A Julep With Mr. Redboneby Rip Rense
(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 channeling."
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 kidding.
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. .
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.