a/k/a James Calvin Speed

            Roy Sydney Dunn was introduced to us[1] ca. 1971 by Cora Mae Bryant as a guitar-playing friend of her late father, Curley James Weaver. She also introduced us to others who no longer played (Son Foster, George White) and some who couldn’t be bothered (or sober enough) like Herman Jordan[2]. Roy was an easier “get” than Herman. Personable and sober, he is another musician who typically spent much time in gospel quartets, mainly in Eastern Alabama. He knew all the names of those who recorded from Atlanta, sacred as well as secular, as well as those folks who didn’t record, and could rate them for us – and not just blues people!

Curley Weaver was one of his main influences as a performer, but there were also inputs from later phonograph records of his time, including the present. He was your basic local talent who played for house parties and country suppers, as well as church gatherings, a versatile, semi-professional week-end warrior. Roy had a fine voice and was a competent guitarist, if not all that imaginative in his repertoire or playing style. What he DID play was quality, though, if lacking originality, and he was well worth hearing. Roy also played some harp, and there is one piece playing it on his sole Trix LP (3312 – “Know’d Them All”) … the notes for that album are posted on my web site (www.peterblowry.com). He was a wonderful fund of information about Atlanta area musicians of all sorts – a sort of human encyclopedia of the many musical individuals of the region – and a useful “scout” for us.

At one time before we met him, Roy and his wife, Myrtis, and their kids were T-boned while in their car by an out-of-control white female driver. He and his wife were quite seriously injured in that accident and I believe a child or two perished. As a result, he was no longer able to operate the heavy road-making/grading equipment as he had done before the accident. For Roy, welfare and light odd jobs were his only source of income after that, and an erratic one at that. His hands were also damaged a bit and he had trouble fretting a standard-width guitar neck, but I was fortunate in my many gleanings of Southern pawn shops to find him a Gibson SJ with a narrow neck. This he could fret much more easily than my normal one and it sounded almost as good! He later installed a sound-hole pick-up so that he could play amplified, or through a P.A. system.

Roy, it turned out, had two names/identities around Atlanta. The first was his birth name (Roy Sydney Dunn), the second was that given to him by his foster mother, Beatrice Speed (James Calvin Speed). Interestingly, it allowed him to even have two driver’s licenses (!), one in each name, and resulted in him being variously called one name or the other, depending on where he was and by whatever name he used there! So, it was “Roy” or “Calvin” for him, depending on the location: the former mainly out in the country and the latter more in Atlanta proper. He was the one who introduced or guided me to the likes of Blind Buddy Keith, Jonas Brown, Sister Susie Weaver Young, Frank Edwards, possibly Charlie Rambo, and definitely guitarist/singer Earnest Scott[3], among others.

Roy was kind and amenable to our curiosity, and an intelligent person who loved music of all sorts, serving us a helpful guide during the years I “worked” Atlanta. We lost track of each other over time (as I spent less and less time in the Atlanta area) until I was in Philadelphia at The University of Pennsylvania’s Folklore Department chasing an advanced degree. Someone from Atlanta (name unknown at the moment; possibly Eric King) contacted me to say that Roy was to be in Philly to play at a jazz and folk club on South Street[4]. He was the same old Roy, happy to see me and gave well-accepted performances to the mainly white college crowd. And he still had the guitar I had given him, too!

I had planned compiling a second helping of Roy Dunn’s musical abilities, but I’ve determined that there is insufficient different additional “new” material for a second album on his own – but there are pieces by him scheduled on both “Georgia Sketches” (NTR-1771) and “Atlanta Sketches” (NTR-1724) anthologies! A few of the songs were learned from locals, but many more came from the phonograph, and he makes them all “his” quite nicely. Within his personal musical boundaries, Roy/Calvin was a nice if not highly original musician. He was a competent and totally appropriate guitar-player, a very fine singer, who a small repertoire of solid tunes – thanks, Cora Mae, for the introduction and thanks, Roy, for sharing willingly with us all back in the day. “The Simpsons” word coinage for Roy’s talent would be “cromulent” and there’s nothing at all wrong with that!


PETER B. LOWRY                                                                                                                                Sydney  (2018)


[1] Myself and Bruce Bastin

[2] I did get to accidentally hear him play a bit one day, but I was never able to record him in spite of Cora Mae’s many efforts. All I can say was that he was very good, indeed.

[3] There’s a story behind that involving me: Roy liked how I had a van that I tricked out for my travels down South with my dogs and recording equipment. So much so, that he got himself a van as well. Driving in a black neighborhood, someone fired shots and a few hit his new van – the driver’s side window was run down and it slowed the bullet down, shattering the glass. If that glass had been up, our man might have had his kidneys damaged and been killed by the bullet.

The cops were called and found Roy’s pistol in his glove compartment, and arrested him, even though he and it had nothing to do with the shooting. I got a call at my motel from Roy to see if I could bail him out… no problem, I said. BUT, he was in the pokey as James Calvin Speed and had never heard of Roy Sydney Dunn! I didn’t even know about that personal duality then! Eventually, I was apprised of the name being used, went to a bondman and bailed Roy out.

While in the holding cells, he met one Earnest Scott, who said he was a guitar player. Roy got his address and gave it to me when he got out. I followed up on it a bit later, and, yes, he WAS a guitar player and a good one, to boot! More of that story and artists on a later album of Scott’s recordings for me.

[4] I had been there before to hear jazz sax Al Cohn in a quartet with Shirley Scott… on piano!

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