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.”
If you’d like to know some more about this project, start by reading our interview with Freeman Vines here.
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