Along with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon defined the sound of Chicago blues. A prolific song-writer, particularly during the years when Chess Records were at their peak, his songs were performed by a who’s who of blues royalty, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. His Little Red Rooster and I Just Want to Make Love to You were both recorded by the Rolling Stones, the former with the distinction of being the only blues song to reach No.1 on the UK singles charts (1964).
Willie Dixon knew what the blues were all about, having been incarcerated for minor offences on two occasions in Mississippi, the first when he was only 12. In his book, I Am the Blues. he says, “That’s when I really learned about the blues. I had heard ’em with the music and took ’em to be an enjoyable thing but after I heard these guys down there moaning and groaning these really down-to-earth blues, I began to inquire about ’em…. I really began to find out what the blues meant to black people, how it gave them consolation to be able to think these things over and sing them to themselves or let other people know what they had in mind and how they resented various things in life.”
On another occasion, Dixon served thirty days at the Harvey Allen County Farm, near the infamous Parchman Farm prison, he saw prisoners mistreated and beaten. Those, he said who were “running the farm didn’t have no mercy – you talk about mean, ignorant, evil, stupid and crazy. This was the first time I saw a man beat to death.” Dixon too was cruelly treated receiving a blow to his head that made him deaf for about four years.
Dixon arrived in Chicago from Mississippi in 1936, and after a boxing career, singing in a gospel group and in a successful trio, he ended up working for Chess Records, producing, arranging, leading the studio band, and playing bass. His first big break came when Muddy Waters recorded his Hoochie Coochie Man in 1954, which became his biggest hit, Dixon going on to become Chess’s top song-writer.
Dixon eventually recorded his own version of some of these blues songs that he’d written for others to perform in his 6th album in 1970, an album which eventually was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1986. I Am The Blues, which shares the title with Dixon’s autobiography, has nine of Dixon’s best songs, including Hoochie Coochie Man, Spoonful, Little Red Rooster and I Can’t Quit You Baby.
Produced by Abner Spector, the album features Willie Dixon (vocals and bass), Walter Horton (harmonica), Lafayette Leake & Sunnyland Slim (Piano), Johnny Shines (guitar), and Clifton James (drums).
Dixon proves himself to be a fine blues vocalist throughout. He arrives growling, Howlin’ Wolf-style, on the first track, Back Door Man, shows fine control on the slow I Can’t Quit You Baby, adds a playful note on The Seventh Son, and gives The Little Red Rooster a nice barnyard feel. You don’t feel in any way like you’re short changed from versions of songs by the artists who made the songs famous.
The arrangements throughout give room for each of the fine instrumentalists. Lafayette Leake’s and Sunnyland Slim’s piano work is very cool and never feels overbearing. The piano and bass driving Hoochie Coochie Man gives it a slightly different feel from the Muddy Waters version, and provides a nice counterpoint to the harmonica riff. Walter Horton’s expressive and sweet harmonica weaves in an out of the songs expertly – Dixon said the shy, gentle Horton was the best harmonica player he ever heard. Johnny Shines adds some nice guitar work along the way, especially on I Can’t Quit You Baby and The Same Thing.
Overall, it’s classic Chicago blues, with artists at the top of their game, seemingly really enjoying themselves in the recording process. It’s a piece of blues – and indeed, given the debt it owes to Willie Dixon, rock’n’roll history.
Dixon once said, “The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits…The blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues.”
Dixon’s legacy is found not only in the blues songs he composed recorded by the likes of Waters and Wolf, or in this gem of an album we’ve been looking at, but in the way his songs were covered by major rock’n’roll artists and influenced their output.
Quite rightly, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. In 2007, Dixon was honoured with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Vicksburg.
Tim Duffy is a breath of inspiration, and what he and the Music Maker Relief Foundation are doing and have been doing for the past 30 years deserves widespread attention.
Music Maker Relief Foundation, based in Hillsborough, North Carolina, was founded in 1994 by Tim and Denise Duffy to “help the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs.” In addition, it wants to preserve these traditions and help them flourish by presenting them to the world.
Over the years, Music Maker has helped over 500 artists who were struggling, and in many cases, impoverished, get paying gigs and back onto their feet. It has produced over 200 albums of music from these artists, and recorded thousands of tracks. It is keeping an entire tradition alive.
“It’s like a glorious awakening of discovery of all this music you’ve never heard of,” Tim Duffy told me. “These guys stand in front of me for 45 minutes and change the world. You know, they have a body of work and want someone to document it, and they do this because they want the next generation to know about it. They know it’s important work but they don’t have the means to buy a tape recorder or get into a studio. And when I tell them about the Foundation and they’re open for it, it’s a tornado. It’s just locked down. There it is, lightning in a bottle!”
Our chat began by me asking Tim what Music Maker is all about. He told me that it’s a nonprofit organization, founded in 1994, that “tends to the roots of American music.” He described the deep poverty in which he has found many artists living in – “from outside the US, it’s hard to understand what extreme poverty is like in the United States.” Just getting by is hard if you’re trying to live on the $7,000 to $12,000 a year that Music Maker regularly finds artists subsisting on. So, says Tim, Music Maker provides small amounts to help get bills paid and get prescription medicine, and then, “when we get them working and get them gigs, that can easily double their annual income.”
Music Maker has been doing this work for many years now, and I wondered if the levels of poverty amongst aging artists had improved any.
“You know, I hate to say it, I think it’s worse. I think poverty gets worse in America. It’s always bad, but prices of food go higher, access to medical care was always tough, and I think poverty in housing is about impossible.” Some people, Duffy told me, are still living in cheap trailers that were built in the 1950s for elderly people, trailers that had a shelf life of five years. So, he said, “Over the years I’ve been doing it, I think the times are harder. Food insecurity is hard, but there are even food deserts. There’s not even access to healthy food.
“And rent – these artists used to be able to have rent for $100-$300 a month. After Katrina, little Freddy King was renting for $300, but now rent for not even a nice place in New Orleans is $1,500 or so. But their income hasn’t gone up.”
Add to that the decreasing number of places for these artists to play, whether it’s churches or the Chitlin circuit, and you have an increasingly tough situation. One that, Tim suggested, was felt by more than the artists he deals with – “we have a huge problem of starving children in America.” His view is that these problems are fixable – if there really was a will to do it. Sadly, “there doesn’t seem a public will to help our fellow man, the really impoverished people.”
Older models of charity have often ended up with wealthier people sweeping in as benefactors in a way that robs those they are trying to help of their dignity. How, I wondered, does Music Maker avoid this?
Tim was clear that the artists he has dealt with have not been asking for a handout, rather they need a hand up. “Number one thing they want is a gig, a place to perform. They can earn their own money. That is the greatest thing. And then it’s a slow process because we can only do very little by our sustenance program. We don’t have billions of dollars, we can’t hand out $20,000 a year to hundreds of artists. I wish I could, but I don’t have that kind of resource.
“So, there are other things that we do because people are disenfranchised. Like community building. We have a social worker who writes every month to the artists and introduces them to one another. And they meet and when they play together, they exchange phone numbers. It’s like joining a little congregation, like a guild, so that now a very remote Mississippi blues man is friends with a gospel artist in North Carolina; and they’re friends with a blues man in Detroit; and they all talk to each other, and they stay in touch. So, it’s community building. Everyone needs someone to talk to someone who understands them. Building those friendships is one of the interesting things that we do.”
So that’s Music Maker’s sustenance programme. Then, says Tim, “we have professional development where we help make CDs and get artist’s music released, get bios written and make them known – from being unseen artists, to known artists, a known quantity. And then we have an education program where we educate the world through exhibits. We have photo exhibits that go to a lot of cultural institutions. Over the last six years, we’ve done over 50 of them. So that is the essence. We’re trying to let the world know.”
Tim pointed to the uniquely African-American experience at the root of the blues. This music, he told me “was born in the South. It was born from very disenfranchised people and those conditions still exist today. And if you go into these small communities, there are literally the great, great, great, great grandsons and granddaughters of the artists that created this music that have held dear to the older traditions. And they are very special people because this music really isn’t popular within their communities, but they keep it alive. And so, we try to amplify their voices and after they pass, keep their voices amplified. The greatest gift that America has given to the arts is our American musical traditions, largely rooted in the South. So our focus is going back within that culture and promoting what Alan Lomax would call cultural equity.”
Tim Duffy clearly has a deep respect for the music, its tradition and the artists who keep that tradition alive. He was never into pop or rock music, and from his days as a folklore student at the University of North Carolina, he has been seeking to record and promote the music he has found in the American South, especially the Carolinas. He spoke warmly and admiringly of artists he had worked with, like Cootie Stark, John Lee Zeigler, Wille Mae Butler, Drink Small, Macavine Hayes, and Adolphus Bell.
“You know, those are a bunch of names most people have probably never heard of, but I would say is they’re just as important American artists as anybody you know. I’m a folklorist, I like going to the most real rooted, unknown thing – a lot of people like going to big concert halls and big festivals, but I’d rather be in someone’s living room. That’s what gets me excited.”
These living room recordings – “field recordings” – are what Tim Duffy has done since the early days of Music Maker. What has been important for him is trying to replicate exactly what he hears in front of him, without filtering it. He mentioned Mark Levinson, renown audio system designer, who “fell in love with my work and taught me about biaural recordings, gave me these extremely expensive, beautiful, rare microphones, and a way of recording where it’s like replicating what you hear in front of you.”
Duffy recalled the example of Alan Lomax, noted ethnomusicologist and recorder of folk music, who could “change the world with one mic and 500 pounds of recording gear.” The music Lomax recorded in places like Angola Prison in Louisiana or Haiti “is still as fresh and vibrant today.”
What, I wondered have been the milestones along the way, as Tim looks back over the last nearly thirty years?
“Well, there were a couple. Meeting Mark Levinson was great and then meeting Taj Mahal in 1995 and him reaching his hand to help me and the elder artists has been huge. And then we went on tour with Taj, did a 42-city tour in 1998 and ’99, and my wife had the great idea to collect email addresses and we collected thousands of addresses.
“And then in 2000, I looked at Fat Possum records and I thought they were just so incredible, but I knew we couldn’t do what they were doing. I couldn’t sell records. So my wife and I decided we were going to really focus on being a nonprofit, instead of trying to be an independent record label. And that was a keystone moment. And here we are, 20 years later, still doing it.
“And I think the next key thing was meeting Freeman Vines. And when I got out of my car the first day I met him and saw his yard, I knew. When I had met Guitar Gabriel and a few others, I knew I was in the presence of a genius. But I didn’t have all the skills that I have now. And so when I met someone as smart as Freeman, that first day I could envisage the book and an exhibition. I talked to him about it and we had a lot of dialogue and then we spent five years putting it together.
“And I’m glad we did that. I don’t know what the next big idea I’ll come up with, put that kind of resources to. But that decision, to work with Freeman, was not a real popular decision in my organization or my board. And when we released the book [Hanging Tree Guitars], a lot of people were thinking, what the heck are we doing, going into a pandemic, releasing a book. But, we sold out of the first run of the book in five weeks. And so that little book has kept Music Maker going for the next year.”
Along the way, Music Maker Relief Foundation has caught the attention of some big names in the music industry, who have been prepared to lend a hand. Mark Levinson introduced Tim to Eric Clapton in 1995 which helped him to get a record deal with GRP records [a jazz record label founded by Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen in 1978].
“And then through Taj Mahal, I met his friend and producer, John Porter, who was recording B.B. King’s Deuces Wild record. Then, in LA, Taj introduced me to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. B.B. introduced me to Joe Cocker and took me over to England and which resulted in me spending time with Eric Clapton again, and Jeff Beck and Van Morrison and all these people.
“B.B. King wrote the introduction to my first book, Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America. He thought the idea of Music Maker was fabulous, and I spent a lot of time traveling with him, and he helped me form the ideas of the foundation. So, Taj Mahal opened that door for me and Taj lends his helping hand to a lot of people.” In the foreword to this first book of Duffy’s photographs, B.B. King wrote, “By documenting the faces and the deep, soulful eyes of the people who make the music I love, these photographs preserve a dimension of blues culture that could easily be lost forever.”
Beyond his work with Music Maker, Tim Duffy is also a master photographer who has documented the artists he has worked with over the years, and used unusual and very effective photographic techniques to do so. His latest book, Hanging Tree Guitars, a collaborative effort between himself, Freeman Vines, a luthier-artist and bluesman, and Zoe Van Buren, a folklorist, features stunning photographs of Vines’s work, documenting the guitars made by Vines out of wood from a tree that had been used for lynching. The photographs utilize collodion wet plate processing, an early form of photographic processing which gives them an aged look, and seems particularly suitable for the sombre subject matter.
“When I wanted to present Freeman to the world, I knew if I just took straight colour photographs of the images, it would’ve been nice, but it wouldn’t reflect my 25-year journey of looking at artists and how I see them. And I wanted people, when Freeman talked about parallel universes and the root of the lynched man and the wood, I wanted them to see something horrifying. I wanted to express the horror that I felt in Freeman felt through my art. And I worked for five years at that. And I think it did.”
Tim Duffy began his work with Guitar Gabriel, who had been inactive in the music industry for many years, had received no royalties for his music,and was impoverished. He required almost daily assistance from Duffy, who provided transportation to medical appointments, money, and food for Gabriel and his wife. When I asked Tim what was the motivation for that, he was much more interested in telling me how his encounter with Guitar Slim had changed his life, how he had learned that there was no place in the music industry for elderly African-American artists, and how amazing Guitar Slim and all the other artists he had subsequently met were.
His focus is clearly on recognizing the worth and value of the artists he works with, sensing that when he grants funding, he doesn’t have to be prescriptive, because they know what they need to do for themselves. “And so we set up what I thought was a whole new model of folklore, of dealing with traditional artists – supporting them, recording them, and professional development and education. And we really haven’t veered very much from that. You know, it’s kind of like a church in a sense, it’s a family organization. We feel like a family.
“And then you connect fans with the music, like-minded people that have extra income that can support the foundation. And I have donors that have been donating to me since 1994, that haven’t missed a year, and they do it because they say it’s made their life a much better. So, it works on both sides. It’s just like when you go to church and a good preacher is talking to a whole congregation, but you feel like he’s talking directly to you and you leave feeling uplifted. And I think that the experience we create both for our donors and for the artists is an uplifting situation.”
The whole Music Maker enterprise is an uplifting one. As was my conversation with Tim Duffy. If you’re reading this, you’re a music fan – so scoot over to https://musicmaker.org/ and learn more about the fabulous work the Foundation does. And while you’re there, do your bit and buy some CDs, a book of fabulous photographs or just donate.
Photo Credits: Drink Small by Jimmy Williams; Hands on guitar by Axel Kustner; Others by Tim Duffy
A look at the history of this powerful song and some of the bluesier arrangements. “That’s a song that gets to everybody” – Marion Williams.
I stumbled upon an album the other day that brought a smile to my face as I listened. Its title is Amazing Grace and it was released in 2020 by those great folks at the Music Maker Foundation. As I listened, I realized that Amazing Grace is not just the title of the album, but that every song is a version done by a variety of roots musicians, including Guitar Gabriel, Guitar Slim and Cora Fluker. It’s raw, it’s honest and it serves to show the power of this old hymn to connect over 200 years since John Newton penned the lyrics.
Piedmont bluesman Guitar Gabriel, who contributes a couple of versions to the album, was once arrested for stealing a package of bologna and a bottle of wine from a supermarket. When he appeared in court Judge Freeman asked him if he did it. Gabriel replied “Yes sir, I did, and I am ashamed.” Noticing that Gabe had brought his guitar into the courtroom, the judge asked if he could play Amazing Grace. “Yes, sir,” Gabe answered as he picked up his instrument and began to sing. As the last notes of the song resonated, the judge pronounced Gabe “Not Guilty” and he was carried out onto the streets by a cheering crowd. Amazing grace indeed!
There are a lot of great, bluesy versions of the song. Here are two of my favourites: the first by ace Austrian slide guitar Gottfried David Gfrerer on his resonator; the second, Brooks Williams, who hails from Statesboro, Georgia, now resident in England, with another stunning slide guitar version.
Gottfried David Gfrerer
John Newton was a notorious slave trader in the eighteenth century, who mocked Christian faith, and whose foul language made even his fellow seamen blush. In 1748, however, his ship was caught in a violent storm off the coast of Ireland, which was so severe that Newton cried out to God for mercy. After leaving the slave trade and his seafaring life, Newton studied theology and became a Christian minister and an ardent abolitionist, working closely with William Wilberforce, a British MP, to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, which was achieved in 1807.
The song clearly references the struggles of Newton’s own life and the remarkable change that had taken place in him.
The tune we know now for the song was composed by American William Walker in 1835 and became popular in a religious movement called the Second Great Awakening which swept the US in the 19th century. In huge gatherings of people in camp meetings across the US, fiery preaching and catchy tunes urged the thousands who came to repent and believe. Amazing Grace punctuated many a sermon.
Walker’s tune and Newton’s words, says author Steve Turner, were a “marriage made in heaven … The music behind ‘amazing’ had a sense of awe to it. The music behind ‘grace’ sounded graceful.” Walker’s collection of published songs, including Amazing Grace was enormously popular, selling about 600,000 copies all over the US when the total population was just over 20 million.
Here are the Holmes Brothers with a passionate and soulful version
Anthony Heilbut, writer and record producer of black gospel music has noted the connections of the song with the slave trade, saying that the “dangers, toils, and snares” in Newton’s words are a “universal testimony” of the African American experience. Historian and writer, James Basker, chose Amazing Grace to represent a collection of anti-slavery poetry, saying “there is a transformative power…the transformation of sin and sorrow into grace, of suffering into beauty, of alienation into empathy and connection, of the unspeakable into imaginative literature.”
Here’s the Blind Boys of Alabama’s version, this time to the tune of House of the Rising Sun.
The song was popularized by Mahalia Jackson, who recorded it in 1947 and sang it frequently. It became an important anthem during the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.
The song has been recorded by a great many artists over the years, those with faith and those without, such is the power of the song. These include Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, The Byrds, Willie Nelson, and of course, Judy Collins, whose 1970 recording, which I remember well, was a huge hit in both the US and the UK. Collins, who had a history of alcohol abuse, claimed that the song was able to “pull her through” to recovery.
The song’s long history and its evident power to touch everybody, whether with Christian faith or not, is evident, summed up by gospel singer Marion Williams: “That’s a song that gets to everybody.”
Two final versions: the first in the hands of acoustic guitar maestro, Tommy Emmanuel, here accompanied to excellent effect on harmonica by Pat Bergeson; the second a short moving version on harmonica at the site of Rev. Martin Luther King’s grave in Atlanta, by Fabrizio Poggi.
Bruce Springsteen and his Seeger Sessions Band kicked off their tour on April 30, 2006 at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, with a stirring version of Oh Mary Don’t You Weep. It was a mere eight months after Katrina had devastated the city and, in a performance hailed by a local critic as the most emotional musical experience of her life, Springsteen sought to inject some hope into the city with his collection of spirituals and roots songs.
This opening song is an old spiritual, a slave song, that heralds the theme of liberation and new beginnings. The recurring phrase “Pharoah’s army got drown-ded” recalls the Old Testament story of the children of Israel escaping slavery in Egypt in the Exodus. This was a story that had captured the imagination of people who were enslaved or disenfranchised (it was an important song during the Civil Rights movement). Black slaves resisted the bondage they suffered in a whole range of ways.
One of these was the sort of religion they developed, a Christianity that was not just that of their masters. Theirs was a faith where freedom and liberation were vigorously affirmed and one where black humanity was affirmed, despite everything that slavery and white people said. The songs sung were often coded messages of hope and resistance. Their God was the God of history, who works and intervenes in our world to bring change and transformation. A God who brings life from the dead.
The other recurring phrase in the song is “Oh Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn,” which for me refers to Mary Magdalene, who stood weeping at the tomb of Jesus that first Easter morning. She had lost her friend and his body was nowhere to be found. Her weeping and mourning is dispelled, however, by meeting someone she thought was the gardener, but who turned out to be Jesus, risen from the dead. It’s remarkable, that in a world where a woman’s testimony was thought unreliable and not viable in a courtroom, the gospel writers were willing to record the women as the first witnesses of the resurrection – not something you’d do, if you were trying to pass off a story.
The resurrection is right at the heart of Easter, and at the heart of Christian faith. In fact, there’s no point in faith at all, if it’s not. If it didn’t happen, as Paul, Christianity’s first exponent and himself a witness of a risen Jesus, said, then, we might as well just eat, drink and be merry. Christian faith doesn’t make any sense without the resurrection.
But with it, suddenly there are possibilities. Christian faith says that, because Jesus is risen, there is to be a new creation – the evil and the injustice we see in our world is not the last word. Pharaoh’s army got drown-ded all right; the challenge is to find the promised land, to be people who bring life from the deadness around us by living out, and seeking the love, peace and justice of, God’s new creation right now.
Finally, here’s Kenny Meeks’s great Easter song, which draws out the personal hope of Easter, which stretches beyond this life.