On the Beat

Music Maker maestro keeps artists singing the blues

Tim Duffy, head of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, accompanies a cardboard cutout of the late blues musician Connie Stark of Greenville, S.C. News & Observer file photo.
Tim Duffy, head of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, accompanies a cardboard cutout of the late blues musician Connie Stark of Greenville, S.C. News & Observer file photo.

May 17, 2009

Keeping a charitable organization going is tough even in the best of times. But it’s even harder when times are tight, and things are incredibly tight right now for Music Maker Relief Foundation.

“The recession’s been huge,” Music Maker president Tim Duffy says, sitting at his computer in the foundation’s Hillsborough offices. “If we didn’t have some working capital from what a big donor gave us a few years ago, it would be ugly. We’ve scrimped, dropped staff, taken pay cuts - anything to save. But what I just can’t bring myself to cut down on is this.”

On his computer, Duffy calls up a ledger that shows a series of checks made out to Music Maker Relief Foundation recipients. Most of the checks aren’t large - $25 for groceries here, $50 for prescriptions there, a few hundred bucks for rent - but for the people getting the money, it’s huge.

Duffy started Music Maker 15 years ago with a unique mission, to support the artists who have created traditional Southern music. Music Maker pays about $50,000 a year in grants to older, impoverished musicians, most of whom are struggling to survive on Social Security. Past and present Music Maker artists include Durham patriarch John Dee Holeman, buck-dancing legend Algia Mae Hinton and the late Etta Baker, one of the most renowned Piedmont blues guitarists in the world.

In addition to direct financial assistance, Duffy helps musicians find gigs, and he records their music for compact discs they can sell at the shows. Last year, Music Maker acts performed in 22 states across America and in 14 countries.

“He’s helped me a whole lot,” says Music Maker regular Captain Luke (Luther Mayer), a blues singer from Winston-Salem. “I can’t get around too good anymore, and he’s kept me in cars, food, anything I need. I get plenty of work through him, too, all over and across the water - France, Switzerland, Germany, Argentina, all those places. I’ve been halfway around the world with him. He’s one of the best, just like a son to me.”

It’s a full-time job and then some. As the public face of Music Maker, Duffy serves as champion and supporter of his artists, and he can come on a little strong. But Duffy is not afraid to ruffle feathers, if he thinks it’s called for.

“I’ve seen Tim work, and everything he says he’s doing, he actually is doing,” says Dom Flemons of the old-time group Carolina Chocolate Drops. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Tim at his house and seen how he works. He’ll go the extra mile where other people either don’t want to, or just can’t.”

As Music Maker’s president, Duffy serves as unofficial manager to Music Maker acts. He’ll often step in and be a sideman when they perform, too. This past week, he accompanied Holeman on a performance at New York City’s Apollo Theatre.

But managing cash flow - enticing money from donors and then passing it out - takes up most of Duffy’s time. The need is relentless, and growing. Duffy is in constant touch with his people, helping them out when they need money to replace a rotten floor, or put down a deposit on a new apartment, or pay for prescription medication.

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DONATIONS ARE VITAL

Duffy’s wife, Denise, is Music Maker’s treasurer (“because they can’t con anyone else into doing it,” she cracks). She notes that the work puts them in touch with the richest of the rich as well as the poorest of the poor, but also plenty in between.

“Our biggest single source of income is still donations,” she says. “People who send anywhere from $20 up to $5,000. The top-end wealthy took a big hit in this recession, and what saved us is the middle-class fans who stayed committed. Maybe they used to send $250 and that’s down to $100, but they’re still there. It’s moving, the way people have stuck with us.”

Music Maker’s genesis goes back more than two decades, to when Tim Duffy was a folklore graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was a musician himself, so that was his area of study. The work brought him into contact with amazing artists all over the world, studying and playing with musicians from the North Carolina mountains to the coast of Kenya. But everywhere he went, Duffy says, everybody was broke.

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LIFE-CHANGING MOMENT

Then Duffy received a class assignment that turned out to be momentous: Connect with Greensboro blues musician James “Guitar Slim” Stephens. Through Slim, Duffy met Winston-Salem’s Robert “Nyles” Jones - better-known as Guitar Gabriel, an underground legend from his days on the medicine-show circuit. After graduation, Duffy became Gabriel’s sidekick and gigging partner until Gabriel’s death in 1996.

As he traveled and played with Gabriel, Duffy met other blues artists who were remarkably accomplished but largely unknown, and living in squalor. So he decided to start an organization to help them out. Music Maker was born in 1994.

Glenn Hinson, an associate professor of folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill, says Duffy is merely carrying on what he learned in school.

“The goal of our program is not just to document, but to engage with the community,” says Hinson, who gave Duffy that long-ago assignment to track down Guitar Slim. “Tim has taken that ethic and fulfilled it to an unusual degree. It seems unethical for remarkable artists to be living lives of desperation in a wealthy society. These are folks who can’t afford to go to the dentist or buy guitar strings or pay basic medical expenses. Music Maker consistently tries to better the lives of so many artists. It’s a gift to the world.”

Music Maker’s Hillsborough headquarters feels a bit like an outsider-art gallery. Photos of musicians it has worked with over the years line the walls. So do paintings and handmade gewgaws from its circle of artists and friends.

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HARDEST PART IS GOODBYE

Most striking of all is a series of life-size cutout figures of some Music Maker notables - Macavine Hayes, Cootie Stark, Guitar Gabriel, Etta Baker - all of whom have passed on.

“When we made those, they were all still here,” Denise Duffy says with a sigh. “That’s the hardest part of this. We say goodbye a lot and go to way too many funerals.”

Still, the Duffys do a lot to make the final years better for Music Maker recipients. One of Duffy’s more impressive reclamation projects was Winston-Salem bluesman Macavine Hayes.

Before his death in January, Hayes had a remarkable run of Music Maker-sponsored touring overseas. He was particularly popular in France.

“The French just loved Macavine,” Duffy says. “They knew he wasn’t the greatest guitar player in the world, but they still loved hanging out with him because he was such a character. There was never a bad word about anybody else out of his mouth, and he always laughed. He had a pretty horrific life - wife with polio, no money, alcoholism, a lot of health problems - and he never complained.

“The blues people know how to get through adversity,” Duffy concludes. “How to turn it into something humorous that won’t get you down. That’s the magic of the blues.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

TIM DUFFY

BORN: March 14, 1963, in New Haven, Conn.

EDUCATION: B.A. in ethnomusicology, Friends World College, 1987; M.A. in folklore, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1989

FAMILY: Wife of 16 years, Denise; son, Lucas; daughter, Lilla

HOBBY: Photography

CURRENT JOB: President of Music Maker Relief Foundation (musicmaker.org), a 501(c)(3) charity that supports elderly impoverished musicians

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Performing at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; recording with Eric Clapton

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