George Higgs was in a bad way. The Tarboro bluesman had turned 80 last year and was battling health problems. He needed oxygen treatment, but renting tanks was expensive enough that he couldn't afford to run them as much as his doctors recommended.
That's when the Sustaining Roots Music Community Project stepped in. Under the banner, "Help George Higgs breathe a little easier," the group of Raleigh Charter High School students raised more than $650. That was enough to get Higgs over the hump.
Since 2006, Sustaining Roots Music ( sootsblues.org) has been providing literal and figurative oxygen to help keep the blues alive in North Carolina. About 20 Raleigh Charter students comprise the group, and they do fundraisers including a "Mayday cake bake," with the money going to blues players like Higgs.
The group's biggest annual fundraiser is a spring concert, and the fifth edition happens Friday night. Higgs will sit in with John Dee Holeman, the venerable Durham blues icon. Boo Hanks, Lightnin' Wells, Tad Walters and Big Ron Hunter are also on the bill.
Teens raise $7,000
Sustaining Roots Music's previous four shows raised more than $7,000. But Samuel Chapin, a 17-year-old senior who has been in the group throughout high school, says the monetary benefit is just one part of it.
"We do raise money, though not an enormous amount," Chapin said. "But one of the best parts of it is to see the smiles of enjoyment. We give musicians a job to play the music they love for an audience that would never hear it otherwise.
"And then 14-year-old kids see this and go, 'Wow, this is our past, and it's important history. It's just a few blocks away, and I never would've looked there.' "
Inspired by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a Hillsborough nonprofit that assists elderly and impoverished musicians, Raleigh Charter history teacher Charles Montague oversees Sustaining Roots Music. The school administration had directed teachers to introduce their students to community organizations. So Montague and his charges formed Sustaining Roots Music, booking acts from the Music Maker stable for the annual concerts and working with Music Maker to channel the money to those who need it.
"It's a school project, so it instills a spirit of giving back to North Carolina roots musicians," said Tim Duffy, head of the Music Maker Relief Foundation. "These people aren't on pop radio like Jay-Z, say, so it's a great way to broaden horizons."
The group's many activities include making and selling merchandise, mostly T-shirts and compact discs recorded at the concerts. They also bring blues musicians to play in Raleigh Charter classrooms, and talk about their lives.
"There are so few opportunities to interact with people outside of your own family who have these experiences," Chapin said. "Like they remember the day that MLK was shot, or they can tell you what it was like to work in a Lucky Strike factory making cigarettes. That perspective is so rare, yet it's needed."
Teens take the lead
Students are in charge of pretty much everything for Sustaining Roots Music, including finding sponsors. That involves going around to local businesses and knocking on doors. If nothing else, that teaches the value of followup and persistence.
"Some businesses would get pretty annoyed with us, when we're persistent," said Margaret Gaines, an N.C. State University student who ran the group before graduating last year. "If they say 'maybe,' we always come back to get a final answer. But most are very nice, and happy to see students our age get involved in beneficial things for the community.
"I've definitely learned a lot from it: how to be more confident and organized. That DIY work ethic is a cool way to live."
Winning the Pepsi grant
This spring's concert features an expanded lineup, thanks to a financial boost the group earned last year. Members entered a contest in which Pepsi awarded $20 million in grants to individuals and organizations working on community charitable projects.
An online vote determined which groups got grants, but it wasn't a passive process.
The Sustaining Roots Music kids had to mount an intensive get-out-the-vote effort, which paid off with enough votes to earn a $5,000 grant.
"We were competing with 'Pennies for Prom Dresses,' a lot of things like that," Gaines said. "Blues isn't the easiest thing to market. But we got it done."
Looking down the road, Montague envisions Sustaining Roots Music providing hands-on assistance beyond giving money. A lot of blues people need a lot of help.
"Tim mentioned last spring how Boo Hanks needs help at home," Montague said. "Things like literally cleaning the kitchen and bathrooms. So we've thought about having a couple of students and myself roll up our sleeves to do some work. For aging people, just having someone from outside their family checking in can go a long way."