Music Maker Relief Foundation Celebrates 25 Years with Recording, Two New Books

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When folklorist Tim Duffy first journeyed to the American South from his Connecticut home, he was unsure what he might discover. He was young and unafraid to knock on any door that might further his knowledge of American vernacular music. About 40 years later, he’s traversed the South more times than he can count. He can, however, count the musicians he has helped along the way: 430.

In 1994, Duffy started the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a simple organization with a straight-forward mission of “fighting to preserve the musical traditions of the South.” And it doesn’t entail providing hand-outs for aging musicians, but assisting them with nearly every aspect of their lives from the artistic (booking gigs and chasing royalties) to the daily fight to survive (securing medical care and reliable housing). For every person whose name is illuminated on a marquee, thousands more barely can scrape together enough for rent, and Duffy’s foundation is doing everything in its power to help.

During his final semester of graduate studies in 1989 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Duffy befriended James “Guitar Slim” Stephens. Duffy essentially became his intern, driving him to gigs and picking up any knowledge he could along the way. Stephens took the time to explain to Duffy the many hardships faced by gigging musicians amid a dwindling live performance market and an industry designed to squeeze every last dime out of its talent.

Ninety-two-year-old pianist Eddie Tigner has been playing his homestate of Georgia since he was 7 years old and for the past 20 years has been a recipient of the foundation’s largesse. It helped him secure a place to live and set him up with a passport, which enabled Tigner to tour Europe for the first time, accompanied by a group of the foundation’s musicians.

“We went everywhere,” Tigner said by phone from his home near Atlanta. “They keep me going; they keep me on the books.”

During the first year of the organization, Duffy found himself onstage at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. It was clear that the musicians he was working with were special, and he knew if he kept digging, he could find each the audience they deserved. The foundation has hosted more than 6,000 performances since taking Manhattan by storm, from small rooms to international tours, featuring artists of all ages, including guitarist Robert Lee Coleman, blind blues magi Robert Finley and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival staple Ironing Board Sam.

To celebrate the foundation’s silver anniversary, it’s put together several projects that neatly sum up its mission, starting with Tales of the Music Makers, a unique, graphic novel by the artist Gary Dumm.

“My high school education was basically reading American Splendor by Harvey Pekar,” said Duffy by telephone. “Underground comics: You had to get them pulled out from underneath the cash register.”

On tour in Cleveland, Duffy made contact with Pekar, who expressed an interest in writing a graphic novel about the foundation and the musicians who give it life.

“I thought Harvey was a genius. He would make the everyday so meaningful,” Duffy continued.

Pekar wrote the first two profiles before Hollywood came calling and he ran out of time. Dumm stepped in, writing more than 30 comics for the project over the course of several years. The opening section details the origins of the foundation with great humor.

Heavily detailed pen drawings bring artists to life with a single page of profile reserved for dozens, including a sleepy-eyed James “Boo” Hanks and Dr. G.B. Burt, who declares, “I don’t sing about violence, I sing about love.”

An already-released 21-track album titled Blue Muse is full of love, featuring recordings stretching back to 1991. Tigner is there with a sweet rendition of “Route 66.” The stirring “I Know I’ve Been Changed” is full-throated field music from the Branchettes. And Boot Hanks plucks through a bright “I Wanna Boogie,” over and gone before it’s barely begun.

Finally, beginning in April, Duffy’s tintype photographic portraits of foundation beneficiaries will go on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art, just in time for the jazz festival. He’s been snapping them for years, but each has a timeless quality, making it nearly impossible to guess when the photos were taken. They also were compiled into a book called Blue Muse, a companion to the folksy soundtrack that shares the title.

The photographs capture a vulnerability and age in the musicians that readily was apparent to Duffy when he began his mission.

“This is the music that makes America who we are,” Duffy said. “The great, great, great granddaughters and grandsons who invented this music are very much still alive, but live behind a curtain of poverty and race.”

And if Duffy has his say, he’ll be there for the great, great, great, great grandkids, too. DB