Few organizations have assisted as many blues men and women in need over the past two decades as the Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF), a North Carolina-based non-profit record label focused on supporting struggling traditional southern musicians by providing everything from instruments to performing and recording opportunities to day-to-day essentials like medications and heating oil, often serving individuals whose names most of us unfortunately have never heard.
Take, for example, bluesman Adolphus Bell, who MMRF helped build a career and find housing after discovering him living out of his van for 15 years. Or Willa Mae Buckner, for whom the group made posible her lifelong dream of performing at Carnegie Hall. Or Major Handy, who the MMRF helped re-establish a musical career in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina.
And then there are folks like George Herbert Moore and Dr. Burt, who MMRF assisted in beginning to perform or record in their 70s. For some, it has meant the opportunity to play with such legends of the blues as longtime MMRF supporter Taj Mahal, while for others like Cootie Stark and Essie Mae Brooks, it has allowed them to tour Europe for the first time. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention how the organization has also helped to reinvigorate the careers of such artists as Etta Baker, Jerry “Boogie” McCain, and former James Brown and Percy Sledge band guitarist Robert Lee Coleman.
Having originally dedicated themselves to locating undiscovered blues artists living in and around Winston-Salem, North Carolina, MMRF founder Tim Duffy and his wife Denise have scoured the south seeking out some of the blues genre’s least-known and most needy musicians, having – albeit somewhat quietly – now assisted more than 300 individuals from across the Carolinas and Georgia, as well as from Alabama, Virginia, Texas, and elsewhere. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of their non-profit endeavor, the Duffys have released not only a wonderful book of photographs they have collected through the years featuring many the artists with whom they have worked, but also a quite nice companion two-CD set documenting those musicians, both titled We are the Music Makers!: Preserving the Soul of America’s Music.
Through pictures and short vignettes, the book tells the story of each of the artists, from those noted above to other MMRF recipients including Othar Turner, Ironing Board Sam, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Little Freddie King, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Precious Bryant, Captain Luke, Cool John Ferguson, and of course, Guitar Gabriel, the musician who inspired the creation of the MMRF in the early 90s. As splendid as it is to be able to read about and see those artists in print, it’s the 44 tracks on the CDs that really help bring these artists to life, from Captain Luke’s solo excursion on Jew’s harp on the instrumental “Freight Train Boogie” that opens the set to the low-country blues strains of John Lee Ziegler‘s “Going Away” and such other diverse instrumentals as the marching, Hill Country-style guitar and drums of James Davis‘ “Fred, You Ought to Be Dead” and Benton Flippen‘s lively, fiddle and banjo-driven “Benton’s Dream” to variations on such classics as “Amazing Grace” (Cora Fluker), “Route 66” (Eddie Tigner), “Shortnin’ Bread” (Neal Pattman), and “Home on the Range” (W.C. Minger IV), as well as a monologue describing the blues from none other than Guitar Gabriel.
Among the highlights of the first disc are a trio of tracks on which blues great Taj Mahal accompanies, first playing ham-bone for Piedmont guitarist and singer Cootie Stark’s shuffling “High Yellow”, then second guitar on John Dee Holeman‘s grooving “Chapel Hill Boogie”, and next banjo on a plucky “Shortnin’ Bread” on which Neal Pattman provides vocals and harmonica. That disc also includes a couple of superb instrumentals in Piedmont guitarist Etta Baker’s tender masterpiece “Railroad Bill” and Cool John Ferguson’s – who Mahal has described as one of the five greatest guitarists he has ever heard – wonderfully uplifting “No Hidin’ Place”. For that matter, Ferguson doesn’t do too bad a job on piano either, as he demonstrates on a bouncy “Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long” featuring Essie Mae Brooks on vocals, with Mr. Q also providing some barrelhouse-style spunk on the keys on his “Cocktail Boogie”.
“Old Time Religion” from Mother Pauline and Elder James Goins is about as close to a field holler as you’ll find in this collection, with Precious Bryant’s “If You Don’t Love Me, Would You Fool Me Good”, J.W. Warren‘s “Looking for My Woman”, and Albert Smith‘s “Big Belly Mama” all making for nice solo performances also worth checking out, the first two on guitar and the latter on piano.
There are also plenty of such performances on the collection’s second disc, including a 1970 recording of Guitar Gabriel’s hit “Let No Woman” taped in Pittsburgh, Pa., a chugging “High Steppin’ Momma” from Clyde Langford (who learned to play guitar from Lightnin’ Hopkins’ older brother Joel “Thunder” Hopkins), and the slow blues of Adolphus Bell’s “Child Support Blues” on which Bell serves as a true one-man band, providing vocals, guitar, hi hat, and bass drum. Macavine Hines‘ rolling “Snatch That Thing” is one of several tracks throughout the set to feature MMRF founder Tim Duffy on guitar, with other highlights here including a jazzy “Back in Business” from Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, who began playing guitar behind her uncle Piano Red when she was a senior in high school; the bluegrass rhythms of the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ “Sourwood Mountain”; Jerry “Boogie” McCain’s shuffling soul number “My New Next Door Neighbor”; and Cary Morin‘s sprightly, closing “Sing It Louder”.
The set also includes a fair share of tunes that are bound to make you smile, from Drink Small‘s “President Clinton Blues” to Captain Luke (who the Duffys write “has a voice like honey dripping on hot chocolate”) and Cool John Ferguson’s “Tim Duffy is a Good Ol’ Guy” to Willa Mae Buckner’s somewhat naughty “Peter Rumpkin” and Ironing Board Sam’s funky “Nothing But Your Butt”.
Just as we’re sure this milestone is for the Duffys, this CD collection really serves as only the beginning of the mountain of great material Music Maker has amassed during the past two decades, with a whole lot of additional songs from each of these artists available for listening on the organization’s website. And here’s a neat unreleased track of MMRF founder Tim Duffy playing “Mississippi Blues” with Eric Clapton in 1995 that was the subject of a recent Rolling Stone article.
In addition to the book and CD, both of which will be released in the coming weeks, the 20th anniversary celebration of MMRF has already included an exhibit at the New York Public Library and an August Lincoln Center performance that featured Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Ironing Board Sam, and Dom Flemons (Carolina Chocolate Drops). And, in early October, the organization will celebrate some more with a homecoming weekend in Durham, North Carolina, that will include performances from more than 40 MMRF musicians, as well as a We Are the Music Makers! exhibit and panel discussion.
Here’s hoping this organization will be able to continue to help these and other artists make music for a long time to come!