Not all blues musicians that make it onto a record are virtuosi with major instrumental or vocal talent – Big Boy Crudup, or Jimmy Reed, anyone? Some are journeymen or women, performers with a greater or lesser ability in their chosen genre. We all know of records we’ve heard that have underwhelmed us on listening, both from the past as well as the recent present. This is not to denigrate those on the margins of our perception of competence, for they serve a “purpose” within their community and their abilities are appreciated for what they are, and not for what they are not. An important realization for such as W.E. to take on board. [Like the singer in an Irish pub who only knows one song, but is appreciated by the patrons as much for that song as the ones with larger repertoires.] Such an artists was Roy Dunn, from the Atlanta area, a fine singer and an adequate guitarist with a limited repertoire. He was also an extremely personable man with a great memory.
With a voice honed in gospel quartets in both Georgia and Alabama, Roy was a full-voiced singer, a bit reminiscent of South Carolinian Doug Quattlebaum. His memory was near-photographic in nature with an amazing ability to come up with names galore of musicians and hangers-on (how else would we know the identity of Charlie Stimpson, the subject of an unissued Curley Weaver recording!) throughout the Atlanta region. He was a walking encyclopedia and was the ideal informant for us over the years in such a large region.
It was Cora Mae Bryant who first hooked us up with Roy as an acquaintance of her father, Curley Weaver, one who still played and was willing to play for us (unlike Herman Jordan). Once supplied with a guitar (O&S # 36), Roy showed some promise – I recorded him extensively over the years I traveled the Southeast. He was also willing to go with me around Atlanta and environs in my van and help locate people for me/us: Tommie Lee Russell (O&S # 47), Blind Buddy Keith (O&S # 46), Charlie Russell (O&S # 47), R.L. Lowe O&S # 6), Sister Susie Weaver Young (O&S # 47), Mattie Russell (O&S # 47), Earnest Scott (O&S #46) and Jonas Brown (O&S # 46). He lived with his wife Myrtis, a White woman (that must have had its share of problems), and their kids. They had been injured in a car accident (Roy was not at fault), which resulted in Roy no longer being able to run the heavy road-building equipment he once operated. He bounced around from one poverty shack to another in Newton Co, or Atlanta, never able to get his head above water financially. He had free time, and was gracious and interested enough in my purpose so that he was able to help many times – I’m sure that his recording fees were not enough, but they probably bulked out his minimal disability payments ever so slightly.
Life as a marginal disabled Black man was hard in the early seventies, as well as often dangerous – nothing new there. Roy had liked my van so much that he went and bought one for himself! One day while he was driving through a part of the Atlanta Black ghetto, someone fired a gun at someone, which missed its target. If Roy’s driver’s side window hadn’t been rolled down that hot summer afternoon, the slug would have gone through the door and into Roy causing untold damage or death. Roy was maybe foolish and stopped his vehicle – the police who (amazingly) arrived at the scene then searched his van and located his pistol. (It should be noted that it was a rare person, indeed, who lived in any Black Ghetto and went unarmed.) He was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and jailed. We got a message at our motel asking for help, but were unable to locate him at the Fulton County jail. Later, his sister called to tell us that he was jailed under the name of Calvin Speed (more on that later). Eventually he was located and I bailed him out through a bail-bondsman… I had become Roy’s “White man” in times of trouble, a dubious pleasure.
The difference in name is nothing startling in Black ghettos and many African Americans answer to more than one name, depending on where they happen to be at the time… it’s not just present-day rappers! Peg Leg Sam was known as “Peg Pete” around Spartanburg and Jonesville, SC, for example. Roy had actually come by his “other” name legitimately. In his youth he was fostered out to one Beatrice Speed who gave him the name of James Calvin Speed. R.L Lowe (O&S #6) always referred to Roy as “Calvin” and that was the name on the driver’s license that Roy handed over to the cops that day (he had another in the name of Roy Sidney Dunn). Eventually all charges were dropped and I got my bail money back, minus fees. Roy had a hole in his van door and at first he could only afford to replace the shattered window with a piece of plywood. He ran it up when it rained – it was summer, after all – and looked out the intact vent window to see in his rear-view mirror! This until he could afford another window glass from a junk yard, or maybe even a replacement door.
I’ll have to say now that the Roy Dunn LP was the most difficult to put together of all my old Trix output. Not because Roy wasn’t listenable, he was that, but he was limited in what he could do melodically. Too many of his songs (usually covers) were in the same key with the same Hopkinsesque guitar patterns. It was a very hard assemblage to do in order to get enough variety to succeed as an album – the single (4504 – “She Cook Cornbread for her Husband”/”Tired of Living a Bachelor”) was easy! I might also note here that I never sat a solo performer down in front of the mics, recorded a dozen songs, and used that as the LP – something commonly done by others. There were at least three different recording sessions from which to choose in order that “same-i-ness” be avoided and to give a broader view of an individual’s talent. No quick-and-dirty ones for me! I think that I was able to put together a very nice LP of Roy… but it is also probably the only LP of Roy. I have more material from those sessions, plus later ones, but they will be in all likelihood used in collections rather than on another Roy Dunn album. Of course, I may change my mind when I get my stuff down here… it’s been nearly twenty-five years since I last listened to many of my master tapes. But I doubt it. At times a microcosm is as good as a macrocosm and Roy’s was quite an enjoyable one. There really ain’t no more.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM #132 – Sep 1998, p.9.
The last time I saw Roy was in Philadelphia, of all places, when I was studying folklore there. He played a small club near South Philly with the guitar I’d given him, a Gibson SJ with a narrow neck. His accident made it difficult for him to play a standard width guitar neck… maybe that limited his repertoire! He’d added a sound-hole pick-up and a place to plug in the cord on the side. He was very happy to see me and put on a very good show. I’ve forgotten who in Atlanta (Eric King?) was doing the organizing for Roy back then, but we needed more folks like that around… sadly not the case.
Roy Dunn was a walking encyclopedia – not just of blues. I once picked up some quartet photos* from a junk shop and he was able to identify almost all the singers in them! By the way, Charlie Stimpson used to “beat straws” when Curley Weaver played some house-parties. For those not familiar with this “country” rhythmic method, the beater would beat time on the strings with two heavy pieces of straw or sticks while the guitarist was playing. Similar things have been reported over the years in the Old Time Music field regarding fiddle players in the old days. The term “fiddle sticks” is literal!
* Photographs were almost non-existent in my decade’s experience since too many that once existed were burned up in house fires, an all too common fate. It’s almost as frustrating to hear about long lost photos as it was to hear about long lost songs that nobody could play anymore due to age or religious beliefs! Or they were forgotten, or unsure about letting me have them, even temporarily. I never got my hands on the photo of Mattie Russell (O&S # 47) in the chorus line behind Bessie Smith at The 81 Theater in Atlanta, for example.