Warm in the Wintertime

inTheir Needson December 29, 2020

It’s officially winter, and freezing temperatures have brought cold nights to towns all over the South, where most of Music Maker’s partner artists live. And every night when the temperatures drop, we never forget to ask ourselves, “Are our partners safe and warm tonight?”

In our 26 years of existence, Music Maker has worked to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty. We send out checks to our partner artists every month to help them with groceries, medical expenses, and the other needs of living. And every winter, we take on another responsibility: making sure that our partner artists can stay warm in their homes, that their lives are not threatened by the chill of winter. 

It’s a tradition that goes back to the very beginnings of Music Maker in 1994. And I’ll never forget the night I discovered that keeping our artists warm had to be part of what this foundation does. 

It all began with the late Willa Mae Buckner, one of the most original performers the South ever produced. Willa Mae, born in 1922, ran away from her home in Augusta, Georgia, when she was just 12 years old to join an all-Black tent show. Over the years, she performed as a dancer with the legendary Ma Rainey, a blues singer, a burlesque stripper, a contortionist, and a fire swallower. The small, all-Black tent shows where Willa Mae made her living were a staple of entertainment in the African American community in the middle of the 20th century. Some such shows, like the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, gained national fame, but it was in the smaller shows where Willa Mae made her name.

Willa Mae Buckner performing in the early 1960s.

Perhaps most memorably, she was known as the “Snake Lady.” In the early tent-show days, she traveled with up to 36 snakes and a chimpanzee, all part of her groundbreaking performances. She was a fiercely independent, amazing performer. She was one of Music Maker’s earliest partner artists, and it overjoyed us to help expose Willa Mae’s work to the broader world. I’ll never forget the night Willa Mae played Carnegie Hall and earned a standing ovation. 

And our determination to ensure that our partner artists’ homes were heated originated with Willa Mae Buckner during our first year of our existence, 1994.

An Ice Storm in Winston-Salem

One night that year, there was a terrible ice storm in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Willa Mae lived. Power was out all over the city. I went down to Winston that night with a friend of mine, John Creech, an early supporter of Music Maker. It was a crazy night as we drove the icy roads to go check on our artists. When we got to Willa Mae’s, she was frantic because she had no heat, and she had two pythons at her house. And she was afraid that if it got too cold, they would die. So John and I went and bought a kerosene heater and some kerosene. She was so happy that she had some heat. 

The next day, we returned to visit her again. and we found an emergency vehicle parked next door to her. Willa Mae was visibly shaken. I asked her, “What happened?” She said, “My neighbor froze to death last night.” I was shaken, too. I did not know her neighbor well, but I had seen her and said hello almost every time I had gone to visit Willa Mae.

Willa Mae thanked me for providing the kerosene heater the night before. She said, “I told you, my snakes would’ve froze to death.” But what occurred to me was an epiphany: If Willa Mae’s neighbor had died from the cold that night, she might have, too. 

That’s why, throughout our quarter-century of work, we’ve made sure that we check on our partner artists to make sure they have adequate fuel to keep their homes heated. Over the years, the list of musicians we’ve helped in this way has grown long, including departed souls like the great guitarist Boo Hanks and partner artists who are still with us, such as Big Ron Hunter and Willie James Williams.

The Great Willie James Williams

Willie James Williams is one of the greatest juke-joint drummers I’ve ever seen in my life. For 36 years, he backed the legendary Willie King. King didn’t care much about fame, and kept his gigs confined mostly to the late, lamented Bettie’s Place in eastern Mississippi. King called what he played the “struggling blues,” because it focused on the injustices he and so many others like him had suffered in the Jim Crow South. 

Willie James Williams behind the drums at his home in Macon, Mississippi.

When King died in 2009, Willie James Williams’ career essentially ended, too. He’s now in his 60s and still living in Macon, Mississippi, close to where he gigged for years with Willie King. But even though Willie James doesn’t play much anymore, he’s still one of our partners, and we still provide him with support he needs. 

Earlier this week, one of our staffers got on the phone to check on Willie James. He said it had “yes lord” gotten cold down in Macon, and he called the support he gets from Music Maker “a lifeline.”

“Whenever I need some gas, I call them and tell them, and they’ll provide for me,” Willie James said. “Now, I don’t do that often. I just ask them for what I need.”

The humility of Willie James Williams — really, of all the many unsung treasures of American music with whom we’ve had the pleasure to work over the years — never fails to be a lesson to us. So many of the artists we’ve dealt have suffered tremendous injustices. Our foundation alone could never right the wrongs done to them.

But we vowed 26 years ago — and vow to this day — to keep them warm when the cold of winter settles in.

— Tim Duffy

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