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Johnnie Mae Dunson wasn't supposed to live past her 14th birthday, let alone turn the blues on its head with her singing and drumming. But she's not one to let "supposed to" get in her way. At age 86, Johnnie Mae was still strong of spirit and mighty of voice. She knew as much about the blues as anyone - even more, perhaps, since she sang a raw, gritty, unadorned, bona fide Chicago blues that made zero concessions to the commercial aesthetics that long have defined the genre. When you listen to Johnnie Mae, you are 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.
Credited with writing over 600 blues tunes, she wrote songs for everyone from Muddy Waters to Jimmy Reed, never being paid more than $50 for a song — and many times, they were just stolen. Johnnie Mae emerged as one of the first female blues drummers and survived uncounted nights in rough, rowdy dives in Chicago's West End.
"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. Jon Weber, a noted Chicago pianist who has accompanied her in concert, said, "She's a walking history book, a real important person who, unfortunately, has been somewhat neglected."
After years of working hard, countless contributions to the blues community, and struggling just to survive, we found out that she was collecting cans off the street to get by. The Jazz Foundation was able to help Johnnie Mae when she was no longer able to help herself. Because of the support of our generous donors and patrons we were able to buy her food, pay her rent and electric bills for the last five years of her life. We got Johnnie Mae new clothes and always celebrated holidays and birthdays with her. We helped her make repairs to her home, and we also helped to support her in a new business enterprise. As she became wheelchair bound and needed a cane to walk, she decided to start up a small business decorating canes. We got her a computer so she could run her business, and we were able to keep her from eviction and homelessness in the last years of her life. Toward the end of her life she could no longer work, and each month we were able to keep her comfortable, made sure she had enough to eat each week and a roof over her head.
Hear Johnnie Mae's last performance at the Apollo Theater - A Great Night in Harlem, 2007
"Trouble Won't Let Me Be"
by Johnnie Mae Dunson and Jimi "Prime Time" Smith
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Johnnie Mae interview - Chicago, 2007.