People throw themselves into Dem Bones with such enthusiasm because it feels like pure rebellion. We all carry a schoolteacher voice in our heads. Each time we sing dem, the teacher voice squeals those. But the music takes us by the hand and leads us out of earshot. You can sing dem bones, you can sing them bones, but the music just won’t allow you to sing those bones. The music’s right, the teacher’s wrong. The world turned upside down.
Dem Bones don’t work with the ‘correct’ textbook English grammar. Try saying: those bones, those bones, those dry bones. How does it sound? Repetitive and complaining? Like a criticism of the local butcher, or a talking dog bemoaning the quality of his dinner? The fading zz ending of those slows and catches your tongue as you reshape your mouth to make the b of bones. Those just doesn’t work.
Now try: dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. How does it feel? Each word is a strong, clean beat. Repetition creates a toe-tapping rhythm. Dem has a clear-cut end, not a slow zzz fade-out. The m and the b, following each other so closely, are a pleasure in the mouth.
Dem, as a sound, is better than them. Clearer and punchier. But you can sing them if you’re uncomfortable with dem. Both work. It’s the m at the end of the word that tips it forward into a strong beat. Peter O’Toole switches between dem and them very effectively here:
Before writing this post, I knew Dem Bones as something we sang in Primary school. I remember doing actions to remember the different bones. I didn’t remember Ezekiel featuring in our version. So I was interested to discover the Bible story about Ezekiel going into a valley full of dry bones and getting them to connect back up into bodies to form an army. There’s a wonderful Gustave Doré imagining of it here. And the St. James Bible version of Ezekiel’s adventures here.
Hear the word of the Lord is right there in the Bible. The dry bones are there too. But dem came from the mind of James Weldon Johnson, the songwriter. I don’t know which version of the Bible he knew, but no version has dem in it. It’s his delicious addition to the story. He added the infectiously catchy beat and the anatomical detailing too.
There can’t be many doctors who would point at an x-ray and say Look at dem bones. Most doctors develop a neutral, reassuringly medical English when they speak to patients. The way they speak communicates: I have a special, high level of education. You can trust me to cure you. Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective takes advantage of the comic disjoint as doctors switch from posh English to the simple, perfect rhythm of Dem Bones.
There isn’t a doctor in the world who would substitute Dem Bones for Those Bones in the operating theatre. But there isn’t a singer in the world who would substitute Those Bones for Dem Bones in the song. Sound trumps grammar, every time.
If English isn’t your native language: When you watch the first video – notice how much space Prisoner 48 (the man in the top hat) gives the word bones as he sings it. Watch his mouth. His mouth is a resonating chamber and the word bones expands inside it. Don’t sing bones as a thin, bony word in this song. Bones needs to be a bouncy, full, sonorous word here. You need to relish it.
When you sing Dem Bones, choose dem or them, depending on which is easiest for you to pronounce clearly and 100% correctly. If you struggle, as some do, with the soft English th of them, save your energy and sing dem instead. The original song is Dem Bones. Singing dem is a faithful choice.
If the English th comes easily and absolutely perfectly to you (check here) then choose between dem and them. It’s up to you.
If you’re writing a song in English, be careful about ignoring the rules of English grammar entirely. Dem/them works because it’s an obvious substitute for those. Them comes from Old Norse. Them bones exists, perfectly correctly, in many versions of English. Not textbook English or exam English, but correct English, nevertheless. Native English speakers recognise it as a valid, if naughty, possibility.
So be careful. If the music calls you to use unusual grammar, ask a forthright, very forthright, native English speaker what your words mean to them. Listen carefully to their answer. Don’t ask if they understand the words. They will, if the syntax is right. Find out what meaning your unusual grammar conveys to a native English speaker. Is it the meaning you want?
By the way: Watching the courtroom scene in The Prisoner reminded me of Plan B’s ability to get his Court Security Officers dancing with She Said here. People always seem to end up with a guilty verdict once the dancing stops. I hope there’s no moral to that.
Have you ever seen a courtroom scene where right kind of music has turned the verdict from guilty to go home, you’re innocent?
© Sing Better English, 2015