Mother of the blues

Music IndustryMuddy WatersWorld War II (1939-1945)Maxwell StreetDeathKoko TaylorBuddy Guy

She's not nearly as famous as Koko Taylor or Buddy Guy or "Honeyboy" Edwards or any other Chicago blues legend who comes to mind.

But at 84, Johnnie Mae Dunson--still strong of spirit and mighty of voice--knows as much about the blues as anyone in this town.

Even more, perhaps, since she sings a raw, gritty, unadorned, bona fide Chicago blues that makes zero concessions to the commercial aesthetics that long have defined the genre. Listen to Johnnie Mae, as everyone calls her, and you're hearing one of the last true voices of the blues, a sound steeped in the rural South, where she was born, and honed in Chicago, where she migrated in 1943.

Along the way, she wrote songs for everyone from Muddy Waters to Jimmy Reed, emerged as one of the first female blues drummers and survived uncounted nights in rough, rowdy, West Side dives where gentle souls did not enter lightly.

"I would say she's one of the few 'gutbucket' blues women," says Dick Shurman, a Chicago blues scholar, referring to the unvarnished, down-home quality of her art and her temperament.

Adds Jon Weber, a noted Chicago pianist who has accompanied her in concert, "She's a walking history book, a real important person who, unfortunately, has been somewhat neglected."

But when she appears Friday afternoon at the Chicago Blues Festival, Dunson will be stepping into a spotlight she richly has earned.

For practically every step of her life, she has been told that she never would get anywhere, that there was no place for her in music.

"When I first started playing in Chicago, in the '40s, people said ugly things about a woman who plays the blues," Dunson recalls, sitting in her small North Side apartment, its walls adorned with posters culled from a lifetime of performances.

"They said, 'She must not be a woman if she plays the drums,' " Dunson continues. "They'd call me names. If they hit on me and I wouldn't respond, they said I must be a lesbian."

But Dunson was not intimidated, for she already had endured more pain than any of her detractors could have imagined, and it may have immunized her from their assaults.The rheumatic fever she contracted at age 2 in Raymond, Ala., left her with a severely weakened heart and a harshly curtailed life. She spent most of 4th and 5th grades in bed and believed she would not live long.

"When I was 10 years old, I heard the doctors tell my mama, `She won't live to be 14 years old,'" remembers Dunson. "So my mama got a group of people to come to our house and they prayed for me.

"And I believe at that time God gifted me with the music I have because He knew I wouldn't be able to do any other kind of work."

Though Dunson had been singing gospel songs for as long as she could remember, she indeed began creating blues tunes around the time of the prayer session, she says. She modeled her music on the recordings of Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie and Ma Rainey that her mother played constantly on the Victrola.

Defying everyone's predictions, Dunson gained strength as a teenager and taught herself to treat hair, so that she could earn a few dollars. And when some churchwomen from Chicago came to Raymond and heard Dunson sing, they urged her to come north.

Dunson was ready.

"At that time, everyone was saying Johnnie Mae never will be able to do this, Johnnie Mae never will be able to do that, and I wanted to show them that I could," she says.

So she ventured to Chicago, earning a living doing neighbors' hair in the kitchen of her West Side apartment. By 1944 she was singing on Maxwell Street, the famously frenetic outdoor bazaar where generations of blues musicians performed for loose change.

When one of them asked her to play drums, she picked up a pair of sticks and began bashing freely, basing her technique on memories of beating sticks against her mother's tin water buckets back home in Alabama.

From that point forth, Johnnie Mae Dunson anointed herself a blues drummer, working joints up and down West Madison Street and eventually forming her own trio, The Globe Trotters, named for the West Side lounge of the same title.

In that post-World War II era, women drummer-bandleaders were anomalies, to say the least, but Dunson looked and sounded magisterial at the instrument, say those who saw her.

"She could hold her own with anybody--nobody gave Johnnie Mae a hard time," says Charlie Musselwhite, the esteemed blues harmonica virtuoso who lived in Chicago in the 1960s and spent time in Dunson's orbit.

"People just looked at her, and they would think, `This is somebody I'm not going to mess with,'" adds Musselwhite. "She wasn't what you would call a shrinking flower.

"When she sang, it was incredibly powerful. She could really deliver a song."

Better still, she could write one--hundreds, actually.

"She always had these big ledger books with her, filled with page after page of songs," says Musselwhite. "Many times I saw musicians come up to her practically begging her for a song. She was well respected for that."

Indeed, Muddy Waters recorded her "Evil," Jimmy Reed--whose career she helped guide in the last years of his life--took on her "Going Upside Your Head," "If You Want It Done Right," "Life Won't Last Me Long" and many others.

Yet it wasn't until 2000 that Dunson released her first recording under her own name, the aptly named "Big Boss Lady" (Bogfire).

Considering how much music she has played and composed in a career spanning more than 60 years, it hardly seems enough.

How could so much art--such a deep repository of American folk culture--possibly have gone unrecorded?

"In her day, they didn't give females much recognition in the blues," says Dunson's son, Jimi "Prime Time" Smith, a blues artist in his own right.

"So nobody wanted to take a chance on her. If she hadn't gotten that `Big Boss Lady' record together, there wouldn't be anything."

As for Dunson's enormous reservoir of songs, most of her sheet music was destroyed in a house fire many years ago, she says, so they linger in her inner ear, and on the recordings of other musicians who have cut a few of them.

Though she says she received little in the way of royalties because she didn't control most of her copyrights, she insists that she has no regrets.

"I'm glad I did exactly what I did," says Dunson, whose husband, Andy Smith, died in 1991.

"I'm glad that God let me survive the hardships.

"I'm the mother and the grandmother of the blues."

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hreich@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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