By Neal Pollack
Johnnie Mae Dunson needs a home. "I really want to have a nice decent place," she says. "Somewhere that has an office with a desk. If nobody bothers me or interferes with me, I can write as many as 25 songs a day. I'm in my right mind. I can get with myself, and the lyrics pour out of my heart."
Two weeks ago, a housing court judge condemned Dunson's near-west-side home, where she's lived since the mid-70s. The city boarded it up this Wednesday, leaving her possessions inside, including original copies of the more than 600 blues songs she's written since 1943, numerous canes decorated with costume jewelry, an antique icebox, a pump organ, two sets of drums, and a Coca-Cola vending machine from the 1950s. In her hurry to vacate, she had to abandon a collection of photo collages she made to honor blues legends like her late friend Jesse Brown and her current friend guitarist Jimmie Lee Robinson. In another collage, titled American Blues Woman, Dunson honored herself.
Dunson was born in central Alabama in 1921. At age two, she contracted rheumatic fever, which left her with a seriously weakened heart. "I was a miracle child," she says. "I been living on death row all my life." Because of her heart condition, she had to leave school at age ten. At that time the Dunson family lived in a clapboard house in the city of Bessemer. Johnnie Mae's mother had a taste for fresh spring water, and she'd often send her daughters outside of town with a washtub, which Dunson felt an urge to thump on. She offered her sister half her lunch for the privilege. "In that way," she says, "I am a self-taught drummer."
She came north to Chicago in 1943, and her music career began on Maxwell Street when she took over the drums from a street musician named Pork Chops. "He had this little set down there, and he looked so tired. He said, 'Girl, you gonna mess up my drums.' Then I played, and he told me to never stop." For the next 30 years, she played drums and sang in blues clubs on the south and west sides, places like Globetrotters Lounge, Ricochet Lounge, Mom's, Vi's, the Squeeze Club, Buke's Lounge, and Buke's Lounge II.
In the mid-60s Willie Dixon got Dunson a contract with Checker Records. She developed a close friendship with the musician Jimmy Reed and in the early 70s recorded a few singles with him for the Magic label. Her signature number, "Big Boss Lady," was an answer to Reed's hit "Big Boss Man." But in 1973 she stopped performing, and no one heard from her again.
Six years ago Jimmie Lee Robinson heard she was still alive, still writing songs, and still living on the west side. Robinson had left the blues as well, to take a job as a security guard for the Board of Education. Now retired, he was seeking out older musicians who could still play his brand of acoustic blues.
Robinson went over to Dunson's house; it was the only one left on a block of factories and empty lots. The place was spacious, with a large backyard, but it was falling down. Dunson didn't have a working bathtub. The roof was crumbling, and the wooden porch was rotten. She told him she was ashamed of the state of her home, but she obviously loved the place. She had always been self-sufficient, the Big Boss Lady. Now other people had to bring her groceries.
Dunson had been sick for years; she'd been using a wheelchair since 1988. She was grouchy on her best days, but Robinson persisted. He eventually learned she was holding a grudge against him because she'd heard he had once belittled Jimmy Reed. He finally convinced her this wasn't true. He then persuaded Dunson to tell her story to James Fraher, a photographer and filmmaker who had spent a lot of time on Maxwell Street and was working on a documentary about Robinson. Fraher taped footage of Dunson and Robinson singing 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. 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."
Both Fraher and Robinson are members of the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition, a quixotic crew of eccentrics trying to save what remains of the old market and its culture. Throughout the summer, the coalition held blues jams in a vacant lot on Maxwell. One was scheduled for the afternoon of August 29, a Saturday. Dunson told Fraher and Robinson that she'd like to sing for the cause.
The rally started at noon, and by 3 Dunson still hadn't shown. She later told Fraher that her ride had canceled. Everyone figured she wouldn't come. Then all of a sudden, like a ghost, Dunson was on the street, having persuaded a cabdriver to take her there for free. She was wearing black slacks, a black wig, and house slippers. She apologized because she couldn't find anyone to take her out to buy a new pair of shoes. She held a sequined gold cane.
"She got up and did one song with John Primer and a number of songs with Jimmie Lee," Fraher says. "As soon as she started singing, a lot of older black women started coming up to her and sticking dollar bills into her hand. She just knocked people out. It turned into a party on the street."
Dunson later said it was the first time she'd left her home in ten years.
Dunson has a lawyer named Darryl Apperton from the Cabrini-Green Legal Aid Clinic. He believes the city's condemnation of her house was in everyone's best interest. She still owns the property, he says, and if she can ever raise enough money she can fix up the house and move back in. It won't be torn down anytime soon, and the Maxwell Street coalition has started to raise funds to help out. "She's a very nice woman," Apperton says. "She's very headstrong. She knows what needs to be done, and she's trying to accomplish what needs to be done. The home and the memorabilia need to be preserved. It needs to be put back in a condition that is decent."
Dunson lives on her late husband's Navy pension, so her income is too high for her to qualify for most forms of public aid. Apperton says that finding her permanent housing won't be particularly difficult. He's more concerned with getting her a place to stay temporarily. She doesn't want to live in a CHA building because she considers that charity, and she needs to live on the first floor because she's afraid of elevators. "I have experienced riding in an elevator with her," Apperton says, "and I know she can't do that very often."
She was terrified about moving. "This house, it's like a mansion to me," she says. "My husband had a heart attack in here in 1991, and this is where I want to die. This is where my whole heart and mind is. It's very important that I have space to walk out into the yard, into the back where I can think. I go out there and I see an iron pipe or something and I start my songs from that. When I think about it, it hurts me so bad. Everybody says I could fall dead, I couldn't do no work, but God blessed me and saved me to be 77 years old. I don't know how I'm gonna get all this stuff outta here, but I gotta get outta here by tomorrow night. You know what's gonna happen? When they see a place boarded up, people break in and steal whatever you have. I just can't help but cry. I'm so sorry. But this is where I wanna be.
"I don't like the way I'm living. I want a nice place where people could visit me. But I love it here. I have been here sometimes without food, but I still stay. This house has stood up in strong winds and nothing blew over. God help me, but I can't stop crying. I never caused no problem to any people. The lady at the florist down the street is always so nice and kind to me. She brings me flowers because she knows I love flowers. I don't know what to do. I pray to God to help me. He let me walk again. I just pray he sends somebody to save me."
On September 19, the coalition was back on Maxwell Street. In a vacant lot, they had erected ten-foot-high letters made of railroad ties that read MAX. They had also painted a clapboard mural bearing the names of blues legends, including Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Jimmie Lee Robinson, and Johnnie Mae Dunson.
Dunson showed up to sing again, accompanied by her niece Marilyn Murphy. "I call her the Boss Lady," Murphy said. "She really deserves more respect. The city should come together and remember the happiness and joy she's brought people."
This time, Dunson wore a purple outfit, an amber wig, and her bedroom slippers. She rose from her wheelchair and took the stage.
"I thank God for letting me entertain you," she said and launched into "Big Boss Lady."
The crowd was the usual melange of elderly blacks, aging hippies, foreign tourists, and college students. One couple had driven six hours from northern Michigan just to hear the blues on Maxwell Street one last time. A singer named Katherine Davis was also there. She'd heard Dunson sing on August 29, and she had left amazed. She started to bring food to Dunson's house and listened to her sing songs that had been copyrighted in her name. Davis accompanied Dunson to housing court, along with Robinson and Fraher, and offered Dunson a temporary room in her apartment.
"I've been singing blues professionally for about 16 years, and I'd never heard of her before," Davis says. "It was like, OK, Koko Taylor is of this period, and Dinah Washington... but who else in Chicago? Where were the other blues singers? 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."
"Johnnie Mae! Johnnie Mae!" chanted the crowd.
"Welllll," Dunson said. "I'm gonna holler loud. You see, I'm a she-wolf, and I prowl all night long. And your woman can't trust you with my love, 'cause when you get there I'll be gone." She howled. "Ain't gonna hang my head and cry."
When she was done, she told the crowd, "I don't know what's going to happen to me now. I'm losing my house on Wednesday. But I'm here to make you all happy. I don't want no one sad. Thank you all very much. Save Maxwell Street!"
Dunson came down from the stage, and Murphy helped her into her wheelchair. "You killed 'em, Johnnie Mae," she said.
"Damn right," replied the Boss Lady. "I am a legend." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Lee Landry.