Music Maker Relief Foundation Celebrates 25 Years of Keeping the Music Going
Tim Duffy, founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation. (Tintype self-portrait)
It seems like a glamorous life from the outside. Stand under a spotlight playing music to crowds of people who are there just to see and hear what you have to give. Travel around getting paid to do what you love and would probably do for free. But the reality of life as a professional musician is something else. Those few hours in the spotlight are earned by a lot of hard, solitary, relentless work. And even if you do everything right, behave yourself, and work at your craft, as time and trends spool by, your star starts to dim, to fade away. The public has found a newer talent, or is just chasing something different.
But your obligations don’t stop — there are bills to pay and health concerns that eat up the dwindling profits. The roadside is strewn with talented musicians who had to give up their dream to face the reality of making a living another way, struggling just to stay alive.
Twenty-five years ago, the Music Maker Relief Foundation was founded by guitarist and fledgling folklorist Tim Duffy to help ease the problems faced by aging and often forgotten African-American and Appalachian musicians. The North Carolina-based nonprofit provides financial help for indigent musicians and helps resurrect their former careers with hands-on help in recording, promoting, and touring. Early on, Duffy located performers through word of mouth, with musicians passing along info to others in need. He and his staff still go looking for future Music Makers to help, but the job has been made easier with high-profile assistance from artists like Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, and Eric Clapton, who have lent financial as well as hands-on support touring and recording with Music Maker artists. To date, the organization has helped 435 artists, reaching out with more than 12,000 grants.
In 1989, Tim Duffy, then studying for his master’s degree in folklore at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, formulated a plan to help some neglected blues musicians regain some of their former glory — and a better lifestyle. Duffy had seen some organizations purport to help aging blues performers, but felt they didn’t really get to the root of the problem.
“I think you find blues enthusiasts who meet those guys and think they’re cute and everything, but then they have their agenda to promote their white blues/rock bands and so-called blues preservation,” Duffy says. “I thought it was cool, but it was nothing to do about blues or blues preservation, in the regard I was looking at, anyway.”
While making a documentary for UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection, Duffy got to know country blues guitarist James Stephens, who billed himself as Guitar Slim. “Slim was the first real old-school musician I met,” Duffy says. “He was the real deal. He knew Blind Boy Fuller, he was a genius, had a photographic memory, made great records.”
When Duffy met him, Stephens was a former trucker who moved people’s belongings up and down the East Coast. “He was kinda illiterate, but could name any street in New Haven, Connecticut, where I was born, or Philly, or Boston,” Duffy says. “Story was, he was busy all the time working and no one could really catch up to him that much, and then he got a little old he was drinking a little vodka. But when you looked at his left leg — those old tractor-trailer trucks, you had to double-clutch everything— he had this awful knot on his left thigh. A lot of old truck drivers would have it, so he was living in severe pain and probably drank a little vodka for the pain.”
Winning the trust of an aging African-American bluesman who had been ignored and mistreated for decades seemed like an insurmountable task for a young long-haired white kid just out of school. But what worked is that Duffy’s fledgling organization was based on deeds, not theory.
“I was one of those guys who always believed that if I got money to be there, I shared it with whoever I was with. I got a grant to do some field work with Slim, maybe 1,500 bucks, so I just wrote him a check for $750, told him what I was doing, said ‘How ’bout we split it down the middle?’ ”
Duffy built a close relationship with Slim, and was there by his side when he died of cancer a year after they met. Before he passed, Stephens provided Duffy with a pathway into the local blues scene in central North Carolina, introducing him to musicians who were the last direct link to an art form that was still being largely ignored in the ’80s and early ’90s. A month before his death, Stephens directed Duffy to his friend Guitar Gabriel. “He’s not a deep blues guy like me ’cause he plays frets up the neck,” Duffy recalls Stephens saying, somewhat cryptically. “You’ll find him living in a box on the street and he probably won’t do nothing for you, but that’s the guy.”
Gabriel, whose real name was Robert Lewis Jones and who also recorded as Nyles Jones, was Duffy’s connection to the African-American blues scene in the region and the impetus for Music Maker. Gabriel introduced Duffy to the drink house culture of Winston-Salem, where Gabriel was living at the time, and put him in touch with a clutch of forgotten blues men and women who had fallen on hard times. Duffy’s generosity to Gabriel, helping him tour and pay his bills, impressed other struggling older musicians in Gabriel’s orbit, which caused them to open up to Duffy and let him help them help themselves. Duffy started making field recordings with the people he met, working out of an office in a used car lot in Winston-Salem.
In 1994, a family connection helped Duffy land a meeting with well-known audio engineer Mark Levinson. Levinson was so moved by Duffy’s efforts that he got Duffy a record deal with Larry Rosen’s N2K records, came up with the name Music Maker Relief Foundation for Duffy’s formerly untitled loose-knit efforts, and helped get the word out by playing the records the Foundation funded at trade shows.
Duffy had no written agreements with his artists (a system still in place in most cases today), earning trust simply by delivering on his promises.
“The main thing is to show up and do what you say you’re gonna do,” Duffy says. “Tell someone you’re gonna get ’em a new car so they can drive around and do gigs, give them money every month for prescription medicine, tell people you’re gonna book ’em in Europe and get them paid, that’s how you really build trust, by actually doing those things, day in, day out, year in, year out.”
Duffy and the foundation are releasing several projects to mark 25 years of musical outreach through healing, relief, and resurrection, including a CD and photo book.
Duffy’s photos of Music Maker artists, collected in a book titled Blue Muse published this month, is a stunning collection of tintypes, which Duffy describes as “the longest-lasting photograph medium ever invented.”
“You can look at a picture from the 1860s and it looks like the day it was shot,” he says. Duffy’s photography truly seems to capture the soul of the artists, preserving the artists for posterity with their humanity shining from the images.
He’s justifiably proud of his tintypes being accepted for an exhibit that opens April 25 at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Some of the images look like bronze statues, lines so deeply etched in his subject’s hands and faces it looks like they were chiseled there, a result of Duffy’s skills with lighting
“To take this unseen, unknown, and unheard culture and put it into this high art museum, that’s a great accomplishment, and a great way to start our 25th year,” Duffy says. “That’s what I see in the future, how to institutionalize Music Maker, with the art that these people created so it’s more seen.”
The CD, Blue Muse, features 21 of the foundation’s artists culled from performances around the country as well as in the Music Maker studios in Hillsborough, North Carolina. It’s a cross-section of Music Maker’s artists, a deep-dish collection of stunning blues and folk performers. Taj Mahal’s “Spike Driver Blues,” recorded in a hotel room by Duffy while they were on a 42-city tour with Music Maker artists, is mesmerizing, like listening to the bluesman whispering in your ear.
“That’s my recording style,” Duffy says, “Mark Levinson and his incredible microphones and gear, no overdubs, you really feel like Taj is in the living room with you.”
Another standout is soulful bluesman Robert Finley’s “Age Don’t Mean a Thing,” reminiscent of soulman O.V. Wright. Duffy met Finley playing on the streets a few years ago, made a record with him on Fat Possum subsidiary Big Legal Mess, and is now working on his second record with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.
“The blues will never die. It’s a spirit,” Duffy says, citing his success launching the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “Rhiannon Giddens got a MacArthur award, and Dom (Flemons) is up for a Grammy. Dom’s on our board, we launched those careers.
“So the music never ends,” Duffy affirms. “It’s a great black river of song.”