The Delta Rhythm Boys in 1940 © Redferns

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These days “Dem Bones” is the first anatomy lesson many small children receive. They giggle on the nursery carpet as the simple, jaunty melody explains that the “knee-bone’s connected to the thigh-bone, the thigh-bone’s connected to the hip-bone” and so on. Those children might well go on to experience the song as squeaked by the characters of 1999’s straight-to-video cartoon of Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein. But this old spiritual has been handed down to us from a place of profound human suffering. Its roots lie in an ancient refugee crisis and in the more recent struggle for racial equality.

The melody was written in the 1920s by the great African-American author and songwriter James Weldon Johnson to give motivational oomph to the Old Testament tale of Ezekiel at a time when spirituals were a powerful binding force among black Americans.

The prophet Ezekiel was a young priest when the Babylonians destroyed the temple in his home town of Jerusalem in about 587BC. In a riverside refugee camp, Ezekiel saw his exiled countrymen losing faith in a God who had not proved powerful enough to protect his chosen people. But Ezekiel had a vision in which a pile of dusty skeletons rose from the ground and “lo, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them above”.

Though the 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. As such it became a popular text for black ministers preaching in the US at the end of the 19th century, which is how James Weldon Johnson heard it as a child.

Born in Florida in 1871, Johnson is best known for his groundbreaking 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. He also wrote popular songs, and although he had been an agnostic since his university days, he harnessed the inspirational force of spirituals to further the cause. “Dem Bones”, telling the story of how “Ezekiel connected dem dry bones”, was a perfect anthem for a social movement that was itself just beginning to come together.

‘Dem Bones’ the LP, by punk band Broken Bones

An early version was recorded in 1928 by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a university a cappella ensemble. Their rendition, called “Dry Bones”, a title the song often takes in modern versions, is a mixture of jaunty folk and hellfire baritone — “Now hear the word of the Lord!” — that bears only a glancing resemblance to the modern tune. We have The Delta Rhythm Boys to thank for setting the template for the song as we know it today; this slick quintet (who sang back-up for Ella Fitzgerald) gave the tune an upbeat swing in the first of several recordings, beginning in the 1930s. They were also the first to raise the pitch, and thus the tension, with each new bone added in their final 1947 recording.

Jazz pianist Fats Waller took the tune down a deliciously macabre path in 1940. By removing the sermonising introduction and adding jokes, he made a secular, Halloween number of it. His sleepy Harlem stride technique sees his left hand sneaking up on trumpet, guitar and clarinet like a series of cartoon characters. He growls in delight as he sings, savouring the way each bone is “conneca to” the next, chuckling about a meal of “neck bone with fried rice”.

Gospel queen Albertina Walker socked it with righteous soul in the 1960s and later that decade it returned to its origins as a cry against oppression when a trippy version by the Canadian band The Four Lads was used in the final episode of the surreal British TV show The Prisoner.

Most recently, British punk band Broken Bones covered the song on their album of the same name. British-born rapper M.I.A. later used it on 2010’s “The Message”, updating the sequence to: “Hand-bone connects to the internet/ Connected to the Google/ Connected to the government.” At the time she was widely mocked for “dorm-room paranoia”. But when Edward Snowden leaked details of the US National Security Agency’s huge mobile phone and internet information-gathering programme in 2013, she had the last laugh.

For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song

Photograph: Redferns

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