The Boneyfiddle Trumpet Man takes his bow


PORTSMOUTH— For many years now, those setting out to explore the historic Boneyfiddle area for dinner at one of its five restaurants, or those visiting a community favorite event such as Winterfest or Chocolate Walk to make memories with the family, people wishing to sit in a park to relax with a book in hand, or friends simply walking around to soak in the historic architecture, there was a very good chance you’d be greeted by the sound of a lone trumpet echoing through the air and bouncing off the facades of historic buildings as if it were a sound that had always been there.

If you managed to track down the tune, following the volume of music through the streets, it would lead to an older gentleman named Kenneth Dunn, sitting on a lone bench, likely playing hymns that he translated himself. The music was brought to life by this hobby musician who lived in the retirement community on Second Street, spending his mornings, evenings, and weekends breathing his story into the trumpet and pushing out notes for everyone to hear. In the evenings, boaters enjoying the Ohio River could even hear him saying goodbye to another day as he told his testimony through horn at Alexandria Point Park with the setting sun as his only partner, as it lowered out of sight behind the Appalachian foothills in the west.

Recently, the streets became silent as the sound of the trumpeting stopped and the news of the street musician passing took its place.

Dunn wasn’t a wealthy man, or one who toured the country with his music, but he was a gentleman who found peace in telling the world his story through music he translated to trumpet himself, as he learned to play and share that joy.

Kenneth Dunn’s son, Chris Dunn, claimed that his father loved many things, all of which being simple pleasures of humanity— the sense of community he felt downtown and with his neighbors and shop owners, an alley cat named Anna Blue, and, of course, music.

“Dad always talked music. Music was a mainstay in his life. Prior to joining the church, he was big into rock and roll. He didn’t play any instruments, though. He just loved music. Once he joined the church, he began focusing on gospel music,” Chris Dunn said. “He picked up the trumpet on a whim which he and his pastor agree was God’s will because at the time dad was recovering from some health issues, had just been relieved of homelessness and had begun to receive payments for SSI. He said that he had last played the trumpet in his senior year of high school. He said he was rusty, but that it was like riding a bike. Truthfully, it was quite off key at the beginning, but he eventually mastered playing gospel music on his trumpet and had even begun ‘translating’ gospel for the piano to the trumpet. By the end, he had a library of sheet music, including Christmas carols, which he said he played during Christmas in Boneyfiddle.”

Chris Dunn said that he wasn’t fully aware of the big presence his father had downtown, but the love members of the community had for him shone after his passing. It was a shock to see so many individuals impacted by his father’s seven years of playing music downtown and the experience has him looking at his father’s legacy a bit differently.

“I honestly had little idea how Dad was viewed in the community by his neighbors until his death and so many folks came to his apartment as we were beginning to clean it and remarked on how well liked he was. One lady sort of explained in sad disbelief that Dad was known as the “Trumpet Man of Boneyfiddle,” and that he would be missed. Also, at his service, I was astounded when boat loads of folks rolled in and had something to say about his music, his presence, and their gratitude for having known him. Folks that weren’t family or known friends. Dad frequently spoke of how folks would gather to listen to his hymns, and many would sing along. He told a story once when another gentleman joined in with saxophone one evening, and they played or attempted to play hymns together. Dad said it didn’t turn out well. I think dad meant many different things to the community. In his building, he was a caretaker, a giver, and included. In the community of Boneyfiddle, well, he was dubbed “the Trumpet Man of Boneyfiddle,” and he enlightened, encouraged, and was beloved to his community,” Chris Dunn said. “Again, I wasn’t so aware of how significant an impact he meant to Boneyfiddle until his passing. I really wish I had been more into his life. We had just grown apart somewhat after he and my mother separated, and I began my career. I think his whole story is worthy of many pages since it includes so much change and redemption, but we will see about that at a later time.”

One community member who got to know Dunn was fellow musician Johnny Whisman. The Whisman family is often known for its role in the local music scene, especially Johnny, who is known for making music out of anything with his one-man band routine.

“I really only got to know him musically. At Alexandria Point, we would sometimes play older church hymns together, completely out of the key of B-flat because, as he explained to me, that was what his trumpet was in the key of. Most of the time, I would just listen and talk. He was a really personable gentleman who would always ask how you were doing and would always make time to talk with you before always giving ‘all glory to God,’” Whisman said. “He was a man that brought joy, life and atmosphere to the riverbanks, and downtown area. He didn’t do this for accolades or resume building, but rather for the love of playing his instrument and all glory to God.”

Whisman played in honor of Dunn the day of his service, as many gathered to thank the Trumpet Man of Boneyfiddle for sharing his love, telling stories of talks with him and anecdotes of him playing his music throughout town.

With the arrival of this unexpected coda, one thing is for certain—while one man with a story to tell may no longer be carrying armfuls of gear to find a new nook or cranny in downtown Portsmouth to perform in, the sound of trumpets will carry on in the memories of many who spent countless hours taking for granted the presence of musical notes dancing along the air in the historic downtown gifted by a former homeless musician who loved community above all else.

Reach Joseph Pratt at (740) 353-3101, by email at [email protected], © 2024 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.

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