I was driving to work yesterday and for no apparent reason began humming dem dry bones. Everyone knows the song, even Generation Z, also known as the Internet Generation, who have lost the power of speech in that they are forever texting, twittering, facebooking or emailing.
It started me thinking: Why did someone write a song describing which bones are connected to which other bones? Why did it become so popular? And why does it have a refrain of “Hear the word of the Lord”? It was truly a strange thing mystifying.
The more I thought about, the more the damn song kept going around in my head, so eventually I looked into the lyrics.
You can hear the song, using the version from that delightful Pommy series The Singing Detective, at:
The lyrics are:
Ezekiel cried, "Dem dry bones!"Ezekiel cried, "Dem dry bones!"Ezekiel cried, "Dem dry bones!""Oh, hear the word of the Lord."
The toe bone connected to the heel bone,The heel bone connected to the foot bone,The foot bone connected to the leg bone,The leg bone connected to the knee bone,The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,The thigh bone connected to the back bone,The back bone connected to the neck bone,The neck bone connected to the head bone,Oh, hear the word of the Lord!
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk aroun'Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'Oh, hear the word of the Lord.
The head bone connected to the neck bone,The neck bone connected to the back bone,The back bone connected to the thigh bone,The thigh bone connected to the knee bone,The knee bone connected to the leg bone,The leg bone connected to the foot bone,The foot bone connected to the heel bone,The heel bone connected to the toe bone,Oh, hear the word of the Lord!
For those who have looked at the lyrics, a couple of items should already be apparent.
The first is that the song sounds like an African-American spiritual, which it is. The lyrics go back to the early 1800’s; the melody was written by African-American James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938).
The second is that there is a religious connection, as indicated by the references to the word of the Lord and Ezekiel.
The lyrics are based on Ezekiel 37:1-14, where the prophet visits the Valley of Dry Bones and causes them to become alive by God's command:
1 The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. 2 Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. 3 And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” So I answered, “O Lord God, You know.” 4 Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. 6 I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” ’ ”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.
9 Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” ’ ” 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army.
11 Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. 13 Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. 14 I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it, ” says the Lord.’
Ezekiel, in the Valley of Dry Bones, witnesses God join the dried, bleached bones together to form skeletons, then cover them with muscle and tissue. At the last, God breathes life into them, as happened in Genesis at the creation of Adam.
Not a bad party trick and something that would make even David Copperfield or Penn and Teller scratch their heads. But the show is more than a spectacle to show Ezekiel that God is not someone to be messed with.
Some 2,600 years ago the Babylonians had invaded Israel, destroyed the Holy Temple and killed every Israelite they could lay their hands on, except for those taken back to Babylon (now Iraq) to be slaves.
Ezekiel, whose name means God Will Strengthen, was one of those taken back to Babylon as a slave.
God’s creation of life in the Valley of Dry Bones was a promise to the Israelites, who felt abandoned by God, that He would take them out of the nations where they had gone, take them out of slavery, and settle them in their own land where they, and their children and their children’s children would live forever. It is a promise of new life, both of a homeland and of the spirit.
It is not hard to see how such a message would have appealed to African-Americans in slavery.
Now I have that song bouncing around in my head even more...