Since 2005 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
“I’m the mother and the grandmother of the blues,” Johnnie Mae Dunson declared in a 2005 interview with the Chicago Tribune, and I won’t argue. “When I first started playing in Chicago, in the ’40s, people said ugly things about a woman who plays the blues,” she recalled. “They said, ‘She must not be a woman if she plays the drums.’ They’d call me names. If they hit on me and I wouldn’t respond, they said I must be a lesbian.”
There’s nobody else in music history quite like Dunson, a no-nonsense drummer and singer who also wrote hundreds upon hundreds of songs. Women aren’t just rare as blues drummers; they often get short shrift in the genre across the board. Chicago blues scholar Dick Shurman called Dunson “one of the few ‘gutbucket’ blues women,” and pianist Jon Weber, who’s played with her, described her as “a walking history book, a real important person who, unfortunately, has been somewhat neglected.”
Dunson was a vivid, unvarnished talent, raw and prolific and utterly uncompromising. She deserves to be more widely remembered, and that’s what the Secret History of Chicago Music is all about.
Dunson was born Johnnie Mae Hudson near Bessemer, Alabama, in 1921. At age two she contracted rheumatic fever, which weakened her heart. “I was a miracle child,” she told Neal Pollack for a 1998 Reader story. “I been living on death row all my life.”
“When I was 10 years old, I heard the doctors tell my mama, ‘She won’t live to be 14 years old.’ So my mama got a group of people to come to our house and they prayed for me,” Dunson explained to the Tribune. “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.”
Dunson left school at age ten due to her heart condition. She’d been singing gospel as long as she could remember, but she also soaked up the blues of Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Ma Rainey, which her mother liked to play on the Victrola. As she grew stronger in her teens, her singing style evolved into something rougher and grimier.
Dunson’s mother liked fresh spring water, and when Dunson and her sister went to fetch it, Dunson would thump on the washtub they were carrying. She’d give her sister half her lunch to let her do it. “In that way,” Dunson told Pollack, “I am a self-taught drummer.”
In 1943, encouraged by visiting churchwomen from the Windy City who’d heard her sing, Dunson moved to Chicago. Back in Alabama, she’d taught herself how to treat hair, and to make money she pressed her west-side kitchen into service as a salon. Within a year she was also hanging out at the famed market on Maxwell Street, performing however she could. She remembers taking over the drum kit of veteran bluesman Eddie “Porkchop” Hines. “He had this little set down there, and he looked so tired,” she told Pollack. “He said, ‘Girl, you gonna mess up my drums.’ Then I played, and he told me to never stop.”
Dunson started a hard-gigging trio named after Globetrotters Lounge on the west side, which often performed at clubs along Madison Street. For nearly 30 years, she played steadily on the south and west sides, in any combo she could. She played in the band of guitarist and harmonica player Jimmy Reed, and they became friends—she wrote songs for him and even managed him for a spell. Her rough, powerful voice and fierce drumming made a big impression everywhere she went.
“She could hold her own with anybody—nobody gave Johnnie Mae a hard time,” harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite told the Tribune. He crossed paths frequently with Dunson when he lived in Chicago in the 60s. “People just looked at her, and they would think, ‘This is somebody I’m not going to mess with.’”
Dunson was no less formidable as a songwriter. She was known for carrying around a massive notebook of her compositions, and in her late 70s she claimed she could still write 25 songs in a day if left alone to do it. She said she’d written “Evil” for Muddy Waters (no relation to the even more famous Howlin’ Wolf song), and though BMI lists Waters as its author, the blues business famously suffers from more than its share of attribution issues. The many songs she wrote for Reed over the years include “I Wanna Be Loved,” “I’m Going Upside Your Head,” and “Life Won’t Last Me Long.”
Dunson’s own recordings from this era are much thinner on the ground, unfortunately. She put out a single on Checker Records in 1965, “You’re Going Out That Door,” which is now next to impossible to find. In 1972 she and Reed released a couple 45s as a duo for the short-lived Magic label. Within a year or so, though, Dunson had all but vanished from the scene, and by the time Reed died in 1976 she’d withdrawn from performance completely.
The music business had never provided Dunson with much of a living anyhow—she usually didn’t control her copyrights, and she didn’t get much in the way of royalties when other artists recorded her songs. In the 60s and 70s she made money buying buildings to fix up, sometimes working demolition jobs—she could take down an interior wall by herself with a sledgehammer. At some point after that she ran a Madison Street diner, but I can’t find any details.
In 1992 bluesman Jimmie Lee Robinson, who’d retired from his job as a security guard, tracked Dunson down. By then Dunson’s home was in dire condition, and her health had declined steeply. She’d been in a wheelchair since ’88, and she relied on other people to bring her groceries. At first she was distrustful of him—she was holding a grudge because she’d heard he’d insulted Jimmy Reed, and he had to persuade her she’d been misinformed. But eventually they became friends and began playing music together in her backyard.
“Robinson would call Dunson in the evening, and she would talk on the phone to him until three in the morning, often falling asleep in mid-conversation,” Pollack wrote for the Reader in 1998. “Last December she started to walk again on her own. ‘She used to get mad at me and call me a devil,’ Robinson says. ‘But now she don’t call me a devil no more.’”
Robinson was a member of the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition, and Dunson wanted to contribute to the cause. In August 1998 she sang at a benefit for the coalition, part of a series of blues jams it had been holding in a vacant lot on one of the last patches of the old Maxwell Street to survive.
Dunson’s ride canceled on her, and she got there so late (having finally charmed a cabbie into driving her for free) that no one expected her to show. She arrived in black slacks and a black wig, carrying a gold sequined cane—but she hadn’t been able to get out to buy new shoes, so she was wearing house slippers. “As soon as she started singing, a lot of older black women started coming up to her and sticking dollar bills into her hand,” photographer and filmmaker James Fraher told Pollack for his Reader story. Fraher, also a member of the Maxwell Street coalition, had been making a documentary about Robinson. “She just knocked people out. It turned into a party on the street.”
Dunson later mentioned that the benefit jam was the first time she’d left her property in ten years. Her husband Andy Smith had died there in 1991, and she planned to do the same. Sadly, within weeks the city condemned her house and boarded it up with her things still inside—Pollack listed just some of them, including an antique icebox, a pump organ, two sets of drums, a Coca-Cola vending machine from the 1950s, and original copies of more than 600 of her songs.
Fortunately Dunson was supported by her late husband’s military pension, and fellow blues vocalist Katherine Davis took her in temporarily. She’d seen Dunson at a second Maxwell Street benefit gig and started bringing her food and listening to her sing her songs, eventually offering her a room in her apartment.
At that point, in 1998, Davis had been singing blues professionally for about 16 years, but she told Pollack that she’d never heard of Dunson before that summer. “It was like, OK, Koko Taylor is of this period, and Dinah Washington . . . but who else in Chicago?” she said. “They said there was no one else, but I know the women migrated here from the south. I’ve been doing research. Who were the women singers? Why couldn’t I find her? When I heard her, I thought she was the mother of my time.”
Dunson’s fortunes improved somewhat after her “rediscovery,” and in 2000 she finally released her first and only album under her own name, Big Boss Lady. Its title track, a response to Reed’s 1960 favorite “Big Boss Man,” was her signature tune. It also includes “Evil,” “I’m a Whole Lotta Woman” (a retort to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man”), “I’m Going Upside Your Head,” and more recent songs such as “Blue Sky Is My Blanket” and “Trouble Just Won’t Let Me Be.” Her son, blues guitarist Jimi “Prime Time” Smith, appears on the album, and so does Robinson.
Dunson’s house wasn’t saved, and by the time of the 2005 Tribune story, she was living in a small apartment of her own on the north side. She made several appearances at the Chicago Blues Festival after the release of Big Boss Lady, but on October 4, 2007, she died at age 86 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital of complications from intestinal issues.
At her first Maxwell Street appearance in 1998, Pollack quoted her speaking from the stage. “I’m gonna holler loud,” Dunson said, delivering a boast that makes a fitting epitaph for a tough, fearless blueswoman who survived for decades in a scene made for men. “You see, I’m a she-wolf, and I prowl all night long. . . . Ain’t gonna hang my head and cry.”
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.