The seeds of Music Maker were planted while Tim Duffy was studying folklore at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He was introduced to two things there that set the course for the eventual founding of the organization:
1) a vibrant community of traditional blues musicians, and 2) preservationist traditions focused on documenting and archiving rather than taking care of the artists themselves, the actual bearers of tradition.
Without any clear idea of where he was headed, Tim began forging his own people-centered approach to preservation. When he finally-after a prolonged search-found and heard the elusive legend Guitar Gabriel, he set about trying to introduce Gabe and his music to any possible audience. They made a demo cassette and began playing “every little juke joint and bar in North and South Carolina.”
Gabe introduced Tim to a community of artists steeped in the kinds of Southern traditions that had been overlooked or given up on by many folklorists. Artists like Willa Mae Buckner, Preston Fulp, Mr. Q, and Macavine Hayes played music that tapped deep into the circulatory system of American culture and identity. Yet they lived in total poverty. Tim tried to get them gigs. He tried to help them with their bills when he could. But he wanted to do more.
So, in 1994, Tim and Denise Duffy officially founded the Music Maker Relief Foundation. “The Foundation started as a very heartfelt response to the very real needs of a small group of people,” says Denise. The structure of the organization helped them clarify their people-centered approach. If you take care of the artists first, Tim and Denise realized, the music will be preserved.
Once the Foundation was off the ground, bookings began rolling in. Music Maker artists regularly toured Europe and the States. They graced high-profile stages like Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center. The organization broadened its circle, connecting with artists from Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and other places throughout South. Not only was Music Maker helping these artists with their basic needs and careers, but the artists were building relationships with each other. It is one of the “most significant things” about the organization says Denise Duffy. “We didn’t even intentionally plan on doing it.[But] in playing together they…build this really strong community of artists. And they become friends independent of the organization. And that’s meant more to artists a lot of times than even the financial help.”
Decades have passed since Tim Duffy’s experiences in Folklore school that pushed him to pursue this people-centered approach to musical preservation, but the approach has proven successful time and time again. The little bit that Music Maker gives artists-maybe help finding gigs, or help getting the medicine they need- gets multiplied exponentially as the artists sharpen and share their gifts, build and nurture community, and rekindle a passion for traditional music among themselves, their peers, and their fans.
“Blues is a spirit.” All the great blues players say it. Guitar Gabriel used to say it all the time. But that spirit can only find expression through people – through real artists like Gabe and Cootie Stark and Etta Baker and Cool John Ferguson and so many others that have been and are yet to come. Music Maker works to help take care of the artists that give this spirit expression. By doing so, they promote and preserve some of America’s most significant cultural traditions. Their mission is really only beginning, and – like the blues – it has no end in sight.