In an interview with Tim Duffy, founder and president of Music Maker Relief Foundation, Americana Highways looks into this 25-years-running nonprofit, and the work being done to refresh the mined-dry aquifer of the music industry.
Music Makers Relief Foundation celebrates 25 years of supporting their partner artists this February 1st with the release of “Blue Muse,” a compilation album of ”some of the most important musicians you’ve never heard”—recorded, some for the first time, performing their own original contributions to the living well of America’s blues tradition.”
“It’s like going to church and hearing a preacher”, says Duffy in his interview with Americana Highways contributor Collins de la Cour. “You think that preacher is just talking to you, and you have an emotional experience. That’s what the great bluesmen do too. When they get going, talking and playing guitar, it feels like something washes over the listener, makes them feel something.”
When asked what brought him to establish Music Maker a quarter of a century ago Duffy says simply, “I wanted to take a stab at making a different model.” After acquiring his Masters in UNC Chapel Hill’s Folklore Program, and spending many years in Mombasa, Kenya studying and documenting the Swahili Taarab musical tradition, Duffy developed a world citizen’s perspective of music. Coming home to the blues traditions of the South, he sought to reconcile the diminished economy of the genres most precious resource, its musicians.
“There is a feeling that the blues ended in the sixties folk era, back when Mississippi John Hurt died, and [James] Son Thomas died, and Muddy Waters died,” says Duffy. ”Blues did not die because John Lee Hooker died. Really that notion is just another way to appropriate. Saying that [blues] ended makes collections more valuable, you know. It’s just the same old shit.” In an effort to reroute the politics of culture that surrounds the blues tradition, Duffy’s foundation works to meet the basic needs of the musicians so that their genius may be expressed to a broader audience.
“All the people that I loved and the musicians that I loved happened to be living in utter poverty—and the music that they had created is the basis, the aquifer, of the music industry. They had been locked out, and continue to be locked out of the industry that they essentially created.”
While understanding that it had been, “guys like [him], outside the culture”, who had appropriated the music in years past, Duffy through Music Makers, built a system which works in stages to get musicians out of the cycles of poverty that had kept their talents from the world. Some musicians he met had been underpaid for their performances and rights to their original music for decades. Some had had great success in their youth, but illness or hard times had forced them from furthering their careers. Some had never been able to establish a broad career, but were wellsprings of cultural knowledge, foundational storehouses of the blues heritage in the American South. These women and men were aging, some without health care—stuck at home without supportive means to compete in this growing digital age of music sharing.
By securing basic healthcare (dentistry, routine doctor’s visits, etc.), paid gigs, digital production of their artforms, and sharing them to the world, Music Maker Relief Foundation has been able to not only divine sources of deeply entrenched talent throughout the South, they’ve been able to drill in just enough to allow the music to escape up to the surface by its own force.
Musician Sustenance, Musical Development and Cultural Access are the foundational programs of Music Maker’s support system. “When you can’t make your house note, and you’ve been put out on the street, that’s the blues, you know. You have no money for shoes, that’s the blues. These guys really had to go through those hardships—and then again just to be African American in the United States, that’s a whole other set of problems that a white man will never know about. You know, a lot of these guys came up under a Jim Crow nation. That wasn’t that long ago, and it’s still very much a part of these guy’s memories and their family’s history. And that [aftermath] is still happening.”
Despite the truism that you have to have had the blues to play the blues, Music Maker Relief Foundation believes that the blues is not something their partner artists need to suffer through any longer.
“Basically our coverage area is generically from Virginia down to Louisiana—then occasionally we’ll get out to Texas—with some people up in Wisconsin, Racine, Detroit, and occasionally Chicago. But mainly we’re Southeast. Artists have to be 55-years or older, living in a Southern musical tradition, and have an income of less than $20,000 a year. And then, I’m looking for artists of artistic greatness that are keeping on a very older form…we’re looking for geniuses…people who are very important to their community and to the world.”
But how does Music Maker find these exemplary artists?
“When you get started you pick up old trails of an old folklorist that stopped work in the sixties […] and you go down and see if those people are still alive. You go to meet their friends and the neighbors of those friends. […] I’m a trained ethnographer, in Kenya I studied linguistic fieldwork and cultural immersion—this is not an accident—I’ve been studying for years. If there is music someplace, I will find it. And then with Music Maker I go out and find a group of musicians and then the fieldwork stops and then it’s the five/six years of hard work digging in with the musicians, getting them recorded and then getting their music known.”
The 21-track album “Blue Muse” releasing Friday, February 1, features contributions from Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and 17-time GRAMMY winner Eric Clapton, as well as Blues Hall of Famer, two-time GRAMMY winner, and Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award winner Taj Mahal, Dan Auerbach, Robert Finley, and GRAMMY-winner, and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops Dom Flemons. This, alongside a photography book of the same name by Tim Duffy himself—releasing February 25 on UNC press in Association with the New Orleans Museum of Art—AND an accompanying exhibit of Duffy’s original tintypes, whose portraits are featured in the book, premiering April 25th—it is clear, that the work of showcasing Music Maker artists is tantamount to their goals as an foundation.
Duffy, in his interview, offers Americana Highways readers a taste of the artistic quality that Music Maker partner artist’s present.
“There is a guy now that we are working a lot with, Freeman Vines—he makes guitars—there is a photo of him sitting with all his guitars hanging around him in the book [“Blue Muse”, out February 1st]. Most luthiers just make one simple design their whole life. If you look, each one of those guitars is a different shape. And it’s not that they’re…they are guitars, but really they are contemporary art, but their not disguised as guitars. At the heart of that collection they’re all made from found objects and a number of them were made from a tree where a lynching occurred in 1930 in his neighborhood. Vines, he speaks very eloquently about race and growing up under the this kind of harsh environment and expresses it through this material art, through these guitars.”
“After 25 years, our big dream is we want to meet more people who love the blues and want to support the artists and keep this thing going,” says Duffy. His work with Music Maker is his life’s work—showcasing him as a successful curator of American art, fine-art photographer, producer, field researcher, Folklorist, and musician in his own right. His career, though, is characterized mostly by the way the Music Maker spotlight shines at a hard angle away from himself, refocusing the industry’s perspective back onto the musicians.
“That’s the trick! You have these lights and tricks, but I disappear—the final product leaves you there, with the artist.”