“Hambone” is a form of body music with roots in African and African-American culture. According to performer John McCutcheon, “it uses the whole body as a drum set—feet, hands, arms, face, and legs—to produce different sounds and combine those sounds for both accompaniment and solo work.”
McCutcheon said he learned the hambone when he was a child from a carnival performer. He said his first exposure included a sing-song based on the song “Mockingbird” with adapted lyrics:
Hambone, hambone, where you been?
‘Round the world and back again.
Hambone, hambone, have you heard?
Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.
If that mocking bird won’t sing…
(and so on)
(You can listen to a Red Saunders recording of this song dating to the 1950s on YouTube.
1. Have students practice the “galloping” technique that McCutcheon demonstrates. Then have students make up rhythms, using the movements McCutcheon shows or making up their own. Discuss—how does it feel? Is it enjoyable?
2. In a circle, play the game “Copycat,” in which one student demonstrates a short rhythmic sequence using his or her body and everyone else copies it as best they can. Watch for especially interesting rhythms and ask students to do them in a repeated pattern or string several rhythms together to create a classroom hambone routine.
3. Discuss improvisation and explore other types of music and dance that use it, such as jazz music and tap dance.
4. Choose a piece of music and have students create hambone rhythms to go along with it.