Vessel of Antiquity

By  |  March 19, 2019
At Po’Monkey’s, Merigold, MS” (2009), by Magdalena Solé | solepictures.com At Po’Monkey’s, Merigold, MS” (2009), by Magdalena Solé | solepictures.com

Influence, invention, and the legacy of Leon Redbone


 

Leon Redbone’s first guitar, or at least the first one anyone seems to remember seeing after he emerged on the Toronto folk scene in the late 1960s, was a Harmony Sovereign, transformed according to his vision. He painted the headstock to cover up the brand name and drew a meticulous pattern around the edges of the soundboard that, from the audience, resembled inlay. He used it to play old tunes from the 1920s and ’30s—country blues, ragtime—his voice shifting from molasses crooning to gravelly yowls. Dressed in the natty suits and ties of a Mississippi riverboat gambler, a Kentucky colonel, a dignified bluesman, or a Jimmie Rodgers–styled railroad brakeman with the right cap for the job, Redbone invited audiences into a tent show of American musical history where folks like Rodgers, Blind Blake, Emmett Miller, and Jelly Roll Morton could still draw crowds. His face was partially obscured by a hat and dark glasses. Sometimes he’d set a piece of fruit on the stool beside him: comically mute accompaniment. Redbone bought other guitars as his career took off, but his artistic ethos remained constant: Cover up some origins and conjure others. Craft an illusion and make it real. Bring the past into the present. Look at things slant. Do something beautiful, be careful about it, and keep your sunglasses on. 

“The only thing that interests me,” said Redbone in a 1991 interview, “is history, reviewing the past and making something out of it.” He came of age in an era when plenty of musicians were looking backward. But where the folkies dusted off old songs like sacred artifacts, Redbone settled into the past like it was a familiar rocking chair, leisurely tuning his guitar with a sly growl of “Rise, Lazarus” or using it as a paddle to traverse an imaginary lazy river. Onstage, he took photographs of his audience, so that they—not he—became objects of attention. He blew bubbles, built a small table outfitted with an exploding device that he’d set off during “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” and engaged band members in banter lifted directly from the vaudeville era. Other jokes unfolded more quietly, with deadpan delivery—“This song has been around for over a hundred years,” the clarinetist Dan Levinson remembers him saying, “so you’ve had plenty of time to learn it. If you know the words, please hum along”—or small, masterful movements: a cock of the head, an exaggerated waggle of a hat brim. For years, Redbone would play a recording of the Hungarian opera singer Sári Barabás as his hands danced along, making shadows against a white cardboard screen. 

Musically speaking, Redbone wasn’t as experimental as Tom Waits or Frank Zappa, but on the strength and strangeness of his persona, he was often compared to them. “He manifests himself as some kind of link between Robert Johnson and Richard Brautigan,” wrote Tom Nolan. Record stores tended to file his albums in the rock section, even though, as Levinson, who played with Redbone for years, points out, that was “the one style of music he didn’t play.” Redbone believed American music had begun a steep decline when big bands started churning out what he described to one interviewer as “blatant sound for people to dance to.” He preferred sentiment, melody, subtlety, and romance—qualities of an earlier era that he brought forward with enough oddball visionary sensibility to get people to pay attention. At the same time, a sense of melancholy suffused his work: his version of “Shine on Harvest Moon” has an ambling sweetness, but he starts it off with an eerie, wobbly moan. 

Redbone, who retired with health problems in 2015, was both a musical artist and a performance artist. His very identity was part of his creative output. Over his four-decade career, he released twelve studio albums and five live ones, acted and sang for film, TV, and commercials, and played thousands of shows across North America and Europe, introducing audiences to old melodies they might never have heard otherwise. Onstage, remembers cornetist Peter Ecklund, who accompanied Redbone in the 1970s and ’80s, he’d “create this alternate environment, this alternate universe, and you’d sort of live there for the duration of the show.” His refusal to reveal anything about himself other than what you might see onstage or hear on a record amplified that feeling. He invented himself from a Southern past he never experienced first-hand, and for years, no one seemed to know where he’d come from. 

“Some people seem to believe that as soon as you perform on stage you lose your rights as a private citizen,” he complained. “They want to find out who I am, what I am, where I was born, how old I am—all this complete nonsense that belongs in a passport office.” It became de rigeur for journalists to try anyway, usually arriving at the contradiction that, as a 1991 Baltimore Sun headline put it, REDBONE DIGS INTO PAST FOR MUSIC, BUT WON’T LET YOU DIG INTO HIS PAST. What was his background? “That’s a memoir question. I don’t answer memoir questions.” Was it true, as the Toronto Star reported in 1986, that he was born Dickran Gobalian, in Cyprus, and came to Ontario in the 1960s? “I’ve read that,” he told another interviewer. “I don’t believe everything I read.” The mystique made for good publicity, but it wasn’t just a ploy. He was a celebrity protesting celebrity, with its mandates of self-disclosure and sensation. And he was getting out of the way so the music could come forward. “I’ve never considered myself the proper focus of attention,” he explained. “I’m just a vehicle.” 

Due to his health, Leon Redbone can no longer be interviewed. In a way, he’s become a version of the old-time musicians he so admired, about whom little is known: You can only reach them through recordings, archival materials, and the accounts of other people. Longtime friends and band members tell me they knew never to ask about his past. Others say they were sworn to secrecy, and intend to keep the secrets. His own family members say they know little about his early life. 

But Redbone himself doggedly chased the trails of his heroes. During down time on tours, he would head to county clerks’ offices and local libraries, hunting down information about the singer Emmett Miller. Miller, a white man who performed in blackface, emerged from the tangle of love and theft at the root of American popular culture—a history that fascinated Redbone, who took a term for a mixed-race person as his last name and performed songs written almost exclusively by other people. Miller played jaunty, ragged tunes and had what a 1927 reviewer called a “trick voice” that leapt from plaintive wails to high yodels. He recorded with some of the greatest jazz musicians of the 1920s—Gene Krupa, Eddie Lang, Tommy Dorsey—and, for Redbone, recalls the pianist Tom Roberts, Miller was one of the “Rosetta Stones for American music”: Study him enough, and all might be revealed. On the 1985 album Red to Blue, Redbone and Hank Williams Jr. did a comedy bit from an Emmett Miller recording before singing “Lovesick Blues,” a winking acknowledgment of the fact that Miller’s version of the song preceded Hank Senior’s. Redbone used Miller’s name as an alias when staying at hotels, receiving mail, or dodging phone calls: call up his old clamshell, and a voice would tell you to leave a message for Emmett. He considered writing Miller’s biography, and while that never happened, he amassed an archive of Miller material at his home in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He had another for Lee Morse, a slight, deep-voiced vaudeville songbird from rural Oregon who was reputed, at various points, to have come from Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Texas—supposed origins that worked in part to “authenticate” her blues singing. 

In different ways, Morse and Miller both performed as people they weren’t, which may be part of what resonated with Redbone. But it was their artistry that earned his devotion. “His knowledge of these people was vast,” remembers dobro player Cindy Cashdollar, who sometimes accompanied Redbone in his research on tour, “but it was not only academic. It was personal.” For a while, at every show, he’d announce that if any family members of the 1920s clarinetist and contortionist Wilton Crawley were in the audience, they should see him “immediately.” No one did. But Redbone loved these artists’ work so much that their tunes alone weren’t enough. He wanted to know where they came from, and how they became who they were. It’s an understandable impulse. 

OA104 Omni Pugh Usherson FOR WEBLeon Redbone and Bob Dylan at the Mariposa Folk Festival, 1972. Copyright Arthur Usherson

 

Redbone showed up in Toronto in the late 1960s—from where, no one seemed certain. He was from Shreveport, Louisiana, people said, or from New Orleans, or maybe from Cleveland, dodging the draft. One musician detected a British lilt to his phrasing, but by the late 1970s, an interviewer heard “a New England accent” in Redbone’s “low, nasal speaking voice.” Redbone later claimed to have been born in Bombay, the love child of Jenny Lind and Niccolo Paganini; in Manhattan, the day of the 1929 stock market crash; and in Memphis, Tennessee. When an interviewer asked where in Memphis he’d gone to school, he changed the subject. 

In Toronto, he was a regular at Fiddler’s Green, a folk club that rented space a couple nights a week in a run-down house owned by the YMCA, and his gigs there landed him a spot at Mariposa Folk Festival. But his earliest appearances may have been at the Pornographic Onion, a coffeehouse at Ryerson University that hosted hootenannies sponsored by the Toronto Folklore Center in the 1960s. Shelley Posen, who used to emcee those shows, remembers that whenever someone gave Redbone a lift home, he’d ask to be let out at an intersection in Forest Hill where there was a large apartment building. No one knew if he lived there. After exiting the car, he stood on the sidewalk “and waited there, waving goodbye, until the car disappeared from view. If the car didn’t move, he didn’t move.” Once, says promoter Richard Flohil, someone did see Redbone enter an apartment building, only to walk back out a few moments later, climb into a cab, and head off. Another time, recalls musician Michael Cooney, someone dropped Redbone at a hotel, and “he went in the front door and came out the side door and went into the subway.” 

In those days, the only way to reach Redbone was by phoning the pool hall by the subway stop at the corner of Bloor and Yonge Street and asking for Mr. Grunt, though the guys there also knew him as Sonny. Redbone was something of a shark, stalking the billiard table and sinking balls with graceful ferocity. A 1973 profile describes the way that, “Right foot back, pool cue resting emphatically on thumb and knuckle, he double-banks a red into the side pocket and prepares to make an eighty degree cut black.” Then he proclaims, “‘I don’t have a past. The past begins tomorrow.’” Another bank shot. 

The bio he submitted for the 1972 Mariposa Folk Festival program reads as follows: “I was born in Shreveport, La., in 1910, and my real name is James Hokum. I wear dark glasses to remind me of the time I spent leading Blind Blake throughout the south, and I now live in Canada as a result of the incident in Philadelphia.” The editors noted that, when asked for a photograph, Redbone had sent them a picture of Bob Dylan, but they didn’t print it. The joke proved prescient: Dylan showed up at the festival unannounced, searching for Leon Redbone. John Prine describes the scene with delight in the new documentary short Please Don’t Talk about Me When I’m Gone, produced by Riddle Films: there was Redbone, followed by Dylan and his wife, followed by hordes of adoring fans. The festival took place on an island, accessible by ferry, but at the end of the day, Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, and Redbone sailed away on a private boat. 

A few months later, Atlantic reportedly made overtures to sign Redbone, and Jerry Wexler hoped Dylan might help produce him. When that fell through, Dylan invited Redbone to meet him at a hotel in New York City. No one seems quite sure what they talked about. But in a 1974 Rolling Stone article, Dylan is quoted as saying that, if he had his own record label, he’d sign Redbone: “‘Leon interests me,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60, I’ve been this close’”—Dylan held his hands out, a foot and a half apart—“‘and I can’t tell. But you gotta see him.’” 

Warner Bros. signed Redbone and released his first album, On the Track, the following year. When he played “Shine on Harvest Moon” and “Walking Stick” on Saturday Night Live a few months later, sales jumped from fifteen thousand to one hundred ninety thousand. SNL had him back several times, and his career seemed made. Redbone had been reluctant about performing on television, but his wife and manager, Beryl Handler, knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Her role in his career, their friends say, is hard to overstate. They met when she was a student at the University of Buffalo, helping run the 1972 Buffalo Festival, and while he is a cautious introvert, she has had the pragmatism and drive to bring his talents to the public. They have two daughters, though he has avoided speaking about them: when a radio interviewer mentioned having seen Redbone with his family in New York, he countered that they might’ve been “a rental for the day.”

Handler secured Redbone’s television gigs, negotiated contracts for his commercial work (including ads for Budweiser and British Rail), and licensed his songs, which have been used in several films as well as two ballets choreographed by Eliot Feld. (In one, Mr. XYZ, Baryshnikov plays a sort of weary vaudevillian, complete with hat and cane.) Handler also coproduced most of Redbone’s records. Today, she and their daughter Ashley, who manages a recording studio in New Haven, are working to digitize troves of old tape, some of which will almost certainly be released in the years to come. “I’m in it for the banter,” says Ashley Redbone. She’s looking for the crackle and closeness of liveness, the sense of Redbone as a person—wry, playful, trying things out and seeing what worked. 

In the era of music Redbone loved most, bands would record all together in a room. But in the studio, he and his producers usually had musicians lay down separate tracks, which they’d piece together later to achieve the desired effect. Handler compares the process to collage—they weren’t reenacting the past, but using present-day tools to evoke it. Redbone described himself, with deflecting modesty, as a tinkerer, but some of his friends prefer “inventor.” Dave Siglin, who with his wife Linda ran the Ann Arbor folk venue the Ark, encouraged Redbone to take out a patent after he attached wheels to a suitcase filled with gear to make it easier to carry. No one else could possibly want it, Redbone insisted, though someone else did patent the rolling suitcase, and doubtless made a fortune. Siglin also remembers Redbone stalking a street-cleaning machine, waiting for a metal tine to fall from its brush so that—under cover of a handkerchief—he could thread it through the strings of his guitar and make sounds like a steel drum. At his family’s home, Redbone built a deck and an outdoor oven, made a mosaic on the bathroom floor, gardened, welded, wired, and fixed plumbing. He had a darkroom in the basement where he’d develop the photographs he took. He drew charming sketches, some of which adorned his albums, or the cassette tapes he’d make for friends. He liked to pick things up and figure out how they worked. It’s how he learned to play not just guitar, but also piano, harmonica, banjo, mandolin, and zither.

Leon Redbone was both self-made and self-taught. In the late 1970s, he told Guitar Player that he was not one of those “people who can actually play things note for note”—instead, he went by his ear, doing what best suited him and his voice. This irked some purists: Dave Van Ronk grumbled that even with the legendary Joe Venuti in the studio, Redbone had recorded the wrong chords to “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Yet, points out the pianist Terry Waldo, musicians across the folk tradition have always taken what they heard and made it their own—Redbone “was authentic in that sense.” 

He went by feel onstage as well, eschewing set lists and never rehearsing with the band. But his musicians knew his repertoire, and when he’d start playing a song, they were ready to join in. Occasionally they made plans in advance. Typically, when audiences requested “Seduced,” a song whose pop success Redbone seemed almost to resent, he’d reply, “Oh, behave yourselves,” and go right on playing the songs he preferred. Once, at a show in New Jersey, he told the band that when the inevitable request came, pianist Stanley Schwartz should pretend to count in “Seduced,” and then they’d all play different tunes at once—different keys, different tempos. The request came. “Stanley, count us in,” Dan Levinson remembers Redbone saying. The discord went on “for about ten to fifteen seconds and then he said, ‘Wait a minute, hold it, hold it. Let’s try that again.’ We did the whole thing again. ‘You know what, maybe we should play another song.’” No one requested “Seduced” for the rest of the night.

Life on the road was grueling, particularly for someone who hungered for solitude. After surviving a 1979 plane crash, Redbone did as much traveling as he could by van. He tended to drive, commanding the stereo, spritzing antiseptic when anyone sneezed, and levying mock fines for various offenses. (Talk about a woman in demeaning terms? Fifty dollars! Use profanity? Fifty dollars! Discuss team sports? Fifty dollars! Baseball? One hundred dollars!) He found ways to make touring bearable—listening to music; junking with Vince Giordano for old records, canes, and potential props; and seeking out what good restaurants he could find. He’d go miles out of the way to stop at a Cracker Barrel, and tried his best one Thanksgiving to get a truck stop waitress to bring his band “warm, crusty bread”—to no avail. His hospitality riders always included Jägermeister, and, for a time, cheese, peppers, and cans of cashews that he never opened. When Ralph Norton joined the band and helped himself to a can of cashews, Redbone mock-fined him one thousand dollars. “Why don’t you let us eat?” Tom Roberts asked once, as they drove around trying to find a place that was up to Redbone’s standards. “You play better when you’re miserable,” he replied. Roberts tells the story with the same amused affection that Linda Siglin has when explaining why touring was hard on Redbone: “Everybody drove him crazy.” But if you met him where he was, it was wonderful.

In the mid-1990s, says Roberts, Redbone had a car accident in Minnesota, while listening to the Irish tenor John McCormack. “When the aliens were done with the deer,” Roberts remembers Redbone saying, “they dropped it right in front of my car.” McCormack’s version of Stephen Foster’s “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” was a favorite song—Redbone had a ninety-minute tape of the recording on loop. On first listen, says Roberts, “you feel a little embarrassed. And then, the second time you hear it, you realize why you’re embarrassed. And the reason why you’re embarrassed is, it is so pure, it is so emotionally in touch, and it touches part of your being that is very innocent and very pure. It reminds you of who you were when you were a child.” 

 

On an old poster, “A Genealogy of Leon Redbone,” Redbone’s photo sits at the base of a tree, blooming with the headshots of thirty-five figures from across time and genres, including Paganini, Emmett Miller, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, Edgar Allan Poe, W. C. Fields, Jimmie Rodgers, and Django Reinhardt. It’s a fantastic, imagined community—artistic forebears whose legacies Redbone both inherits and tends. Given the extraordinary care Redbone has taken to conceal his real family tree—he has never publicly confirmed his birthdate, birthplace, or given name—it almost seems in bad faith to search for it. But even as I’ve dug up new information and turned it over with Redbone’s friends and family, plenty of mysteries remain. Redbone doesn’t cease being Leon Redbone, but his existence seems all the more remarkable. 

The Gobalian family is Armenian, products of a diaspora that’s faced centuries of oppression. Redbone’s grandparents were killed in the Turkish-led genocide of over one million Armenians during World War I. His father grew up in an orphanage. His parents were living in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem in 1948 when the newly established Israeli government seized their property. They could only have gotten it back, says Handler, by becoming Israeli citizens; instead, they fled empty-handed for Cyprus, then under British rule. Dickran Gobalian was born in the capital city of Nicosia in 1949. By the mid-1950s, the country was wracked by political violence. Greek Cypriots began the fight for independence, and Turkish Cypriots eventually joined in. But Greek and Turkish Cypriots also fought one another, and the establishment of an independent Cyprus—which came in 1960—didn’t bring peace. (The Turks would invade in 1974, and still occupy the northern third of Cyprus.) The Gobalians fled again. A 1961 electoral register places the Gobalians in Eastern London, but by 1965, they’d resettled in Toronto. Dickran would’ve been about sixteen years old. 

In a Reverend Gary Davis song that Redbone used to cover, the singer is a “long way from home,” a phrase which provides the title for a recent collection of live recordings from 1973. What did home mean, for a young man who came of age in different languages, different lands, his mother tongue attached to a place his family couldn’t even inhabit? Did Redbone have biographical reason to be drawn to the old tunes where the downtrodden lament their lot, where railroad men sleep out every night, where roustabouts wander, where outcasts have nobody, and nobody cares for them? Was he trading one imperiled history for another? When Redbone told an interviewer that he was “one of the homeless,” did he—on some profound, ancestral level—mean it? 

“I’ve wondered all of these same things,” his daughter Ashley told me. Trauma, she points out, gets passed down through generations. Maybe the old tunes, and the persona, provided a refuge: He invented an identity he could safely inhabit, climbed in, and lived there. But, she made clear, “he definitely became the character that he created,” and over a dozen people close to him have told me more or less the same thing. Leon Redbone isn’t an act—he is a person. A shy, sensitive, quick-witted person who used to cook feasts for visiting friends; greeted guests with a tea cozy on his head; ducked out of sight to reemerge in a sombrero when his publicist tried to talk business; speaks and reads numerous languages including Aramaic; never eats fowl; and taught his children not to kill bugs, but to put them carefully in a jar and take them outside, for they deserved space, nature, and life. Maybe Redbone wasn’t so much running from the past as toward the person he knew himself to be, assembled from what he loved and wanted to preserve. All of us are created by history. Leon Redbone just made more-deliberate choices than most of us about what that creation looked like. 

When I asked Handler about the long shadow of the Armenian genocide and the diaspora, she recommended I watch the Henri Verneuil film Mayrig. It tells the story of a family of refugees who settle in France. Four adults funnel their love and their will to survive into raising the young Azad Zakarian, who, near the end of the film—having passed his engineering exams and been picked up by a woman at a bar—introduces himself as Pierre. In the closing scene, he comes home and waltzes with his mother. He is faithful and devoted, but he’s also begun to break from his past, or at least to conceal it from the outside world. When Redbone and Handler saw the film, she recalled, he was so moved afterward that he couldn’t speak. 

What does this have to do with his music? No one but Redbone can say, and it seems unlikely that he ever will. In that silence, the facts prompt more questions than they answer. Could “Leon” be a nod to the last Armenian king, who died in exile in the fourteenth century? I floated this hypothesis by Ashley Redbone, who said she’s thought about it too. But she pointed out that Leon Schlesinger—the producer of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies—could just as easily be the source. The cover of On the Track features Merrie Melodies’ cartoon ragtime singer Michigan J. Frog, cakewalking. 

“Redbone” is more vexing. Today it typically refers to a light-skinned African-American person, but in the Louisiana history Redbone was drawn to, the word used to apply to isolated communities of mixed African, Native American, and Caucasian heritage. Redbones were also described as “Mediterranean,” “Portuguese,” and “Moorish.” At a time when pseudoscientific explanations of race as so many fractions of “blood” were de rigeur, their ancestry was hard to pin down. Was Redbone casting his lot with the mixed-up, covered-up roots that bore the blossoms of American music, a family tree that really could include all those folks on his genealogy poster? Handler thinks there’s something to that, but cautions that Redbone never told her, and “would never say there was a key.” And in 1978, he seemed to brush it off: according to a reporter who talked with him, Redbone “did say that, though there is a tribe of Redbone Indians in Louisiana, he isn’t one of them. His name was Redborne until he took out the ‘r.’” 

Ashley Redbone has asked her father about their name “many times” and has never gotten a straight answer. (Once he said he thought of changing it to Rathbone, after the actor who played Sherlock Holmes in the 1930s and 1940s.) “One time,” she said, “my aunt told me that I might think that there is some secret reason for everything, but there isn’t. That’s as much of an answer as I’ve ever gotten.”

 

Scholar Edward Said writes that while “most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home,” those living in exile “are aware of at least two,” and maybe more. Exiles are aware “of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that, to borrow a phrase from music, is contrapuntal.” That certainly sounds like Leon Redbone, looking at American culture from outside, even as he plunged into its musical heart. Alan Lomax’s description of Jelly Roll Morton may be just as apt: “Jazz musicians are strong on downbeats but weak on dates.” 

We probably won’t ever know why Redbone decided to break the rules of time, but we know what it was like when he did. His second album was originally going to be called Taking My Time—appropriately idiosyncratic, a tad recalcitrant, and leisurely. (“Why do I get the feeling,” Johnny Carson once asked Redbone, “that there’s not a great deal of stress in your life?”) But the name that stuck, Double Time, is better. Redbone’s performances lay timelines atop one another: his gurgles and growls through the “The Sheik of Araby” suggest a vaudeville novelty singer, and the backing vocals of “If We Never Meet Again This Side of Heaven” sound straight from the stage of an early musical where, beneath golden lights, Redbone croons and whistles in sweet resignation. The record came out in 1977.

Onstage and off, band members recall, Redbone would speak of the long-dead in the present tense. He’d discuss the making of perfume in ancient Sumeria as though he’d participated, or pretend to have seen nineteenth-century castrati perform live. “How’s Sophie Tucker doing these days?” he asked onstage, as though the vaudeville personality might’ve dropped by recently. These asides gave his shows the feel of a tragicomic séance: you felt, simultaneously, that the past was present again and forever lost. 

When Redbone heard a member of the Ink Spots hit a particularly high falsetto note, his mind leapt from the late 1930s or early 1940s, when the recording had been made, to decades prior. “This is Tony Jackson,” Tom Roberts remembers him saying. Jackson was a gay African-American pianist whom Jelly Roll Morton called “the greatest single-handed entertainer in the world,” with “a beautiful voice and a marvelous range.” There are no recordings of his voice, but Redbone heard its echo anyway. On his album No Regrets, he performed Jackson’s “Some Sweet Day”—his version is countrified, and ends with a yodel.

Redbone channeled the old tunes lovingly, but sometimes, in lieu of interpretation, he’d just sit onstage and share a recording of the thing itself. He was especially fond of a ravishingly melancholic version of “Vienna, City of My Dreams” by zither player Ernst Naser. He often whistled along. Naser, Redbone told some audiences, was in the theater, too—he was just too shy to come onstage. Or, he asserted, Naser had been in the theater just a few hours before, and we’d all missed him. Or, he’d reveal, Naser was dead. Or, Redbone predicted, he himself might one day drive off a cliff, distracted by a photograph of his own audience, and land in a pit, where he would meet Naser. “He can play. I’ll sing a couple of Viennese numbers.” Note how these jokes—delivered with wry nonchalance—hover between hilarity and heartbreak. Note, too, how they crackle against the rules of time, or fall defeated under its governance. What’s gone is back. Or what’s gone is gone. Or what’s still here will soon be gone, though it might come back, in some other form—musicians jamming together in the roadside muck of an afterlife where time collapses.

Joan Didion has called the sixties “those years where no one at all seemed to have any memory or mooring.” Redbone came of age in that decade too, but after a childhood of movement, he found mooring in memory. Roberts remembers him saying, “If we are made up of the cells of our parents, and our parents are made up of the cells of their parents, then we are a vessel of antiquity. And somewhere within our cellular nature is a memory of something ancient.” As Roberts recalls their conversation, he slips in and out of his Redbone voice—deep, orotund, slightly nasal. “If you could simply remember, then you could access time travel.” We may never know what that meant to him biographically, but artistically, it’s what he gave us, and the sunglasses seemed to help. Onstage, fellow musicians remember, he often played with his eyes closed, keeping out what might distract him, focusing on what he needed to hear. 


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Megan Pugh is the author of America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk. Her essays and poetry have appeared in the Believer, the New Republic, New Orleans Review, the Village Voice, VOLT, and other magazines. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, she currently lives in Portland, Oregon.