Ask Tim Duffy about the origins of Music Maker Relief Foundation, the benevolent musicians' assistance organization he's overseen for 15 years now, and receive a story that feels half Southern mythology and half stark reality, stocked with characters that could come from The Band's "The Weight."
"When I met Guitar Gabriel, I was 25 years old, just out of a master's program at UNC-Chapel Hill," Duffy remembers. "I had become lost in the blues through Guitar Slim. Slim had cancer, and on his deathbed he told me to find Gabe. I made my way to a drink house in East Winston. The proprietress stood on the porch with a razorblade as a man was running out the yard holding his face.
"I told another gentleman standing in the yard that Slim had sent me to find Gabe. The scene changed immediately, grins all around, when they realized I wasn't a cop. Hawkeye took me over to the Piedmont Circle project. Gabe bounded out the door and hugged me. 'I know where you want to go, boy. I have been there myself. I will take you there. But, my time ain't long. Promise me one thing: When I die, bury me with my guitar!'Music Maker started that day," he concludes. "A young idealist and a broken-down blues bard embarking on an adventure."
Bounce five words off Duffy—who celebrates Music Maker's 15th year of helping the area's lost bluesmen find an audience and funding this Saturday—and receive the same kind of passionate responses.
ANNIVERSARY: Celebration of a moment that changed the course of lives. We started Music Maker as a heartfelt response to the immediate needs of a handful of musicians in Winston-Salem, N.C. There was no long-term vision, just hungry artists that needed gigs. We are here 15 years later because of the steady stream of incredibly talented musicians we continue to meet that need our assistance and because of the tremendous patrons and volunteers that believe in this mission and won't let us quit.
The hard part of this job is saying goodbye to so many greats: Guitar Gabriel, Etta Baker, Cootie Stark. The best part is knowing that you helped make their last days a little sweeter and spread their joyful noise around the world.
BLUES: Guitar Gabriel would say, "Blues will never die because it is a spirit. It is an uplift and the way you feel it, that is the way it is. And it brings a lot of joy to people. Music is made to make happiness, make you smile and forget your troubles. In the Good Book, it says to make a joyful noise. It doesn't say what kind of noise, just as long as you make one." The blues from the South is the aquifer that all rock, pop, jazz musicians around the world drink from.
RELIEF: A lifeline of hope to someone suffering tremendous adversity. The poverty in which most of our recipients live is not restricted to their households but often pervades their entire community. So, when something goes wrong, they can't call on family members or friends because the friends are broke themselves. These artists are hard-working people that really don't want a handout, but a hand-up. Helping artists help themselves by building their careers leads to financial independence and self-sufficiency. The recognition that comes with professional success brings pride and validation to the individual artist and uplifts the community. That's a relief.
HERITAGE: If you do not know where you have been, how can you know where you are going?
JOHN DEE: John Dee Holeman is the greatest country blues guitarist and singer alive. He is a distinguished country gentleman and a moral and upright citizen of the world. He has played the guitar for 76 years and has taken his music across Africa, Europe and the United States. You cannot take a bad photo of him. And the ladies love him. He is a maker of great recordings and a friend to all that pass through his door.
Cool John Ferguson, Sol Creech, Bubba Norwood, Captain Luke, Whistlin' Britches, Andy Coates, Billy Stevens and John Dee Holeman gather to celebrate Music Maker's 15th Anniversary and John Dee Holeman's 80th birthday Saturday, April 4, at Broad Street Cafe. The music starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the Music Maker site: musicmakerstore.stores.yahoo.net/fira20.html.