(Originally published in the San Francisco Examiner.)
Leon Redbone sat easily in a
comfortable chair on a broad, whitewashed porch. Bluebirds flitted about, and bees buzzed
a nearby hedge of honeysuckle, bzzzz bzzzz bzzzz. A fluffy white cat curled in
Redbone's lap, too ensconced to bother about the bluebirds. The late afternoon sun played
shadow games with a towering maple, its leaf patterns dappling Redbone's ice-cream suit,
skimmer, and moustache. He raised a frosty mint julep.
"You know, the thing about music
that interests me the most," he said, in mellifluent baritone drawl, "is
basically the reflective quality. That's essentially what I'm after in music, and
that's what music is to me."
The bucolic American musical anomaly that
is Redbone wasn't really sitting on that whitewashed porch. He was on the phone from a
bustling Seattle hotel, on the road. But he sure sounded like he was on a porch. A classic
American porch that might have hosted Mark Twain, or Washington Irving. With that
unbothered delivery, he always does.
"Well, what I've tried to do over
the years," he continued, "is to present the song, and not necessarily present
myself. Whenever I get into conversations with reporters, I've never delved into talking
about myself as being the vehicle."
It's true. Little hard fact has been
written about this living archive of early 20th century American popular tune and
style---nothing about his background, musical training, personal life---and that's the way
he likes it. As far as Mr. Redbone is concerned, music is the star; he's just the medium.
"I want to perform a country-blues,
for instance, I don't have a problem doing it," he said. "I don't have to
imagine myself a 90-year-old sharecropper. Because it's done for the sake of the song. .
.I simply become the conduit for the song and the music. I could be doing essentially
songs from the court of the Hittite Emperor. Same thing. It's almost a form of
Redbone has been "hosting" lost
tunes for a good quarter-century now---recording, performing, and breathing life into a
genre that otherwise might be regarded as, well, history. (He poetically categorizes his
territory as "forgotten music.") Is this wry, cane-toting, deceptively masterful
guitarist really on a one-man preservation mission for early 20th century American popular
music? Is he gratified that audiences still turn out to enjoy it?
"Wellll. . .I think it would be a
little presumptuous of me to think in those terms. The absence of that kind of
thinking has basically allowed me to do what I do. I don't know why people come to listen
to what I do. I don't really have an answer for that. . .I have selfish reasons for doing
what I do: I happen to like it."
Redbone's music---whether he's singing
Jelly Roll Morton, a piece of Americana as quaint as "Polly Wolly Doodle" or a
tune as recent as Bob Dylan's "Living The Blues"---is a vivacious array of
Dixieland, country-blues, blues, folk, and other musical styles that flourished earlier in
this century. It's not politically correct to note, but it even has some roots in the much
maligned era of the American minstrel show.
"Part of the problem with trying to
discuss something like that," said Redbone, "is that it's like trying to have an
intellectual discussion with someone whose family was just massacred."
Quite so. The minstrel show phenomenon,
which often presented ugly stereotypes of American blacks, was nonetheless a thriving art
form that featured wonderfully talented African-American performers---not merely whites in
blackface. Much---arguably all---jazz music has its beginnings in the ubiquitous minstrel
revues of the 1880s, '90s, and early 1900s; the shows gave forum to many delightful,
non-racist songs that, today, are sadly tainted by their context. Tainted almost into
oblivion. (Redbone refers doubters to "Blacks in Blackface," by the
African-American musical historian Harry T. Sampson, The Scrarecrow Press Inc., 1980.)
"A lot of things that I like come
directly from minstrel shows, but then a lot of things I like have nothing to do with
minstrel shows," he said. "Bing Crosby and people of his generation grew up in
the last few years of the minstrel era, and were heavily influenced by it. The problem
was, depending on what kind of an individual you were, you either took it literally, or
you took it as a great art form. . .Of course, many other people basically had a racist
attitude and just saw the whole thing as poking fun at blacks."
Redbone's version of "I Ain't Got
Nobody," recorded on his CD, "Whistling In The Wind" (the man is a
virtuosic whistler), comes straight from the minstrel era. Other songs he is identified
with---"Champagne Charlie," for example---have different, but equally remarkable
ancestries. "Charlie" came from English music halls by way of one Blind Blake, a
"gentleman from the islands off of Florida" who "may have picked up that
little ditty" after overhearing it sung by a visiting English merchant marine sailor.
The common denominator in the Redbone
musical equation, if there is one, is that songs of various (sometimes arcane) styles are
imbued with authenticity and vitality, often sounding as if they were freshly written. (In
some cases, they were; Redbone, sometimes with wife and producer Beryl Handler, writes an
occasional number.) To him, the forms are all still very much alive, even if the composers
aren't. What tunes has he listened to lately?
"Just one song," he
said flatly. "I listen to it over and over again. It's a wonderful song recorded by
Imre Laszlo, my favorite Hungarian singer. Titled 'Marika.' Very relaxing. That's what I
like about it."
Given that Redbone (and Handler) once
wrote a tune called "Relax" ("forget about your blues/ you're doin'
fine/ leave your cares and worries far behind. . ."), he just might not be
It's been about thirty years since
the man debuted with his "Double Time" LP. Asked what the future holds---more
endless touring, the occasional appearance on Letterman and Leno, more albums (he's
released about a dozen)---Mr. Redbone cleared his throat impressively, drew a hefty sigh
suggesting impatience with such a confining question, and said this:
"Wellllll. . .My long-term project
is to retire under an orange tree. . .Hopefully next to water. . .Possibly a few lemon
trees, and maybe a fountain. Sounds like paradise to me."
Provided, of course, there's a
comfortable chair on a broad, whitewashed porch, a few bluebirds, a frosty mint julep. .
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