Friday, April 8, 2011

Searching For Scott Dunbar

Scott Dunbar on his front porch
About twenty years ago, not too long after I started listening to the blues, I was going through some of my mother's old photos and came across a picture of a seemingly ancient black man sitting on a couch, singing and playing a guitar.  This seemed a bit unusual to be in a collection of family pictures, so I asked her who the man was in the picture.  She said, matter of factly, "Oh, that's old Scott.  He used to go fishing with Papaw at Lake Mary."  On the back of the picture, someone had written "S Dunbar, Lake Mary, December, 1964."   

For a long time, I didn't know who this Scott Dunbar was.  My grandfather had passed away about twenty years earlier, so I couldn't ask him.  My dad and my uncle remembered him a little bit, but just that he went fishing with them during the day and would sit around with them and play the guitar and sing songs for a drink or two.  Other than that, I didn't know anything about him....whether he was dead or alive, whether he was recorded by anybody, or whether he was even good enough to be recorded. 

This was back in the days before the internet and if you "googled" somebody in the late 80's, you might end up facing prison time, so my options were limited in finding out more about Scott Dunbar.  I didn't really know a lot of people who listened to the blues in a scholarly fashion.  Most of the listeners I knew were about like me in their knowledge of the music and the artists, so basically, the whole thing got put on the backburner for a while.

The Much-Missed Stackhouse Records
A couple of years later, in '90 or '91, I had gone to Clarksdale to the Delta Blues Museum and while I was there, I picked up some music from Stackhouse Records.  When my purchases were bagged up, they included a little catalog of specials, upcoming releases, and other records, tapes, and CDs that were pretty hard to your ordinary record store.  While scanning the catalog, I ran across an LP for sale called From Lake Mary, by Scott Dunbar. 

Now, I don't get excited about much, but I did get excited about this because some of my questions were about to be answered....maybe.  I dialed the number to Stackhouse to ask about the LP.  Even though I didn't have a needle on my record player, I was going to order it.  When somebody answered, they told me that they didn't know anything about Scott Dunbar and that there were no copies of the LP left in the store (apparently there had only been a few).

Blues From The DeltaBy now, I had gotten into some other musicians and had sort of resigned myself to not knowing anything about Dunbar.  Then in 1994, I was reading the major newspaper in Mississippi and they posted an obituary of one Scott Dunbar, musician and fishing guide.  The obit had some information about him.....not very much, but more than I had previously known.  I also began seeing pictures of Dunbar in some magazines and such book (Blues From The Delta) included some information about him, and featured him on the cover.  All of that was good, but I still had no idea what he sounded like.  I imagined that he sounded a lot like Mississippi John Hurt, a favorite of mine, based on what my dad and uncle had told me.

Soon, the internet started popping up everywhere and there were websites and message boards where you could meet other people like you who listened to the blues and who knew about the musicians and were more than happy to share this knowledge with you.  Besides that, record sites popped up, where you could now easily find those CDs that you had not been able to locate in your neck of the woods.  It was while doing a search for new releases one day that I happened to find out that From Lake Mary was being reissued by Fat Possum Records.

Scott Dunbar
 Fat Possum had already done me a great service by introducing me to the wonderful sounds of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.  Now, they were going a step further and introducing me to the one recording that I had wanted to hear but had never been able to track down.  At last I was going to hear what Scott Dunbar, the man who had played music on weekends for my grandfather and his friends and, apparently for everyone else around Lake Mary for years, sounded like.  I think this CD was the first actual internet order I ever placed.

From Lake MaryWhen it came in the mail, I couldn't wait to plug it into my CD.  It was about what I expected from the little information I had.  Dunbar played old songs he had doubtlessly heard over the years from other local performers ("Little Liza Jane," "Easy Rider," "That's Alright Mama," and "Goodnight Irene," which my mom remembered hearing him play). 

He also showed that he was a pretty good guitarist on several tracks like "Memphis Mail" and "Richard Daley Blues".  He also sang in a very high, expressive voice (similar to Skip James at times), and tracks like "Who's Been Foolin' You" and "Blue Yodel" (originally made popular by country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers) served as good examples of his vocal style.

During 1970, Dunbar recorded dozens of additional tunes that have never been released.  It would be great if someone took the time to reissue those recordings, especially if they were as good as the few that have seen the light of day so far.

Lake Mary
What really grabbed me about this music was that even though it's considered blues, I realized that blues didn't have to be sad music.  This was some of the most joyful, exuberant music I had ever heard, from an artist who was just happy to be playing for his friends.  He was having fun, whether he was getting a little bit of money or a bottle of Falstaff from his audience.  The recording gives it as intimate a feel as possible.  You feel like you're in one of those old Lake Mary cabins taking it all in.

I'm printing the liner notes from the original release of this album in 1970 on the Japanese label, Ahura Mazda.  Pay close attention to the final sentence and you will know all you need to know about Scott Dunbar and why this is such a great record to listen to.  After you read it, I encourage you to give it a listen.  You won't regret it for an instant.  

Scott Dunbar: born 1904, son of an ex-slave, on Deer Park between the Mississippi and Lake Mary (an eleven mile cut-off arm of the River) west of Woodville and south of Natchez, Mississippi. He made a guitar out of a "cigar box and a broomstick and some stream wire" when he was eight and played it like a violin. When he was ten he got a real guitar and began teaching himself to play. "My father died," he says, "and then my mother moved to Natchez, and she died. I came on this side of the Lake and I been livin' on this side ever since ... Old Lee Baker, he played fiddle, and he came over and said, "C'mere boy, I want to hear you play that guitar," and he brought me over to this side to play with his band." This illustrates perfectly the encapsulated world Scott lives in: he has never traveled more than a hundred miles from home, and to add an isolation of another sort, he is illiterate.

Today Scott Dunbar is a fisherman and guide on Lake Mary, father of six, and resident blues singer of Woodville and rural Wilkinson County, Mississippi. There everybody knows old Scott. We hope this record will make him known to a wider audience.

Scott's music is not polished, and it was not developed for the concert hall or the recording studio. He taught himself to play accompanying the old people on the plantation; many of his songs he learned to play there as a child. He does not know the names of any of the chords he uses because he cannot read music. He tunes the guitar differently for different songs. His guitar playing is strong and loud, and he keeps time with a stomping boot-heel; this is an adaptation to a lifetime of playing not so much for as with riotous, noisy audiences with unamplified instruments and voice. In addition to the vast repertoire of traditional songs that Scott grew up with, he has "made up" a score or so, and learned many more "off the graftofome" during the twenties thirties and forties. Since he cannot read, he has to keep his songs entirely in his head; often the words come out garbled or forgotten entirely. But to his native audience this does not matter at all.

Scott has been performing songs for over fifty years now, and he will undoubtedly perform them in the same place and fashion for years to come. Thus the listener is presented with a novel sort of musical offering; a record by a strong old man who has reaped great rewards and true personal fulfillment. Scott Dunbar is not an unknown artist struggling for recognition: being one of the most well known men around Lake Mary has been enough for him. When you listen to this album you will hear a man who has lived a good life and is satisfied with it: his songs are neither a bid for money or fame, nor mournful cries from a suffering heart. I asked Scott once what his music meant to him, and he said, "Well, I'll tell you... if it feels good to the people it feels twice as good to me." -Karl Michael Wolfe, New Orleans

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello, I am part of a team that is producing a documentary film about the standard American tune, Li'l Liza Jane. As part of our story, we've become interested in Scott Dunbar's remarkable version of the song, and as part of our research, came across your blog post. We might like to connect with you, if you were willing, to discuss your family's experiences with Mr. Dunbar. If interested, please visit the web site for the film -- www dot lizajanemovie dot com -- and send us a note via our "contact" tab. Thank you for your time and consideration. --Dan