On a recent Thursday evening, Sammie Moore, wearing his signature vermilion red suit and white ivy cap, is belting out blues standards and R&B classics from behind a piano at The Crunkleton on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street. The crowd of a couple dozen listens inattentively to the old man known on stage as Ironing Board Sam.
Most people pay more attention to their $12 Sazeracs and old-fashioneds than to the soulful renditions of songs once played by Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke.
That has too often been the way of it during the five decades Sam has spent chasing a career in music, starting in his hometown of Rock Hill, S.C., and making it to Memphis, New Orleans and Los Angeles along the road to North Carolina.
“I’m out here every week because I want to play,” he said of his weekly 7 p.m. show at The Crunkleton. “I just want to play.”
Moore hasn’t gotten rich. Even getting by was a struggle until the 73-year-old hooked up with the Hillsborough-based Music Maker Relief Foundation. The foundation sets up aging roots musicians with shows and helps out with basic needs such as housing and insurance. It also works to educate people about where the music came from and some of the faces that keep it alive.
Teaching the music
An ongoing project pairs up Music Maker bluesmen with students at Raleigh Charter School.
Teachers work with local community groups related to their own interests to organize events that teach students outside of the classroom. Students are required to participate in one of the groups each year through a class that runs both semesters.
Charles Montague, a history teacher, founded the Sustaining Roots Music Community Project in 2006.
His goal was to get students to realize the ties between music that is popular today and the blues first performed in Mississippi more than a century ago – and to show that the music remains alive and well around the state and across the South.
Those ends have been achieved in a number of ways over the years.
The students organize an annual concert that features a musician affiliated with Music Maker, and a steady flow of musicians speak to the class about their music. The Center for the Study of the American South at UNC helps frame the music historically through lectures and with its museum. Students raise money to support the group’s efforts financially. They built a website, www.sootsblues.org, and design logos for all the events.
‘Right on stage in front of you’
Emma Blondin is a senior at Raleigh Charter School and is a student leader for the group this year.
She also works in her mother’s downtown store, Deco. One weekend while she and her mother, Pam, unloaded boxes and helped customers around the store, the music playing in the background shuffled through artists unfamiliar to most high schoolers: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and so on. That’s the usual soundtrack for a Saturday. No Taylor Swift or “Gangnam Style” needed.
“My parents always played good music, classic rock and stuff like that,” Blondin said. “I can thank my mom for that. ... But Mr. Montague’s class has taught me so much. It’s so different to see someone who’s been playing music their entire lives, someone who’s been doing this forever, right on stage in front of you.”
The most memorable moments through the project for Blondin have been meeting musicians and sharing what she learns from them.
“These guys are literally living culture,” she said. “They grew up in the tobacco fields. It’s fun to learn more and to educate our community about how rich our culture is.”
Blondin said her involvement in the project has weighed heavily in her plans for college. She wants to keep learning more about the cultures and people behind music, and she plans to study anthropology at UNC-Asheville this fall.
Learning from the music
Montague also had a musical upbringing. He was raised around the blues – the British Invasion, classic rock variety, and the roots music that has since become his preferred form.
A pinnacle of Montague’s young life was meeting the legendary Muddy Waters when his father, a journalist, interviewed him while he was in town for a show in Winston-Salem. Another peak came in high school when he saw a couple of members of Led Zeppelin take over a stage in London.
“Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were my first love, but since then I’ve learned about where all that music came from,” he said, pointing to a flier his students designed for a Music Maker event.
A lot has been said about rock groups in general, and Led Zeppelin in particular, profiting from music performed by roots musicians without paying royalties. That, his involvement with the ongoing class project, and racially charged comments made by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page in an interview a few years ago prompted Montague to revisit his preference in favor of the people behind the music.
“I’ve gradually learned, especially in the past few years being involved with Music Maker, that it’s less about the music being played and more about the people playing the music.”