Triptych – part 3


Tim Duffy & the Music Maker Relief Foundation

The sub-heading for this magazine is “Australia’s Roots Music Monthly”. But what does that mean? And whose roots, anyway? Well, let’s start with the idea of popular music over a long period of time, say, the life-time of a typical Rhythms reader. That broad-brush stroke covers rock & roll, country & western, rhythm & blues, rap & hip-hop… you get the idea! Such musical favorites come from somewhere and from something, forming the roots to the musical trunk and branches that we “consume” today. Even here in Australia, those roots include jazz, blues, old time music, gospel… anything that could be construed as folk music from one vantage point or another. Much roots music, and many of its practitioners, came from The United States. There they have been un-honored (and certainly un-rewarded) for their efforts, for following their art; older musos in the US usually have seriously hard yakka keeping their collective heads above the waters of daily life. The wind does not blow in their favor, and this is where The Music Maker Relief Foundation comes into play.

My partner long ago described the USA as the largest third-world country. It deals with its citizens in an essentially anti-social-services fashion so that folks who live near or at the bottom of the socio/economic ladder are lacking in basic needs-fulfillment from the few extant governmental agencies. If you are poor, you’re in trouble, and if you’re poor and old, forget it. So, one of the major problems for aging American roots musicians is the total lack of any sort of meaningful social safety-net – America not only eats its young, it dishonors its elders… the ultimate throw-away society. But this is nothing new. It’s well-known that American health-care is a contradiction of terms… you get the kind of care that you can afford, so those near the bottom are SOL (and you know what that means!). Forget NGOs or other charities – they are too busy and stretched to the max with short-term disasters to deal with long-term needs, so folks just have to make do without. That is why such a thing as the Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF) has to exist in twenty-first century America – we are fortunate that it does, as are its recipients. It all started with someone named Tim Duffy, and his fortuitous meeting with one Guitar Gabriel.

It was in 1991 that Duffy and Gabriel first met in Winston-Salem, NC, a medium-sized city on the western end of the line of Piedmont cities beginning in the center of the state with Raleigh, then on west through Durham, Burlington, and Greensboro… tobacco and textile country. As I well know, it isn’t easy for a White male to enter any African-American community (especially urban) without being regarded with either suspicion or hostility, or both: strange White blokes are obvious outsiders and must either be after crack or pussy [drugs or sex], or are sticky-beaks from the Welfare Department! It takes time and persistence, respect and appreciation, plus a little bit of knowledge and lots of luck for an auslander to be accepted by such a community. But when it happens, the results can be incredible, as Duffy found out.

Tim was smitten with the Piedmont blues that once prevailed for decades throughout the Black Southeast and wanted to locate and document any of the older musos still capable of performing. One of his first such experiences came about in 1988 with Greensboro pianist/guitarist/singer James Stephens (a/k/a “Guitar Slim”), an older musician first stumbled upon by Kip Lornell. Slim continually mentioned one Guitar Gabriel as someone worth locating, but Duffy was not able to do anything until after Stephens’ death. Their meeting came about through a stroke of true serendipity. Working as a casual teacher in Winston-Salem, Duffy mentioned his quest to each class of temporary students… one time he struck gold in the form of a lead to a nephew of the aforementioned Gabriel, who took him to meet his uncle! As Elwood has said, “The Lord moves in mysterious ways.” In Duffy’s own words:

Walking in the door I met this incredible blues artist who immediately had me taking him off into his world of drinks houses, musicians and raconteurs. It was an exhilarating experience. The next day he pulled out his old worn guitar and performed for me in his living room and I really have never been the same since. His music was overwhelming, such pure emotion and power. I knew I was hearing a great artist. His message was too important to be left unheard and I knew I would do everything I could for him.

Elwood and Tim sure got that right! And that was how his commitment to the cause began.

The man known as Guitar Gabriel had been born Robert Lewis Jones in Decatur, GA in 1925. His father, Sonny Jones, was a fine blues singer/guitarist in his own right and a friend to Piedmont blues colossus Blind Boy Fuller – they even recorded together in Memphis in 1939. Proving that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, Gabriel absorbed from all the musical activities in his family. They included his banjo-playing grandmother in Winston-Salem (a former slave), a guitar-playing grandfather and uncle… and all the women in the family sang! Having a father in Durham who knew Fuller and Gary Davis sure didn’t hurt his development, either. His nascent peripatetic ways were interrupted by WWII, but afterwards he took readily to the life of the wandering troubadour (almost a stereotype in itself). Both on his own, or as part of travelling carnivals or medicine shows, Gabe literally toured the four corners of the USA with his guitar. His only recording experience came in Pittsburgh, PA in 1970 (an LP and a single issued as by Nyles Jones), but he ended up back in Winston-Salem as his links to the then-current White-oriented folk revival faded and Black musical tastes changed. There he was, in the place where his grandmother raised him, playing once again friends and neighbors.

Since fools do rush in, Tim spent as much time as he could becoming a known quantity to the patrons of the various Winston-Salem “drinks houses” that Gabe patronized. Sometimes referred to as “blind pigs”, they are places where poor Black city folks gather socially to drink, gamble, and carry on… and occasionally play music; in the old days, lots of music. Consider them the urban equivalent of the country juke joint. Eventually Duffy found himself playing guitar with Gabe, then forming a back-up band (Brothers in the Kitchen) and eventually going on tour with him, even to Europe! Gabriel recorded again, the album was nominated for a “Handy” award, and he was selected as the Comeback Artist of 1993 by Living Blues magazine. What came out of it all was a solid and serious friendship between them and some good music until Gabe’s death in 1996. Also a desire to help anyone else in similar less-than-adequate circumstances developed in Duffy.

Thus the die was cast for the creation of the not-for-profit Music Maker Relief Foundation, Inc., a tax exempt, public charity, proof that no good deed goes unpunished! It truly gets down to the real nitty-gritty. The organization offers assistance for life maintenance (grants for necessities such as food, medical needs, housing, etc), instrument acquisition and repair, tour and recording support (if at all feasible), and emergency relief (one-time grants for those in crisis – medical, fire, theft, etc) in a non-paternalistic and supportive fashion. The MMRF, with its broad-mesh safety net, deals with the basic necessities of everyday life, those things that America-at-large refuses to provide to those in real need. The poor are politically unprofitable to the elected, except as artificial examples for conservatives. (I don’t think that I need go into the myth of the welfare Cadillac.)

Duffy had some experience recording people beginning with Guitar Slim for The Southern Folklife Collection at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill while getting his Masters degree there in Folklore. He continued with this task, recording Gabriel and others, and in 1994 met audio designer Mark Levinson, of Cello Music & Film Systems. Mark is not just some electronics wonk… he actually likes music! Being taken with the stuff Tim had played for him, Mark helped him create and organize the Foundation to preserve the older music and aid the aging artists. Since that time, the operation has expanded and contracted as financial support waxed and waned over time: at one point, MMRF got funding for the foundation, as well as tour support for “their” artists taking part in the Winston Blues Revival in 1999, from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (ironic, since their products are responsible for much of the ill health of poor folks!). This national tour often included Taj Mahal, who has become something of a patron to the Foundation in appreciation of Tim’s efforts, and is now on the board of directors. In the words of Taj Mahal:

     Most organizations dealing with (older) musicians have people come out, run reels of tape, transcribe it and put it in a master’s thesis, library or some sort of depository that has little use in helping musicians. But Tim has created       a real relief foundation. He is a keeper of tradition by helping musicians in their golden years – if they need a roof on their house, if they need dentures, if they need taking care of. I saw I could get involved in something that made sense.

Support has also come from the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Townshend, Dionne Warwick, Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Ron Wood, Mick Jagger, Harry Belafonte, Bonnie Raitt, David Gilmore, and so on and so on and doobie doobie doo. Not your everyday people!

One result was that Cello Records came into being around 1999 and was even nationally distributed by Sire Records/Warners. One branch of the label consisted of Tim’s recording ideas. Eight CDs came out through this combined effort, including two more “produced” efforts – Jerry McCain’s “This Stuff Just Kills Me” (one of my top five albums for 2000), and Beverly Watkins “Back in Busines”. Both albums were studio productions done under the watchful ear of the legendary Mike Vernon from the UK. Watkins was once one of the guitar players for Dr. Feelgood & the Interns (she’s the one in the nurse’s uniform) in the sixties… she still gets down! McCain is the last true master of the amplified blues harp, a good singer, and a crackerjack songwriter. A half-dozen simpler albums were also released by Guitar Gabriel, Cootie Stark, Neal Pattman, Algia Mae Hinton, John Dee Holeman, and Etta Baker, from Tim Duffy’s own “in house” productions.

Due to difficulties not of Tim’s making, the Cello deal went walkies after a year or so, and Duffy has since released a dozen more albums off his own bat through MMRF. Performers such as Captain Luke, Essie Mae Brooks, Carl Rutherford, Cool John Ferguson, George Higgs, Jerry McCain “unplugged”, Cora Mae Bryant, Big Boy Henry, Alvin “Little Pink” Anderson, Preston Fulp, plus self-produced efforts from Eddie Tigner, and Sol are in the catalogue. There are a number of anthologies in the catalogue as well, including one done in conjunction with the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. None of the artists are household names, for sure, but all were purveyors of good and meaningful music. They run the gamut from field hollers (Rufus McKenzie) that Alan Lomax would have died for through pre-blues (John Lee Zeigler and James Davis) to original gospel (Essie Mae Brooks) and country/near-rockabilly (Carl Rutherford) on into Piedmont blues (much of the rest).With many more releases to come, all are deserving of your support as they create a broad roots music spectrum for you to tap into.

But they are the proverbial iceberg tip, as the MMRF also helps literally hundreds of other needy folks from our collective musical past who can no longer perform – it’s not limited to those that can still crank it out.. The twenty-four CDs and a newsletter are readily available from the Foundation via [] for those of you with ’net access: Luddites like myself can write to them @ 4502 Summer Lane; Hillsborough, NC, 27278; USA. Donations are happily accepted as the work goes on, and one can use Mastercard or Visa… just remember it’s US$! In Tim Duffy’s own words, “We searched out the old…entertainers who had long since retired. In so doing, we have reawakened a community of…legends from a forgotten world. I am working to bring their stories and songs to the world while the artists are alive so that they may enjoy the fruits of their lives’ work.” Amen to that, I say.


Published: RHYTHMS (Melbourne): #130; May 2003; pp. 48-50.

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