It’s 10 a.m. on a November morning; Roselyn Lionhart sits on a folding chair in front of Jackson Cathedral belting out an exhilarating rendition of “I Love My Baby.” It is raining today and the crowds are thin. In the distance, through the mist, a Lucky Dog proprietor is angrily shooing away pigeons with a broomstick. A middle-aged woman dressed conservatively in a gray flannel suit walks by and drops some loose change in David Leonard’s opened guitar case as he gracefully accompanies his wife on harmonica. David, with his outlaw curled mustache and beaten fedora adorned with a purple carnation, gives her a friendly nod before lazily swaying back into the music.
Passers-by can’t help but notice Roselyn; draped in bright purple velvet, she is sprouting like a hallucinogenic flower out of a garden of African finger pianos placed miscellaneously around her chair. Charmed by the natives, one tourist takes a picture. Not so fast. “You gonna be takin’ pictures of me, you gotta give me a bill,” Roselyn hollers. Her piercing eyes indicate to the shocked woman that this is not just part of the act; she is serious.
“You’re taking our souls, you owe us a little something!” Next to Roselyn, a mime vies for the attention of the thickening crowds. Applause is heard from behind as the fire-juggling unicycle man delights the crowd with his impromptu wit and some rudimentary pyrotechnics. The noise momentarily distracts accompanying bassist, Wally Kay, from his music as he turns back to see if his fellow street performer has finally caught himself on fire.
Roselyn eyes a man wearing a bright yellow oxford and khaki pants as he sifts through his pocket for some spare change; this is all well and good until he begins counting it.
“I hate when I see people sort through their change. If you’re gonna give me change, just give it all to me. I’m worth more than chump change!” The Lucky Dog man’s face is looking more and more menacing as the pigeons threaten to invade his place of business. Now he is belligerently swinging the stick into the air attempting to ward them off before they ever reach the ground. An older man, probably in his seventies, walks over and stands directly in front to the three musicians, rapidly tapping his foot in a moment of geriatric French Quarter Zen. Roselyn languidly seduces the passing crowds with her finger pianos, the sansa and kalimba, the morimbula and the rhumba box. Now her leather sandals stuffed with thick purple socks pump methodically on the tambourines and her voice reaches a staggering pitch as she belts out, “I work hard baby; I work hard everyday!” Roselyn seems to have fallen into a trance, while David continues to sway gracefully to the music. Suddenly the spell is broken by a young girl who shyly runs in front of them to take advantage of yet another photo opportunity. Although she smiles warmly, Roselyn is not moved by the child’s innocence enough to let her off easy. “Don’t forget your contribution to make sure your picture comes out,” she warns. The little girl abides, runs to her mother for some change and back to David’s guitar case to pay homage. This is the world of New Orleans street life on Jackson Square, a world that to David and Roselyn is as familar as home.
It was 1975 when Roselyn Lionhart sat down in the green grass on Jackson Square and began singing the blues. The van, utilized by she and her husband for touring, had broken down on the interstate, a symbol of hard times. Strumming her guitar, the case opened in front of her, just quietly singing to herself to keep from crying, people began to take notice. “In a half an hour I made seven bucks. I said, ‘All right, I can go with that. It’s more than I could make as a secretary,’ Roselyn says as she bursts into laughter and fans a smile so bright that it would make Louis Armstrong looked forlorn.
Ever since then, David and Roselyn, as they are now known, have been living a musical life forged in the streets of New Orleans. The couple has raised four children in their Bywater apartment: one went to Yale, one to UCLA, one to UC Santa Cruz and the youngest, Stormy, just graduated from high school. During their over thirty years based as street performers in the Quarter, they have played to audiences all over the world, recorded several CDs, been featured in four documentaries and have unassumedly become one of the city’s greatest treasures.
For over thiry years, David and Roselyn have counted on the benevolence of tourists and natives alike to make ends meet. The couple met in 1959 while playing in the Air Force band in San Antonio, Texas; six months later they were married. After touring with the Air Force, playing bases all over the country and supplementing their income with side projects, David and Roselyn found themselves wrapped in the arms of New Orleans street life.
“Music led me to New Orleans,” David exclaims as he sits sharing a stuffed spinach and cheese croissant with his wife in the back room of La Marquise. David, whose musical influences include Louis Prima and Louis Armstrong, remembers how, when he lived in San Antonio, he used to listen to radio broadcasts from the Blue Room in New Orleans with childlike wonder over what he was hearing. While playing in the Air Force band, David started a side project with his wife, putting together a Dixieland Band and touring across the country. Music comes as naturally to Roselyn as breathing. “My dad played slide trombone in a marching band and in a big band. My mother played classical violin, my step-father played Hawaiian slide guitar and my grandmother kept me in church with gospel.” In their sets, the couple traverses the canon of American music, pumping out Dixieland jazz with the same energy and soul that fuel their spirituals and their heartbreaking blues. David and Roselyn are able to move through each of their songs with a soothing, almost ethereal harmony made possible by their years of performing together. And when Roselyn gets going on one of her finger pianos, you never want the music to end. Even a traditional song like “Makin’ Whoopie” can be rediscovered by David’s lazy hand on guitar, his soulful harmonica and Roselyn’s sparkling and seductive voice.
In many ways, David and Roselyn helped pioneer music on Jackson Square. “Back in ‘75 there was no music on the square at all except for a few people who were allowed to play in the park area,” says David. The couple fondly remembers their predecessors, the musicians who, like them, scraped by on whatever those beleaguered souls of Bourbon Street bestowed upon them. “There was a couple who played in the quarter,” Roselyn says as she looks to David in a moment of retrospective harmony, “And there were those two old men that used to play the trumpet and banjo; evenings they played at Preservation Hall and during the days they played on the square, but they made more money on the square. They’re dead now.” Roselyn with a smile bound in reverence speaks of a man known only to she and her husband as Mister Willie, an old man who, as Roselyn puts it, “used to dance around, wiggle his tongue and play with his cigar. He’s dead too.”
Aside from street gigs, the duo performs frequently at festivals, parades, coffee houses and, occasionally, clubs; they have cut down on clubs due to what Roselyn describes as “health reasons.” “You play a club gig and you wind up at the end of the evening with five or six empty glasses under your chair. People keep saying, ‘Hey man, let me buy you a drink and there’s no way you’re going to say no,’” says David.
Despite the indifference of many French Quarter tourists toward jazz, blues and Dixieland, (many of them just come for the Hurricanes and karaoke) David and Roselyn still seem to love and respect their audiences. Occasionally, however, there are those people who try their patience. “Sometimes you get a bunch of cowboy people down here and they want to hear cowboy music, then you get the Hardware Store Owners of the Midwest in here, man they’re a real dead crowd,” says David. More often than not, David and Roselyn feel their audiences are receptive to their music and their unique and uplifting personalities. However, even in 1998, the couple has been met with adversity and bigotry.
“We have some club owners that are just good old fashioned prejudiced,” says Roselyn as she stares down into her empty coffee cup as if her spirit has suddenly been crushed. “They don’t want to see an interracial couple perform. We’ve had promoters tell us that they wouldn’t use us because of that…well, they don’t tell us, but they tell our agents.” Roselyn says that as recently as six months ago she was told a club owner didn’t want she and her husband playing because they were a mixed marriage. “Considering The Jeffersons on television, I would think interracial couples would be old hat by now.”
David returns to the table with a fresh cup of coffee. “What are we talking about?” he asks Roselyn. “How people don’t let us play in clubs now even after The Jeffersons,” she responds. David, with a wide grin beneath his coffee stained mustache quickly quips, “Hey, we’re movin’ on up,” unleashing a burst of buoyant laughter.
David and Roselyn have played literally all over the world, most recently at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy (although Roselyn won’t feel her travels are complete until she and David play in Japan). They have also played just about everywhere there is to play in the United States, yet the duo have never grown tired of New Orleans. “Most of the time it’s beautiful,” Roselyn says. “Little kids come out and dance; I love it.” In the winter and summer months they try to avoid foul weather and high temperatures by touring. Like the song, they work hard, they work hard everyday, usually playing on and off each day from nine to seven or eight. “We get out at around eight-thirty or nine depending on what’s going on at home and how late we stayed out last night,” says David. Although they both say that they don’t get out as much as they would like, David and Roselyn can often be found paying homage to other New Orleans musicians at Donna’s, Vaughn’s or Preservation Hall. As a side project, the couple formed Mo’ lasses, a primarily female ensemble with Mustang Sally on tuba. David participates on trumpet. “We only play three or four times a year. We rehearse more often than that, we just get together and jam,” says Roselyn.
Despite their good fortune, both admit they have occasionally fallen on hard times. “When the economy’s depressed, we’re depressed,” says David.
Roselyn estimates that she has written over a hundred original songs, including the spiritual “God Bless Me,” “Chicago” and “Glass Eye.” Their latest CD Dirty Old Men includes the couple’s own interpretations of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Stagger Lee” and a haunting rendition of the old Leadbelly song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” that they have renamed “Black Girl” in which the full effect of Roselyn’s stirring vocals and David’s exceptional skills on harmonica musically manifest the mystique of a rainy New Orleans morning on Jackson Square.
Looking toward the future, David and Roselyn don’t predict they will be retiring any time soon. “I’d like not to have to come out and spend twelve hours on the street everyday; someday I’d like to just be doing concerts in coffee houses,” Roselyn says. Perhaps one of the foremost contributions David and Roselyn have done for the French Quarter, is keeping the old stuff living and breathing on Jackson Square and juxtaposing the stifling mutations of Bourbon Street. “Bourbon Street changes with whatever style of music is happening,” Roselyn says. “I can remember when Bourbon Street was all folk.” David feels that the music of the old south will never die as long as street music is alive and well. “All these kids playing out here, they know the old stuff, they can play the old stuff.” “It’s just do they want to keep playing the old stuff?” adds Roselyn.
Back on the square, David and Roselyn return to their instruments and sit down, ready to play another gig while a brass band that has grown over the past hour from twelve performers to twenty belts out a rendition of “The Saints Go Marching In” so powerful that even a native would feel he was hearing it again for the first time. When they wind up, Roselyn picks up her marumba and David his guitar as she calls out for the fading audiences’ attention. “Don’t forget people,” she hollers, ” If you like what you hear don’t forget to drop us a bill. Remember, we are a listener-supported station.”
Roselyn Explains New Orleans Style
People ask me what kind of music I like and I tell them New Orleans Style.
They think they know what I mean. They hear Louis Armstrong trumpets and drums and they are oh so right.
And they are oh so wrong.
New Orleans style is Creole music. Classical music and jazz and rhythm and blues and rock and roll and gospel and country, Cajun, Zydeco, Creole—mulatto music…mulish music. Mean and low-down and stubbon and light and graceful and airy. Music for/of the survivers.
The music of the slaves was not only Dumballa’s drums, insistant and blood pounding, it was also the music of Mbira—eerie, airy, aerie fingers tripping lightly over the metal pattens, the bone patterns, space music, jazz music, new age music, classical music, music of Mother Africa, music of the Fatherland.
One forgets the horns and woodwinds were given to the slaves to play the quadrilles and stately promonades of Europe. These were trained musicians, the orchestras of free blacks were disdained—why pay for something one can get for free?
Women played piano, organs, keyboards, harps and violins. A woman playing a horn was somehow obscene. The symbolism too close for comfort. A piccolo, a flute perhaps…graceful soprano notes deemed feminine.
Drums were women played by men. Banged! Pounded! Beat upon! Controlled! Mastered! Drums were American Indian as well as African. Drums were played all night before battle and all night after by the victorious. Dances were not forty-five minutes on, fifteen minutes off to go out back for a joint. Music was continuous. Hours of it. One stopped for a drink or a joint or a coca leaf or a bite to eat and went on and on and on. Bop til you drop! No “time Gentlemen.” No you are a lady if you do this and a whore if you do that. You danced and drank and sang and the music took you where it would.
But yes, the romantic ballads, the troubadours and their dark gypsies luring the blond beauties, male and female, of the manor, the castle, the big house, to the homey but mysterious campfires. The lutes’ sad tales of escape and betrayal and death.
Sex and music. Sex driving the storied songs music driving the sex and always the old folk, dried, sere, prune-faced and mind warning of the dangers…forgetting the throb of blood and drum or remembering too well.
The eerie notes of classical and New Age trying to codify the nightingale and the mockingbird. Trying to deny the reality of change, alteration, point and counterpoint, theme and variation. The music of the spheres—the mathmatics of the universe…New Orleans Style.
When a country fiddle hammers on, I hear the blue notes sliding in between. When B.B. King sings, I hear the country boy moaning his girl unwilling to be tied by the strings, unwilling to be true to a note which echos and vibrates, sings even when it’s the next string which is being played and not one’s own, one’s self unwilling to be left on the shelf. When a trumpet screams Spanish Dances I hear Miles Davis’ portraits of Spain and wouldn’t want to be without either. How can I be faithful when I want it all. I want Byrd’s guitar and Segovia’s. I want Olatungi and Dylan. I want Chenier and Marcelles. I want Queen Ida and Odetta. I want Marva Wright and Irma Thomas. New Orleans Style.
And we got it all.
(Don’t forget to see our bit on the Smithsonian Institute Documentary, River of Song, airing on PBS starting January 6, 10 p.m., four Wednesdays in January. From the Headwaters of the Mississippi where you can jump from one bank to the other—where the Objibway celebrate the joy of harmony with Mother Nature—to the Gulf of Mexico where one can hardly cross the river in a motor boat, Ivan and Alan Perez celebrate the Cajan survival of their exile from Acadia to a far greater River of Song. See it, you’ll love it.)