University of Limerick
2011_Mercier.pdf (3.25 MB)

The Mescher bones playing tradition : syncopations on the American landscape

Download (3.25 MB)
posted on 2023-01-05, 15:35 authored by Mel MercierMel Mercier
This dissertation explores the creation and transmission of the Mescher two-handed bones playing style which was first developed by the German-American farmer, Albert Mescher, in the 1920s, in Iowa, and subsequently passed on to his son, Jerry. Jerry has since passed on the style to his sister, Bernie, and the siblings are now the principal exponents of the style. The style is marked by a pervasive rhythmic syncopation derived from the ragtime music that Albert pumped out of the family player piano when he was a young boy learning to play the bones. The Mescher bones players are amateur musicians and their performance practice is characterised by an almost total reliance on recorded music, rather than live music. The Mescher bones players do not belong to any community of folk musicians, and they rarely play their bones in live music ensemble contexts. The parlour of the family home served as the primary site for the development and aural transmission of the style. A self-taught musician, Albert Mescher invented his bones playing style in the technologised parlour soundscape, where the player piano and the phonograph gave him access to the the post-Victorian sound of ragtime music and facilitated the cultivation of his musicality. A central theme in the dissertation is the critical role played by domestic music playback technology in the creation of the Mescher sonic environment, and more generally in the transformation of the American musicscape in the early twentieth century. While Mescher musicality was forged indoors in the parlour, Mescher spatiality was constructed outdoors on the landscape where Albert passed on his regionally-inflected, hereditary German-American farming practices to his son. Analysis of Mescher spatiality reveals a set of aesthetic imperatives, including an appreciation for order, repetition, and symmetry of design which were inscribed through a dynamic and dialectical engagement between the Mescher farmers and the gridded midwestern landscape. Analysis of the bones arrangements composed by Albert reveals the presence of these same aesthetics of measure in Mescher musicality. On the land, the relationship between father and son was dissonant. In the parlour it was more harmonious. There, entrained to the sonorities and rhythms of American popular music, and a shared musical aesthetic, father and son realised a realignment of their relationship. Albert created a set of rhythm bones arrangements, which he passed on beat-for-beat to Jerry. Each of Albert’s bones arrangments is composed to accompany a particular recording of music and they are performed with these same recordings today by Jerry and Bernie. Father and son also developed a duetting practice that is characterised by the synchronisation of the sonic materials of the bones arrangements and the choreographic alignment of the players bodies. The arrangements and the choreography have prescriptive force in Mescher practice and they constitute the primary musical artifacts of the style. Today, Jerry and Bernie perform the Mescher duets in a ritual act of embodied remembering. The theoretical armature for the research is interdisciplinary, and is constructed at an intersection of ethnomusicology and cultural geography. The development of Mescher spatiality and musicality is framed by the formation of the Amercian midwestern landscape and the micro-geography of the American, technologised domestic soundscape. This panoramic sweep in the research is complemented by an ethnography of Mescher musical and farming practices, and a search therein for a perspective on “the territory of the heart and the mind”.



  • Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences


  • Doctoral

First supervisor

Ó Súilleabháin, Mícheál





Department or School

  • Irish World Academy of Music & Dance

Usage metrics

    University of Limerick Theses


    No categories selected


    Ref. manager