Folk Music in the Southern Regions
by Daniel Elton Harmon
Afternoon tourists drifting up the weathered
exterior stairs to The Milltop bar in St. Augustine, FL, usually are
seeking only a place to relax. Sometimes they're well into their second
libation when it occurs to them that the guy with the guitar on the tiny
stage, weaving lyrics in and out of their subconscious as naturally as
the air they breathe, is not just another guy with a guitar. Sometimes
it's days or weeks later when a few of those lines he spoke come back .
. . and back . . . and back. That stop at The Milltop, they eventually
realize, was a very rare experience. They were blind-sided; they'd
sensed it was just another Florida seacoast tavern with dreamy acoustic
music in the background.
Don Oja-Dunaway is absolutely unique, not just in what he plays but in how and where he plays it. He's been a steadfast, daily fixture at The Milltop for 20 years, ever so reluctant to tour. One voice, one acoustic guitar - and he can wrench more power from those two tools than you'll believe. He long has been among the revered "real Florida" folk talents, counting among his close associates such tune crafters as Bobby Hicks and the late Gamble Rogers. But unlike many of his friends, who specialize in songs about Florida, written and performed by Floridians, Don is recognized across a much broader spectrum of listeners.
Probably his best-known song to date, "Kennesaw Line," an eerie tale of a soldier's premonition and death, was recorded by several artists and harks back to Don's years as an Atlanta-area surveyor, when he was uncovering Civil War artifacts and building a storehouse of Civil War knowledge. Kennesaw (1989) was his recorded collection of Civil War originals. Sparrow, from the same era, presented many of his low-key Christian ballads.
Long-time fans will be pleased to learn of his latest recording, Right Here in This Room, produced in England and released in January 1996 as a CD. It contains a few songs from his previously recorded repertoire as well as new material - all of it original and all of it engaging - for a variety of reasons.
You'll rarely get to hear Don perform live outside
his regular bailiwick, The Milltop. He prefers staying at home in St.
Augustine with his wife Sandra and sons Micah and Martin to hanging out
his musical identity in Nashville or plunging into the rigors of road
tours - which he endured for Too Many Years. The Milltop - and countless
local charity performances - are the only forums he needs for his life's
Don was born in St. Pete, FL, son of a career Coast Guardsman. "We traveled extensively," he reflects. "My mom was from Massachusetts. My dad was from Mississippi. They met in San Diego. It was really confusing for me, learning how to talk."
By the time he was 4, the family had lived in San Diego, Alaska and Marblehead, MA. Later they lived in Mississippi, Newfoundland, St. Petersburg, Michigan and North Carolina. It was at Elizabeth City, NC, that Don went to college (East Carolina U; graphics major, painting minor) and got married for the first time.
Leaving school, he moved to Miami, where his parents then were living, and worked as a telephone man. It was there he broke into professional entertainment.
"I was hanging around at a club in Miami where, at that time, Mike Smith and Barbara Christopher were playing, and a man named Ron Kickasola. I worked with a folk-rock group called The Ewing Street Times. We did stuff like `Get Together.' We did some Buffy St. Marie, Gordon Lightfoot. This was 1967.
"By 1969 I'd been booted outa that band and was working with a fellow from Lima, Peru, named Jorge Corrochano. It was like Carlos Santana meets Burl Ives. It was real unusual, and for some reason, people loved it. We went to Atlanta and were picked up by Tom Heyward, who managed The Bistro. We were managed by him the next two years. We played all over the Southeast."
Their duo, Bittersweet, also did midwestern tours for Good Karma Productions. College concerts were the primary bread winners. An important side benefit was the opportunity to get to know other fine musicians.
"We met Steve Goodman in Detroit back in 1969. We went back to Atlanta and told our manager that we'd met this guy who'd written the most phenomenal train song we'd ever heard. In fact, I learned that song from him the night we met. We sat in the Royal Oak Motel in Southfield, MI, and I learned `City of New Orleans.' We became really good friends over the next few years.
"Later on when Ron Kickasola and I were together, we taught Steve `The Dutchman' and `The Ballad of Dan Moody' and a lot of the wonderful Mike Smith tunes that he [Goodman] later recorded. He used to stay with my mom down in Miami and go through her collection of 78s, get a lot of the stuff from the 1930s and 40s that he did."
Don can trace his interest in music to his mother, an avid record collector whose dream was to sing with the big bands. "After she grew up, one of her big thrills was the night she and my dad got to be extras in a movie with Bob Cosby and The Bobcats. She and my father were always real supportive of the music."
For awhile, he played in a folk-rock trio called Chuffa (named after a friend's dog) with his brother Barry and sister Sharon. Don had been playing guitar since early adolescence. "When I was in the seventh grade," he remembers, "a friend of mine in Michigan got a little Silvertone guitar from Sears. The day I saw that guitar, I knew from then on that was my first love. I always wanted to play a guitar, and I harped at my mom and dad for two years to get me a guitar. It cost $14.50. They said, `We're gonna put out that kinda money and you're not gonna stay with it.' They finally got me the guitar when I was in ninth grade up in Kodiak, and by then I was hooked on The Kingston Trio and The Brothers Four and all the commercial folk groups. I had an English teacher who said, `What are you listenin' to that junk for?' I said, `Junk? Don't you like folk music?' She said, `Yeah. Listen to this.' And she gave me The New Lost City Ramblers, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson. I loved it - but I still liked the polished stuff, too. You know, the purists put 'em down, but there's still somethin' there. I could listen to both. I guess that's why I'm so eclectic now, because I listen to everything from really traditional folk music to heavy metal.
"I turned away from a lot of folk music for awhile until people said, `Have you heard Dave Mallet? Have you heard Stan Rogers?' I went, `To tell you the truth, those folkies are borin' me to tears, man. Most of 'em can't sing, most of 'em can't play, and their songs are tripe.' I carried a Stan Rogers tape around for months before a friend finally sat me down, almost by force, and played me `Harris and the Mare.'
"And I was devastated. This guy [Rogers] had so much soul - and what a voice! What song writing! Then I devoured everything I could get my hands on. I probably learned 20 of his songs, one after another. I'd start to go through his albums, and I'd have to stop at each song. I'd play that song over and over until I'd learned it, and then I'd go to the next song. I'd sit there and listen to this man with a tremendous sense of wonder - and a sense of loss, you know, that I'd found out about him two years after he'd been killed." (Legendary Canadian singer/songwriter Stan Rogers died in an airplane fire in 1983.)
Don's repertoire - hundreds of songs deep - has been decades in the building. Much of it is original, but a colorful spectrum of writers and entertainers command a place in his heart, from rockers to country twangers. Borrowing their material, he makes it distinctly his own.
"When I learn a song, I basically play it over and over. I record it on a tape, and I learn all my songs in my car, because in my schedule, I don't have time to get my guitar out at the house. Everything I do, I work up onstage. There won't be anybody here [inside The Milltop in the early afternoon], so I get up there, and if I make a lot of mistakes, nobody'll hear. Even when the place is filled, a lot of times, they wouldn't know what I'm doin'.
"There are times when this place is like the wind tunnel at NASA. And then there are other times when it's magic."
When he was playing with fellow Floridian Charlie Robertson during the 1970s in a duo known as Uncle Jubal, they even resorted to creating duo arrangements via long-distance. "There was a lot of stress. My marriage was breakin' up, and I was really temperamental. It got to the point where if I were to learn a new song, I'd get Charlie to record it for me, and I'd go learn it by myself, and we'd put the song onstage."
Robertson is an excellent song writer in his own right. "Charlie's songs are southern gothic," Don says. "I've never heard anyone write about the South the way Charlie does.
"There are few songs that capture what I think is the South. `Seven Bridges Road' is a song I think is quintessential. Steve Young wrote that - what a great singer! He was the guy I always hoped would record `Kennesaw Line.' When I wrote that song, I always heard Steve Young doin' it."
"Acoustic rock" may come closer to describing Don's own performing style than any other cliché. But it's dangerous - aye, futile - to try pigeon-holing this guy. Occasionally he delivers straightforward, heavy blues; "No Easy Rider" on his new CD is a benchmark example. But then listen to "Enoch Ludford," the painfully poignant lament of an old soldier, flawlessly rendered without apology in the crusty, uneducated vernacular. Then consider "Halloween in Marblehead (1949)," a delightfully positive childhood remembrance. "Micah's Song" transfers you to a nostalgic fireside song swap with his old friend Sam Milner in the Smoky Mountains. Fittingly, the CD's title song is a tribute to the bar that's been the unfailing "home" to his music for two decades.
As a Christian, Don has wrestled with what constitutes "Christian music." His definition is broad and rich in flavor. "If all good things proceed from the Father of life, and all creativity comes from Him, then I don't care who wrote the song. If it's true, and if it's about things that are good and true, then that's a Christian song."
He uses "Harris and the Mare," Stan Rogers' study of a little man forced into a fatal fight to protect his wife's honor, as an example. "I don't have any problem with that song, because I've struggled with that. You know, what would I do if somebody was gonna do my family bodily hurt? That song is just real. The guy's not proud of what he's done."
The fascinating thing about Right Here in This Room is to observe how the different pieces of Don Oja-Dunaway come together - the multiple influences from his performing and preperforming past, all brought to bear with such gentle power on an unwary listener. Even if you don't know the background behind the songs, you reap the benefits of a musical talent that's been put to the Refiner's fire for the better part of 30 years.
* * * *
Sparrow (cassette only, 1987)
The Sower, That's What Love Is For, Creation Song, Tune for Max, Halloween in Marblehead (1949), New-Born Connecticut Yankee, Baiser D'Amour, St. Paul's Song, Strawberry Rhubarb Pie, Sparrow
Kennesaw (cassette only, 1989)
Uncle Jubal; Paducah; Sumter County; Destria; Keaton Miller's Farewell; Thomas Martin; Micah; Dance With Me, Julie Anne; Kennesaw Line; Enoch Ludford; My Enemy, My Brother
Right Here in This Room (CD only, 1996)
Halloween in Marblehead (1949); Dance With Me, Julie Anne; Enoch Ludford; Second Chance; Ballad of Ruby and Jim; Sam's Place; Micah's Song; Augury; No Easy Rider; Right Here in This Room
Order directly from Don Oja-Dunaway, 15 S. Comares, St. Augustine, FL 32084. Tapes cost $10, CDs $15; please add $2 each for shipping.
* * * *
© 2003-2005 Hornpipe Vintage Publications