Photos courtesy of Steve Salter
By all accounts, the Chicago-based blues woman, Johnnie Mae Dunston was a formidable figure. Dunson moved to Chicago in 1943 from Bessemer, Alabama and quickly became a force to be reckoned with on Maxwell Street. In the mid-sixties, Willie Dixon helped the self-taught drummer get a contract with Checker Records. What’s more, Dunson wrote hundreds of songs for various artists and played with the legendary Jimmie Reed in the mid-seventies.
While Dunson never got the fame she fully deserved, she lived a rich and accomplished life. Despite all the praise and accolades, Dunson’s body was in an unmarked grave at Oakridge-Glenn Oak cemetery in Hillside, Illinois from her death in 2007 until early this year. That’s when she finally received her official headstone, complete with “Big Boss Lady” as her final epithet.
Dunson’s was the 150th headstone placed by the Killer Blues Headstone Project a “labor of love” spearheaded by Steve Salter who has made it his mission to give these late great blues artists and a few musical muses the long-term recognition they’ve earned and deserved. As the first elected mayor of Whitehall, Salter’s Michigan roots run deep yet he has also managed to cast a very wide net in his quest to erect markers to memorialize these lives.
Salter said that of all the headstones placed, 81 have been in the Chicago area with 16 headstones being erected in Missouri. There have been 13 markers placed in the state of Mississippi, but the Killer Blues Headstone Project’s efforts extend to a total of 16 states. Salter added that Dunson was only the 13th woman to receive a marker.
While Salter’s adept at reeling off facts and figures, he also seems to have a deep emotional connection with every headstone he’s placed and noted that “every single stone has a very unique story.” Such is the case with Delia Green, who was a fourteen-year-old “clean-up girl” in a Savanna, Georgia sporting house. At a Christmas Eve party, Delia had a run-in with a fellow teenager who said she was his wife. She retorted and called him a “lying SOB” and he shot her dead.
But, with death grew Delia’s notoriety, and she became a “no good” woman immortalized in songs by everyone from Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan to Waylon Jennings, Pete Seeger, and many others. Salter said that “this poor girl was murdered, and her reputation besmirched” so he set about righting this wrong by erecting a “blues muse” headstone in her honor. Although buried in an unmarked grave, her headstone at the cemetery serves as a concrete reminder and “recognition and reclamation of her virtue”. Salter said that this was a “very moving thing to do.”
A 1997 trip down to New Orleans for their Jazz and Heritage Fest served as the impetus for the Killer Blues Headstone project as Salter was passing through Chicago and wanted to pay his respects to several of his favorite bluesmen. He was shocked to find that many of these accomplished artists were buried in unmarked graves. And, so, the Killer Blues Headstone Project was born. It was established as a non-profit in 2007 and Salter takes great pride in the fact that neither he nor any of the other board members draws a dime from their efforts to give blues artists their due.
In addition to Salter, the Killer Blues board is composed of Vice President Aaron Pritchard, who hails from St. Louis and handles all the organization’s social media efforts. He is joined by Secretary Leslie Salter of Whitehall, Keith Petersen from Americus, Georgia and Hank Mowery from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Alligator recording artist, Toronzo Cannon, was also recently added to the roster after sending Salter some emails suggesting what “direction we should be going in.”
Salter said that the headstones placed have cost $102, 533 to date with funds coming from donations, festivals, book sales and other means. Of course, like so many other non-profits, Killer Blues took a hit during covid, but they did manage to do 7 headstones in that year. They were most prolific in 2016 with a total of 24 headstone installations. Thanks to Salter’s meticulous research, visitors to the www.killerblues.net can learn more about each honoree simply by clicking on their headstone.
Salter recently put on a blues show fundraiser in Whitehall, Michigan and said that the event was a success, and “every little bit helps.” He added that small contributions add up even though it usually takes a while until they have the necessary funds for headstone implementation. Due to this logistical issue, Salter said that “more often than not, we cannot find any family members” since so much time has elapsed since their death. He added that “we don’t have unlimited funds to hire private investigators to search for family members.”
Like so many, Salter first became enamored with blues music via the British invasion bands like the Animals and the Rolling Stones. After digging a little deeper, he discovered that this music evolved from African American musicians. He said that “I keep waiting for that big check from Eric Clapton” and others that owe their wildly successful careers to blues musicians.
Despite the inequities related to the fact that these influential blues musicians often die in obscurity, Salter has vowed to “keep his hands on the plow and head down” as he continues to help these artists get their due. He added that “the universe brings me things” so it’s good to see Salter utilizing his time, talents and serendipitous gifts to recognize these musicians after they’ve transitioned to the hereafter.