Scott Dunbar

Living far from prevailing blues currents near Woodville, Mississippi some fifteen miles from Lake Mary, Scott Dunbar was a musician of extraordinary and utterly singular ability who's small recorded output caused barley a ripple of interest upon release. There are certain musicians who's repertoire resides in the blues tradition yet who have developed a highly individual, singular style that sets them totally apart from their peers. Into that rarefied group are several men who recorded well after the heyday of commercial blues; men such as Cecil Barfield, CeDell Davis, Junior Kimbrough and Scott Dunbar. Dunbar passed away at the age of 90 in 1994 with his death largely unnoticed outside of a couple of obituaries in blues magazines and a recorded legacy of  nineteen issued sides.

Not that fame and fortune are what Dunbar sought. On the contrary, from all accounts he was supremely proud of his musical abilities and didn't need coffeehouse or festival audiences to tell him so. He lived a quit contented existence as a fisherman and river guide. In the notes to his sole album, From Lake Mary issued on the Ahura Mazda label in 1970, Karl Micheal Wolfe wrote that "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 everyone knows old Scott. We hope this record will make him known to a wider audience." Dunbar never became a well known name although he has been highly regarded in collector circles. However he made no subsequent recordings, no festival appearances as far as I can tell and no overseas tour. As is often the case, his main recognition came from overseas blues aficionados with several articles appearing in Blues World and Blues Unlimited in 1971 and 1972. Prior to the recordings in 1970 Dunbar was recorded by Frederic Ramsey, Jr. in 1954 as part of field recordings done under a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Ramsey's recordings appeared on the ten volume series Music from the South on Folkways with four of Dunbar's recordings on Music From The South Vol. 5: Song, Play And Dance and one side on Music From The South Vol. 10: Been Here And Gone. Three more issued sides were recorded in 1968 which appeared on the album Blues From The Delta, the companion album to William Ferris' influential book of the same name.

Scott Dunbar

Ramsey wrote eloquently about Scott both in his memoir Been Here And Gone and in the notes to the Folkways albums.  From the notes to Music From The South Vol. 5: Song, Play And Dance he takes us into Dunbar's insular world: "In Southwestern Mississippi, and at the the very end of a trail that fords creeks and winds through high bluffs and under tall groves of cypress and swamp oak, Scott Dunbar lives in a cabin anchored by wires to nearby trees. The cabin is in a clearing, and at the edge of the clearing, the ground drops down sharp to the edge of Old River Lake. The lake used to be part of the Mississippi River; but a cut-out changed the course, and now the lake is a fisherman's paradise. Dunbar presides over it with all the knowing that years of experience  can bring. He makes his living by taking parties on the lake when the catfish are biting. If they're not biting, he simply won't go out; his word is rule. He is prognosticator and weather bureau all in one. At night, when the small fleet of outboard motors is tied up at lake's edge, Scott pulls out his guitar and 'touches it up.' His wife, Celeste, stands by, and his two daughters take their places on a bench pulled up alongside a table under a big swamp oak. In the tall, moss-textured cypresses overhead, cicadas are already singing, and from across the lake, a hollering of alligators booms a response. Working his way into a tune, Scot hums it along with the strings that begin to move under his fingers. His foot, pounding the caked mud, keeps time; the dry dirt comes up in clouds of dust, and soon the cake is patted smooth." And in Been Here And Gone he notes: "Perhaps because many older songs are too rough for visitors, he never sings about Sweet Mama Rollin' Stone unless asked by someone who knows him and his songs…..When the white folks have gone, the guitar takes up the older and franker strains of music. These have been passed on to Scott by outlaws roaming the levee backwaters, by escaped convicts (Old River Lake is just around the bend from Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary), by singers and players and wanderers now long dead."

Music From The South Vol. 5Living off the beaten path caused Dunbar to develop a highly individual style, while traditional, still far removed form other blues currents. His highly rhythmic guitar style, played in a variety of different tunings, emphasized by his stomping foot, creates a beautiful sound. Dunbar sings, hums, and chants along with the melody, at times singing the lyrics in straightforward fashion, other times wordlessly. It sounds at times if Dunbar may not know the actual lyrics, or perhaps only snatches, yet his wordless vocalizations are very much part of his overall sound. The music comes across as familiar yet wholly spontaneous, a full flowering of individual creativity.  Thus familiar songs like "Little Liza Jane", "Vicksburg Blues" and "That's Alright, Mama" retain their shape yet sound stunningly fresh as Dunbar interprets them in such an individual way as to utterly transform them, the mark of an artist of the highest caliber. Karl Micheal Wolfe describes Dunbar's style this way: "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 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 to or for as with among riotous, noisy audiences with unamplified instruments and voice. In addition to the vast repertoire of traditional songs Scott grew up with, he has 'made up' a score or so, and learned many more 'off the graftafome' 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 audiences this does not matter." It's this spontaneous, intimate feeling that comes across so wonderfully on From Lake Mary. It's a feeling and intimacy rarely caught on tape, almost impossible to capture in the studio, that comes across as Dunbar effortlessly reels out numbers like "Easy Rider", "Who Been Foolin' You", the gorgeous, driving "Memphis Mail" with Dunbar's wordless vocalizing, "Sweet Mama Rollin' Stone" (Say roll me with your belly/Feed me with your tongue") that collapses with Dunbar's infectious laughter as he calls it a "dirty song" and shows off a broader repertoire with versions of "Blue Yodel" and "Goodnight Irene." Four of the five numbers that appear on this album were recorded by Fredric Ramsey and remain virtually unchanged sixteen years later.

From Lake MaryIf songs like Blue Yodel" and "Goodnight Irene" hint at a broader repertoire that is true as Dunbar himself said: "I play anything you want, any kind of song, hymns on up." In his early years he played the juke joints with a band who's set would not only include blues but also numbers like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Tennessee Waltz." He gave up the juke joints because they were too dangerous and in later years played primarily for whites. William Ferris wrote in Blues From The Delta that "I recorded thirty-seven songs during my visits with Dunbar and of these, two thirds were sung white style in the key of C. " The thirteen songs on From Lake Mary are mostly blues, likely selected to appeal to the blues revival market while the vast majority of recordings from this session have not been issued, forty-eight unissued sides in total.  At lengthy recording sessions n February, April and August of 1970 Dunbar proves to be a true songster, laying down songs like "Wabash Cannonball", "Sally Good'n", "Blue Heaven", "Tennessee Waltz" and  "You Are My Sunshine." In 1994 Fat Possum reissued From Lake Mary on CD with no additional tracks.

Nestled in his secluded Mississippi retreat the blues revival largely bypassed Dunbar which seemed to suit him just fine. As Karl Micheal Wolfe concludes in his notes: "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."

Memphis Mail [1954] (MP3)

Forty-Four Blues [1954] (MP3)

Easy Rider [1954] (MP3)

Little Liza Jane [1970] (MP3)

Vicksburg Blues [1970] (MP3)

Sweet Mama Rollin' Stone [1970] (MP3)

Memphis Mail [1970] (MP3)

Who Been Foolin' You [1970] (MP3)

Unissued Scott Dunbar Sides:

Lake Mary, Ms., Feb. 27, 1970

- You Are My Sunshine
– Wabash Cannonball
– When The Saints Go Marching In
– Done Laid Down (Do Remember Me)
– Filipena
– Home Sweet Home
– Just Because
– Never Been So Blue
– Goodnight Irene
– Goodbye My Lady Cindy
– My Old Shoe
– Sally Good'n
– Buffalo Gal
– Nobody's Darlin' But Mine
– Memphis Mail
– Vicksburg Blues
– Say That's Alright With You
– Filipena
– Baby Please Don't Go
– That's Alright Mama
– Have Mercy On My Soul
– Tennessee Waltz
– Careless Love
– Blue Heaven
– Lay That Pistol Down (Pistol Packin' Mama)
– Untitled Instrumental

Lake Mary, Ms., April 19, 1970

- Wabash Cannonball
– Who's Been Foolin You
– Sally Good'n
– You Are My Sunshine
– Want To See My Darlin'
– Little Liza Jane
– Hand
– Jaybird
– Baby Please Don't Go
– Lay That Pistol Down
– Just Because
– Filipena
– Have Mercy On My Soul
– Done Laid Around

Lake Mary, Ms., Aug. 6, 1970

- You Don't Know My Mind
– Want To See My Darlin'
– 44 Blues
– Richard Daley Blues
– Hymn
– Who Been Foolin' You
– Beautiful Brown Eyes
– Memphis Mail

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