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Keeping Blues in the Black 

The Music Maker Relief Foundation preserves a vital part of America's music heritage with recordings and concerts.

Algia Mae Hinton: Save the chickenheads for her.
  • Algia Mae Hinton: Save the chickenheads for her.
Last April, the Music Maker Relief Foundation packed Fat Fish Blue with a concert by Grammy-winner Taj Mahal, the septuagenarian acoustic blues artists Cootie Stark and Neal Pattman, the somewhat younger electric blues guitarist Beverly Watkins, and the youthful Mudcat band, led by slide guitarist Danny "Mudcat" Dudeck. A few years ago, the blind guitarist Stark was a street singer, and Pattman wasn't doing that well either, but they've recently toured the U.S. and Europe several times.

Connecticut native Tim Duffy made the relative success of these artists possible. In 1988 Duffy, a guitarist himself, was a folklore grad student at the University of North Carolina. While researching the career of local blues artist James "Guitar Slim" Stevens, he became aware of a number of other musicians who were barely scraping by. In 1991 he met veteran bluesman Guitar Gabriel, who hooked him up with still more musicians. Duffy became Gabriel's manager. Concerned about the plight of elderly, impoverished blues performers, Duffy was able to find jobs for them too. Then he got together a tour and slowly moved up the ladder of venues until he played Carnegie Hall in 1994.

During that year, Duffy met an enthusiastic supporter in Marc Levinson of Cello Music and Film Systems. Together they worked to set up Music Maker, a foundation that has been responsible for getting grants from corporate sponsors and also received help from rock stars Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, and Bonnie Raitt. Taj Mahal has done a great deal of touring with Music Maker, and his appearances have enlarged their audiences.

"Taj is the best," says Denise Duffy, Tim Duffy's wife and the second in command at Music Maker. "He's literally embraced the causes of our artists by trying to get the message out to the world. He could be the nephew of some of the performers he plays with, and he's so reverential that he relaxes and brings out the best in them."

By 1994 Music Maker had already issued some anthologies and an album by Gabriel. Since then they've made a deal with Cello, which is distributed by WEA. They've already issued CDs by Stark, Pattman, and Watson on that label, and their latest batch includes discs by Etta Baker, John Dee Holeman, and Algia Mae Hinton.

Blues performers from many Southeastern states and even Boston, Chicago, and Arizona have been aided by Music Maker. However, because the organization was founded in and remains headquartered in North Carolina, it's not surprising that a large number of artists are from the Piedmont region and employ styles characteristic of that area. Baker, Hinton, and Holeman are North Carolinians who sing and play in styles rarely heard today. Guitarist Baker, who doesn't sing, performs alone on all tracks but "John Henry." She did some recording in the '60s, but never performed outside her home area.

Blues are only part of Baker's repertoire, which also includes folk songs such as "John Henry" and "Railroad Bill." Her solos are clean, relaxed, and direct. She supports her economical top lines with relatively busy background playing. There's a boogie woogie influence in her work, but generally her style is rooted in white country as well as black Southeastern music, which had more in common a century ago than they do now.

"Etta Baker's a national treasure," Denise Duffy says. "She's one of the few women in blues that gets any respect. She's got a dignity about her, a presence that has been inspirational. She's a black mountain person who bridges the gap between the Appalachian picking style and the blues."

Perhaps the most unusual of the performers on Cello is Algia Mae Hinton. It would be an oversimplification to call the six- and twelve-string guitarist, banjoist, and singer a blues artist. Like Leadbelly, her broad repertoire consists of a little of everything. There are gospel tunes here as well as odd original compositions such as "When You Kill the Chicken Save Me the Head," "Cook Cornbread for Your Husband," and "Lima Beans." A skilled instrumentalist, Hinton's also a distinctive singer; she can sound like a man in the lower register, but she uses the top of her range effectively on "Cornbread."

"Algia Mae's the only performer we got that shakes a leg," Denise Duffy says.

Part of the reason Music Maker exists is that Tim Duffy and his associates want to preserve a vital part of America's music heritage with recordings and concerts. Duffy wants to make sure Music Maker artists don't get ripped off, either. "Everyone I've met feels bad about these bad record deals. They initially feel good that they're going to have a record out. Then [they end up feeling] very bad, because as soon as it comes out, they become cognizant of the fact that they aren't getting any money. They get 30 free copies, and after those are gone, they can't get any more. And the folklorist has gone on to another gig."

Raising the money for recording, mounting shows, and paying musicians' bills aren't easy, especially as so many are elderly (to receive money from Music Maker, one must be at least 55, play Southern-derived music, and make less than $18,000 a year). Tim Duffy would like to set up an endowment fund for aged musicians, but he doesn't see how it's possible in the near future.

"The recipients need this money now," says Denise Duffy. "These people will never get any healthier than they are." Emergencies, such as the burning of Georgia artist Precious Bryant's trailer and the recent floods in North Carolina, are constantly cropping up. Music Maker assistance made it possible for Bryant to purchase a new mobile home, but that's put quite a dent in their budget.

"Now we have a hundred artists who expect us to be there," says Denise Duffy. "It raises the bar. We've got to get out there and hustle. For example, one of our recipient artists, George Higgs, lost everything in recent floods, and we were able to send him emergency cash and a new guitar immediately. We want to be sure we're there for the next artist."

To contact the Music Maker Relief Foundation, call 336-325-3261, fax 336-325-3263, e-mail mmrf@aol.com, or write to Rt. 1 Box 567, Pinnacle, NC 27043.

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