anyone, don’t stay fixed on everything you’ve read; forget it all, and (I’m about to tell you something monstrous that I believe to be absolutely true), if you want to become who you are, don’t admire anyone.

More intriguing than the book were a couple of items folded up inside that I realized were most likely the real reason my grandmother had left it to me. One was a note from James Lane Allen to my great-great-grandmother, transmitting regrets over a social function to which she’d evidently invited him.

Along with the note was a folded-up newspaper article that James Lane Allen had written. I didn’t know he did any journalism, so I unfolded it with curiosity. It was an article from the Century magazine that had been excerpted in a bunch of regional newspapers, including the Virginia Chronicle, whence came this clipping. The original essay had been all about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and full of sentimental and patronizing statements on the realities of slavery, but the excerpted paragraphs, made into an article titled “Negro Fiddler of Kentucky,” had to do with unnamed black musicians the writer remembered from thirty years earlier. “There were sometimes other instruments—” he writes, “the flageolet and the triangle. I have heard of a kettledrum’s being used as a copper still. (A Kentucky negro carried through the war as an osseous tambourine the skull of a mule, rattling teeth being secured in the jawbones.)”

A black man playing a quijada in Kentucky in the 1860s? It went against pretty much everything I had ever read about the instrument. Historians seemed emphatic that it was a Latin American phenomenon (with Peru and Cuba, as mentioned, most of the time receiving credit as its “homeland”—but there is also an Afro-Mexican quijada tradition, and Colombia has an African-influenced style called cumbia that emphasizes quijada). The idea that my own great-grandparents had witnessed someone playing a skull was both a mind-freak and delightful.

Even more surprising was the stuff I saw rise to the surface when, motivated by James Lane Allen’s sentence, I went looking for the quijada in old American books and newspapers. Turns out it’s everywhere. It was almost hidden by its ubiquity, in fact, in the sense that, because it had long ago turned into an expression in American speech, or a couple of them—“jawboning” meant to talk a lot, and “walking the jawbone” signified an old way of dancing, and there was a song called “The Old Jawbone,” as well as a kind of singing contest called “talking jawbone,” meaning that one often sees references to a performer “doing the jawbone” and can’t be sure what’s meant—folks seem to have forgotten that this metaphorical jawboning had possessed a literal source, i.e., that we said these things (or in the case of “jawboning” still occasionally do), because we had once been familiar with actual jawbones, quijadas, and some among us had enjoyed listening to people pound on them. Another surprising thing was how clearly Kentucky, not South Carolina or Mississippi or another state more closely associated with this country’s deepest black musical roots, emerged as the place most often cited alongside the instrument’s early appearances.

Much of the evidence is preserved in song lyrics. Two black men in Louisville in 1866, Henry Wyatt and Jesse Callahan, started singing in the courtroom during their trial for an unnamed crime: 

Touch light de banjo-string, 
     An’ rattle de old jaw-bone, 
Oh, merrily sound de tambourine, 
     An make de fiddle groan . . .

At a corn shucking somewhere in Kentucky, a writer named Winthrop Burroughs heard a man, the “Captain” of the shucking, sing: 

I wen’ down her Sallie’s house, 
En Sallie warn’t et home, 
I tuck my seat on de ole arm-cheer, 
En I play’d on the old jaw-bone.

 One 1895 article (a particularly well-informed one) made especially clear these connections, both between Kentucky and the quijada tradition, and between the instrument itself and the origins of American popular music. The editor of the Buffalo Commercial wrote: 

The “Virginia Minstrels” was the first organized band of performers that appeared in public. This composed the following individuals, who afterwards enjoyed considerable notoriety in their vocation, Dan Emmet, Whitlock, Pelham, Frank Bower, E.P. Christy and George N. Christy. The company afterwards changed their appellation to “Christy’s Minstrels.” The first performance was in Water street, Buffalo, in 1842. Being very successful in the new experiment, they traveled through the West and South, when George Christy acquired that intimate knowledge of negro character, which afterwards made his performance so acceptable. It was in Lexington, Kentucky, that he first saw the jaw-bone and bellows accompaniment introduced by a juvenile specimen of the African race, and he was the first who introduced these doubtfully melodious instruments into the concerts.

It is interesting that, although every one of the other members of Christy’s Minstrels were at this time white men in blackface, the group recruited a young black man to play “jawbone and bellows.” He is mentioned in a few other documents and is probably the man later identified as John Perkins, a jig-dancer by trade. As for the bellows, that apparently meant, well, the bellows.

A piece from 1896 notes the addition of small bells. Discussing “the instrument known in old-time minstrelsy as a ‘jaw-bone,’” the writer explains that, “This was the jaw-bone of a mule or a horse—small bells were affixed to it and with a file or bit of iron the performer scraped on the loose teeth in the ‘jaw.’”

The detail puts me in mind of the tiny bells with which the Spaniards covered their horses, during the Conquest, such that they jingled as they moved. The sound, in addition to their size, made the horses even more frightening to the indigenous people, who were being hunted with lances from atop those beasts. Imagine one coming for you, and you had never seen a horse before.

In all that I read, I found only one or two attempts, by writers on music, to account for the history of the American jawbone with anything approaching even a Wikipedia-style thoroughness and concision. In all of those hundreds of years, hardly a word! The first article comes from the St. Louis Dispatch in 1899. It’s a profile of an older-time minstrel singer:

“Minstrelsy is a lost art,” declared George Thatcher, the veteran end man, now at the Suburban Garden, when asked to hark back to the day when he was young in the business and tell of the changes the years had wrought.

“The generation now risen doesn’t know what real minstrelsy is. I dare say not one person in a hundred that comes to this garden ever saw the jawbone played. Don’t know what it is? I thought so. Yet 50 years ago no minstrel performance was complete without one.

“The jawbone was used as a sort of tom-tom. The old-time negroes brought the instrument from Africa, and while they retained even a semblance of their aboriginal in mode of living, played it on all festal occasions. Naturally it found its way on the stage, for minstrelsy was originally a series of imitations of the Southern darkey.”

A mere thirty-four years later, the jawbone was so completely forgotten that, in an issue of the Foster Hall Bulletin, a magazine devoted to the legacy of Stephen Foster, composer of “My Old Kentucky Home,” who had used the term in another of his songs, a reader signing him- or herself L. N. B. Hand had to write in from Illinois and explain to the editors what Foster had meant by his “repeated employment of the phrase ‘and beat on the old jawbone’”:

As late as 1870 I saw a jawbone in an orchestra in Cincinnati. The jawbone, very old, very dry, with the loose teeth all in place. The player usually sat next to the Bones or end man. He held his instrument in his left hand and struck it sidewise with the heel of his right hand in time to the music. Both my father and myself have played jawbone in amateur minstrels after the Civil War, at which time few Negro musical organizations did not use jawbones.

In 1933, the Cincinnati Enquirer printed Hand’s letter and provided the following commentary:

So, it is disclosed, Stephen Foster knew what he was talking about when he sang “and beat on the old jawbone.” Just as Browning knew what he was about when he made lyrical reference to “Setebos,” though no one else could figure out the puzzle for quite a long time. . . . But how many Cincinnatians, musicians, instrument makers or mere lovers of the crash and bang of the old-time minstrel melody, can tell us anything about this jawbone, said to have been as effective in its way as was the puissant weapon so vigorously wielded by Samson, the Mighty Man of Israel?

After that, almost nothing. And then, not long before America entered World War II, a kind of “last sighting.” In May of 1941, the Portsmouth Daily Times in Portsmouth, Ohio, reported on an upcoming folk festival: “Rosie Day will sing a ‘warning song’ of the time of Queen Elizabeth,” wrote the reporter, adding that, “Also on the program will be Fox Fraley . . . a typical Kentucky mountain troubadour . . . called the ‘music makin’est feller on the creek’ . . . will play on the dulcimer, harp, fiddle, banjo, guitar and even on the jawbone of an ass.” Fraley was white.

Visually, there is almost nothing. I couldn’t find a single photograph of a person playing quijada in America, not that was taken before about ten years ago (revivals happen now and then). The cover of an old piece of sheet music shows a black musician in his living room, in front of the fire, gazing up at a jawbone that hangs above the fireplace. He’s looking at it with an expression of . . . what? He’s singing to it.

I realized something sort of amazing when all of this reading was finished, or the combination of the reading and the remembering. The quijada, the jawbone, is one of the great New World instruments. Its area of influence extends all the way from the deep south—the real deep south, as in Peru—and all the way north to places like Kentucky. Anywhere you had African slaves encountering European settlement, you found the jawbone. I suppose it was the one instrument that could never be taken away. There were always horses, donkeys, and mules, and they always died. There were always boxes. Quijada and cajón. Some of the most extraordinary music made in the Americas was created using these instruments, built on them even. Slaveholders could forbid them the guitar, the banjo, the fiddle, everything. They might even embargo wire and string. But it’s not as easy to take away denuded animal bones. And while those were ready to hand, so was rhythm. That’s how hard it is to kill music.

That’s how hard it is to kill art.

In other words, forget it.


I had a weird experience writing this. I was sitting at a kitchen counter at the house of my friend Paul, up in New York near the Vermont border. Another friend of his, a guy I didn’t know very well, named Vic Rawlings (wicked guitarist and music teacher in Massachusetts), came by to visit. He asked what I was doing, and I told him I was in the middle of a sentence about an old fiddle player in Eastern Kentucky who could play on the jawbone of an ass. Vic got a surprised look on his face. “I just finished co-directing a documentary about an old banjo player and fiddler living in Eastern Kentucky,” he said. Well, was his name Fox Fraley? “No, Lee Sexton. He’s the last living musician who was actually on the Mountain Music from Kentucky record” (legendary Folkways album from 1960, long considered among “the greatest records in the entire literature of American folk song”). Rawlings said he had a disc with the movie on it, if I wanted to watch. Oh, I guess so! The movie, called Linefork, is exquisite. It’s a kind of “slow cinema” project. No talking heads, no real “dialogue,” just a sequence of long, still shots, mostly of Lee Sexton and his wife, Opal, but each shot so absorbing, I watched the whole thing with a kind of suspense. Rawlings and his co-director, Jeff Silva, captured some Kentucky English (“H’ain’t picked my okry . . .”). A linguist contacted the filmmakers and wanted their unused footage for research purposes.

The movie put me in mind of Être et avoir (great French doc about a village schoolteacher), of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (which co-director Silva helped to found), and of Appalshop, the “place-based media” collective in Whitesburg, Kentucky, that has been one of the coolest things about the Commonwealth for almost fifty years. I asked Rawlings if he’d ever seen Sexton play a jawbone, or heard him talk about that. “No, but do you want to call him?” Oh, I guess so! Vic put his phone down and on speaker and within about twenty seconds we were hearing Lee Sexton’s voice, an accent I hadn’t heard since early childhood, in places like the beautifully named Brightshade, in Clay County, where my half brother’s people come from. It was thick enough to be unintelligible at moments, but never not musical, with those Celtic rising tones. Everything went UP and then suddenly dooown. Rawlings asked questions while I took notes. Did Sexton remember a fiddler named Fox Fraley? No, he said, but he had known one named J. P. Fraley, dead now, possibly related. That man had played “waltzes, fiddle waltzes,” Sexton said. “He could really get it.” But had Sexton ever heard or played the jawbone, or about anyone’s playing one? “I heard it a lot played,” he said, and I got excited. But it turned out Sexton was talking about the old tune, “De Ole Jawbone,” which is about playing the jawbone, though we have forgotten it. Sexton didn’t particularly like that song. “I never did care nothing about it,” he said. “I don’t never fool with it.” But what about the actual bone, the jawbone of an ass? Any memories? None, sadly. “I never did hear of that, now,” he said. It seemed the tradition was really gone in Kentucky. But who can say? Things hide there. 

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John Jeremiah Sullivan

John Jeremiah Sullivan has lived in Wilmington, North Carolina, for almost twenty years. He has been writing for the Oxford American for even longer than that—twenty-five years, to be exact—his first piece, an interview with the late songwriter Vic Chesnutt, having appeared in this magazine’s pages in 1997. He is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a co-founder of the nonprofit research collective Third Person Project. His new OA column, “Fugitive Pieces,” gives space to ephemeral items that have turned up in his research.