When guitarist Ry Cooder helped rediscover the great musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club, he ignited a major Cuban music boom. Having already done the same for West African greats like Ali Farka Toure, Cooder seemed to be taking up where the famed musicologist Alan Lomax left off, introducing American audiences to folk sounds from around the world.
But Cooder is not alone. Other music lovers are trying to preserve authentic musical styles, including some catchy grooves a lot closer to home. In North Carolina, Tim Duffy, another guitar player turned ethnomusicologist, is bringing recognition and support to aging, mostly unknown masters of traditional Southern roots music—a.k.a. the blues. As music legend Taj Mahal describes it, "This tradition is 25 miles down a dusty road off the blacktop, where 157 people in a little village are listening to musicians still playing like they were playing it 50, 60, 100 years ago." Taj Mahal is one of a number of musical celebrities who have helped Duffy realize his dream of not only getting these old musicians on disc, but helping them find health insurance and pay the rent.
Duffy, 39, encountered a number of these artists in the 1980s as a graduate student in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After documenting the work of James "Guitar Slim" Stephens for the university’s Southern Folklife Collection, Duffy began playing with another old-timer in the Winston-Salem area named Guitar Gabriel. Traveling with Gabriel to "drink houses" and other neighborhood venues throughout the Southeast, Duffy got to know many other old performers, most of whom were struggling to make ends meet. "It was food or medicine, rent or the car," he says.
So working out of a tin storage shed behind a used-car lot, Duffy began trying to book gigs and make record deals for his new acquaintances, although none of it paid much. Meanwhile, Duffy started making his own field recordings of the musicians he met along the way. A breakthrough came in 1993 when he met audio pioneer Mark Levinson, who loved the recordings and was appalled to hear how poorly the artists who made them were often forced to live. Levinson came up with the idea for the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation, to provide assistance to Southern roots musicians over 55 with an annual income of less than $18,000. Many of the artists will be featured in Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America, a collection of photographs and stories, with a foreword by B.B. King, to be published in October by Hill Street Press.
Duffy and his wife, Denise, now run Music Maker from their home in rural Hillsborough, North Carolina. Along with staffer Deb Misch, they work with about 100 artists, providing assistance for housing, medicine, and food as well as instruments and tour expenses. The Duffys’ kids, ages 5 and 2, often help in the Music Maker Garden. Inspired by jazz pianist Mr. Q., the Duffys grow tomatoes and vegetables and share them with other local musicians. There’s also a cottage where visiting artists can find the peace and quiet to create. It all makes for a delightfully lively setting—part artists’ colony, part jam session.
The foundation has gotten support from stars like Bonnie Raitt, Pete Townshend, and Eric Clapton. Taj Mahal has been involved for years, sitting in on recording sessions and touring with musicians. Music Maker artists get 500 copies of their CDs to sell for their own profit. "Helping keep this music alive is exciting for me," he says, but the bigger impact may be on younger artists. "This is an opportunity to create a bridge between the type of music they’re playing and the type that’s been played in this country for centuries."
One young artist who’s crossing that bridge is Sol, a 26-year-old Boones Mill, Virginia, musician, who tagged along with Duffy as a kid, meeting and recording musicians across the Deep South. His new CD, Sol, volume: blue, is a modern remix of some of their tapes. A player known as Cool John—whom Taj Mahal calls "one of the five greatest guitarists I’ve ever heard"—collaborated with Sol on the music, and Guitar Gabriel and Cootie Stark do most of the singing and talking. Sol, volume: blue is the most recent release of the Givin’ It Back Record Club sponsored by Music Makers. For $100 a year, members get all the label’s new releases.
Duffy has attracted more than 200 club supporters, and the foundation raises money through concerts, street festivals, individual donations, and a gift program. But with 70 recordings ready and waiting to be issued, Duffy doesn’t have nearly enough funds to get out all the material. That support will come, says Taj Mahal, when people begin to realize the treasure Duffy is struggling to preserve. "Just listen to the music," he says. "How often are you really hearing the hearts of the people, hearing music that courses through the blood?"
Music Maker Relief Foundation, 4052 Summer Lane, Hillsborough, NC 27278; 919/643-2456; www.musicmaker.org.